“For the gays out there,” Donald Trump said Wednesday, “ask the gays and ask the people, ask the gays what they think and what they do in not only Saudi Arabia, in many of these countries with the gay community. And then you tell me: who’s your friend, Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton?”
From behind his lectern at a rally in Atlanta, Trump was suggesting that Clinton’s current stated support for the LGBT community is compromised by the Clinton Foundation’s decision to accept donations from the Middle Eastern country—up to $25 million since 1999, according to The Wall Street Journal— where institutionalized homophobia is rampant and often manifests itself violently.
But Trump omitted an important detail that weakens the potency of his criticism: even as he runs for president, it appears he continues to do business in the country. And he has previously said he wants to “help” the Kingdom in its struggle with Iran.
For Clinton and Trump, the de facto nominees for the Democratic and Republican parties, Saudi Arabia neatly captures just how complicated and fraught a political issue LGBT equality remains for each of them.
Clinton, a devout Methodist, didn’t arrive at her support for gay marriage until 2013, long after it became a matter of consensus on the Left, making it politically safe for her to do so.
What’s more, she willfully misrepresents her past positions on the issue, claiming to have previously believed it was best left up to the states despite her support for the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage, at the federal level, as being a heterosexual enterprise.
Trump, a devout egotist who sporadically attends the Marble Collegiate Church on West 29th Street in New York City, has long expressed sympathies for the gay community but continues to obfuscate his position on marriage equality.
He claims to support the LGBT community while, at the same time, telling evangelical Christians who oppose equal rights for the gay and transgender among us that he stands with them. He fosters relationships with anti-gay religious figures and yet getting a straight answer from his campaign about what he truly believes is impossible.
Both candidates’ have at times been at odds with their respective parties beliefs on the subject. In Trump’s case, he continues to be.
“Viewed exclusively through the prism of LGBT issues, Mr. Trump is actually the most gay friendly nominee for president this party has ever had,” Gregory T. Angelo, the president of the Log Cabin Republicans, a conservative LGBT advocacy group, told The Daily Beast.
Angelo acknowledged that, “Donald Trump can often vacillate,” but, he said, “I also have a concern that Hillary Clinton’s views on LGBT issues are driven largely or entirely by polling.”
In the aftermath of the terror attack at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, which left 49 deceased in the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, Trump has voiced support for the LGBT community and characterized Clinton as its enemy.
“Thank you to the LGBT community!” he tweeted Tuesday. “I will fight for you while Hillary brings in more people that will threaten your freedoms and beliefs.”
At another point, he posted to Facebook, “Crooked Hillary says we must call on Saudi Arabia and other countries to stop funding hate. I am calling on her to immediately return the $25 million plus she got from them for the Clinton Foundation!”
In 2014, according to The Wall Street Journal, with the Clinton Foundation’s ban on receiving gifts from foreign governments—imposed at the behest of the Obama Administration while Clinton served as Secretary of State—lifted, the charity accepted an undisclosed sum from the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The same year, a 24-year-old gay man in the western city of Medina was arrested for attempting to use Twitter to find and date other men. Found guilty of “promoting the vice and practice of homosexuality,” he was sentenced to three years in jail and 450 lashes.
Meanwhile, in May 2015, Ivanka Trump, his daughter and the executive vice president of development and acquisitions at the Trump Organization, told Hotelier Middle East that the company planned to construct a hotel in Saudi Arabia. “We are looking at multiple opportunities in Abu Dhabi, in Qatar, in Saudi Arabia—so those are the four areas where we are seeing the most interest,” she said. “We haven’t made a final decision in any of the markets but we have many very compelling deals in each of them.”
Trump’s financial disclosure filing, in May 2016, revealed that, in August, he had incorporated four companies that appeared to relate to a hotel project in Jeddah, a large city on the Red Sea coast.
That was 15 months after Lifestyle, a brand operated by the Landmark Group, which is based in Dubai, announced it would be partnering with Trump to sell home goods, dubbed Trump Home, “inspired by the luxury and elegance” associated with his name and his family’s lifestyle. The products were to be sold “exclusively in stores in Kuwait, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.” (The company, citing Trump’s inflammatory campaign rhetoric, later pulled out of the deal.).
But even before their dealings with a country ruled by a fundamentally homophobic government, both candidates had complex histories on gay rights.
As president in 1993, Bill Clinton signed into law the HIV travel ban (Saudi Arabia, incidentally, imposed similar regulations). On Hillary’s campaign website, she now boasts that, as secretary of state, “she oversaw the repeal of the HIV travel ban, which prevented people with HIV and AIDS from entering the United States.” She makes no mention that, as the First Lady who took an historically unprecedented, active role in governing, she neglected to voice any opposition to the initial legislation.
During her Senate campaign, in 2000, Clinton said she would have signed the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, into law herself, like Bill did in 1996. DOMA federally defined marriage as being between one man and one woman. According to The Atlantic, Clinton still held that position in 2003, though at the time her spokesperson claimed she was actively “evolving” on it.
In a 2004 speech on the Senate floor, she described the view that marriage is just for heterosexual couples as a “fundamental, bedrock principle.”
During her first presidential campaign, in 2008, she opposed gay marriage and often twisted herself into a pretzel trying to get out of explaining why. Ellen Degeneres, the openly gay talk show host, asked Clinton, in 2007, why she supported civil unions but not marriage for same sex couples. Clinton responded by talking in circles to avoid answering. Frustrated, Degeneres asked if she thought it would be possible for a candidate who openly agreed with gay marriage to win.
“I don’t know,” Clinton said. “I’ve had the same position for years, so I don’t know what somebody could or couldn’t do. But I’ve always believed that marriage should be left to the states.” (An inaccurate portrayal of her views, given her support for DOMA).
In 2013, after leaving her post as secretary of state, Clinton finally endorsed marriage equality. “I support it personally,” she said, “and as a matter of policy and law.” The following year, in an interview on NPR, Clinton disagreed with the assessment that her change of heart was a political calculation.
“Just because you’re a politician,” she said, “doesn’t mean you’re not a thinking human. You gather information. You think through positions. You’re not 100 percent set, thank goodness.”
Trump’s evolution is just as transparent, except it happened in reverse.
Unlike Clinton, Trump does not seem to harbor any strong religious convictions. Though he doesn’t frequently attend, he’s a member of the congregation at the Marble Collegiate Church, which is part of the Reformed Church of America. Leaders of the denomination held their annual gathering last weekend, during which they moved to reaffirm their belief that marriage is limited to heterosexual couples.
On June 13, the general synod, the denomination’s governing body, voted to make its marriage liturgy gender-specific to heterosexual couples. And on Tuesday, it moved to put language in its Book of Church Order to “assure that marriages in a church or congregation are between a man and a woman.” Regional church bodies will vote over the next year on that change, and if it gets enough support, then it will be up for a final vote at the denomination’s 2017 general synod.
According to The New York Times, he donated to charities working to end AIDS during the height of the crisis in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
And in 2000, while deciding whether or not to run for president, he told the Advocate, the LGBT interest magazine, that gays and lesbians specifically should support his candidacy because, “I grew up in New York City, a town with different races, religions, and peoples. It breeds tolerance. In all truth, I don’t care whether or not a person is gay…I’ve worked with many gay people…Their lifestyle is of no interest to me.”
He said he would have no problem appointing an openly gay person to a position in his administration, and he would seek to amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act “to include a ban of discrimination based on sexual orientation. It would be simple. It would be straightforward.” He added, “It’s only fair.”
Where he drew the line, however, was marriage. He said he believed gay couples should be afforded the same rights, but, “I think the institution of marriage should be between a man and a woman.”
According to Laurence Leamer, the author of Madness Under the Royal Palms, a book about swanky Palm Beach culture, who spoke with the Times, Trump’s private club, Mar-a-Lago, was the first in town to allow openly gay couples. “He really changed the nature of Palm Beach,” Leamer told the publication.
When Elton John married his partner David Furnish in 2005, Trump posted a blog item congratulating them on Trump University’s website. “It’s a marriage that’s going to work,” he said. “If two people dig each other, they dig each other. Good luck, Elton. Good luck, David. Have a great life. (But because I wasn’t invited, do I still have to send them a toaster?)”
These days, it’s hard to get a straight answer from Trump about what he believes.
He was on both sides of the North Carolina transgender bathroom controversy. On the Today show, he said trans individuals should “use the bathroom they feel is appropriate.”
Then, on Fox News, he told Bill O’Reilly the matter should be decided by the states. He said, “the amazing thing is so many people are talking about this now and we have to protect everybody even if it’s one person…but this is such a tiny part of our population.” Trump said he disagreed with providing gender-neutral bathrooms nationwide because it, “would be unbelievably expensive.”
Just a few days before the attack in Orlando, Trump told evangelicals at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington, D.C. that he believes “the family” and “marriage” are “so important.”
He didn’t specify what types of families or marriages in particular, but to a crowd like that, the meaning is obvious: traditional, one man and one woman and 1.5 children, minimum.
A spokesperson for Trump’s campaign did not respond when asked if he now supports marriage equality.
But for those who do care about the issue, there hardly seems to be a good—or, at least, a consistently good—candidate to represent them.
-- with additional reporting by Betsy Woodruff