When I talked to the political commentator Brad Polumbo, he told me that he wished America could go back to the L.G.B.T.Q. politics of a few years ago, which he sees as a time of “détente” on gay rights issues among conservatives. Mr. Polumbo is a podcaster who leans Republican, and he is gay. In his view, his sexual orientation didn’t matter much to conservatives during the Trump administration.
That’s changed, according to Mr. Polumbo, because “both sides” of the fight over L.G.B.T.Q. rights “overreach.” “I think the progress that people before me put so much blood, sweat and tears into — to achieve acceptance and normalization — is not guaranteed to stay with us,” he told me. He said that excess on the part of left-leaning L.G.B.T.Q. activists has created an opportunity for people on the right who never stopped being anti-gay.
Mr. Polumbo and I don’t agree about the cause of anti-L.G.B.T.Q. rhetoric right now or its practical solution — as you’ll read — but one thing we discuss at length is the limits of grouping the political views of all L.G.B.T.Q. people together.
This interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, is part of an Opinion Q. and A. series exploring modern conservatism today, its influence in society and politics and how and why it differs (and doesn’t) from the conservative movement that most Americans thought they knew.
Jane Coaston: You’ve mentioned before how you wish the United States could go back to the L.G.B.T. politics of a few years ago. What would that look like to you?
Brad Polumbo: Something of a détente on gay rights issues on the right. After Trump was elected president and despite his many faults on many things, he had a more tolerant approach on gay issues than most Republicans had at that time.
Coaston: It just seems he doesn’t really care very much.
Polumbo: He’s a narcissist. So if you like him, whether you’re gay or whatever, he’ll like you. But he came in saying he was fine with gay marriage. He appointed some gay people to high positions in his administration. There were some things I was critical of — for example, his restrictions on transgender service members. I thought they were unfair and discriminatory, but he definitely took a more tolerant and open approach to L.G.B.T. issues than previous Republicans. On the right, about a majority, almost high 40s, were supportive of gay marriage. It somewhat recently crossed 50 percent in some polls of Republicans. There were a few issues here or there that were debated, but it wasn’t the center of a culture war.
I knew very, very few people on the right who actually seemed hung up on gay rights issues or were focusing on them. But the trans debate has gotten so out of control on both sides. And it has engendered this vicious backlash that, in my view, stems from a lot of overreach on the left-wing side of the debate but now is causing an equal and oppositely extreme backlash and reaction on the right, which is catching up to gay rights.
The polls are backsliding. A Gallup poll showed acceptance of same-sex relationships declining significantly among Republicans. All of a sudden L.G.B.T. “groomer” war discourse is back on the right. I’m really concerned about what’s going on. I think the progress that people before me put so much blood, sweat and tears into — to achieve acceptance and normalization — is not guaranteed to stay with us.
Coaston: I’m interested in that, because I’ve read Andrew Sullivan and a group of people I would describe as L.G.B.T. centrists of a sort. There’s a sense from those people like, there’s been so much work done, but there has been overreach, whatever that looks like. Also, there is an argument from them that we as a community need to police ourselves — that we can’t have other L.G.B.T. people making us look bad. Would you say that is correct or incorrect?
Polumbo: Should people see some people at a Pride parade in New York City nude in front of children and attach that to or blame that on the entire L.G.B.T. community? No, they should not. But they will, and they do. Whether we like it or not, people are inherently tribal. They inherently think in terms of groups and collective blame. I’m an individualist, so I really don’t. I wish it weren’t so.
Coaston: How do you think that conservatives view being gay or being trans? Do you think that other conservatives or libertarians view being gay or trans as bad, neutral, normal, good?
Polumbo: I think it’s deeply divided and there’s different pockets. There’s a pocket of the right that always is and always has been homophobic, that thinks gay people or transgender people are degenerate and disordered. That’s part of, although not all of, the religious right, I would say.
There’s a part of the right that’s always been pretty socially moderate or libertarian and has been fine with gay people and continues to be fine with gay people. And they, I think, continue to largely be supportive of gay rights and gay acceptance, although they, too, have many concerns with some elements of transgender-related issues, whether it’s sports and fairness and the belief pushed on the left that I view as ignoring obvious realities about biological sex or attempts to compel speech or conversations about when it’s appropriate for minors to make potentially or sometimes irreversible medical decisions. So they might have some concerns, but they’re generally accepting.
Then I think there’s a broad middle that is somewhat up for grabs — people who tell me they were fine with gay marriage but now things have gotten too out of control. It was a slippery slope, after all, and now they’re against all of it again, and we need to go back. And I think there’s that middle, people who aren’t devoutly committed on one side of this issue.
We tend to overestimate the extent to which Americans have coherent ideologies or philosophies. Back in the early 2010s, many of these specific conservatives were very anti-gay; so they’re back now. They’re waging all-out culture war on L.G.B.T. people. But the community and the progressive left sure are giving them a lot of ammunition.
Coaston: We tend to think that our social media is viewed by the audience we intend it to be viewed for. But part of what is going on right now is someone taking a social media post that was clearly made for one audience and then showing it to a larger or different audience. I am 100 percent sure that there are megachurches in South Carolina that, if I saw a video from them, I would say, this is super weird. But I’m not the audience for that megachurch in South Carolina. Just as much as someone who is a homemaker in Oklahoma is not exactly the audience for Dyke March in San Francisco.
How do you think that social media blows up our understanding of communities? Because it seems almost impossible to police. At a certain point, yes, these people who are Marxists in Seattle are going to do something that someone in Baton Rouge isn’t going to like and vice versa.
Polumbo: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right that social media plays a role in elevating extreme examples of people and then they go viral. I guess I don’t have a ton of sympathy for arguments like, “Well, I put my TikTok out to my followers out there, and I made it public, but I wasn’t expecting it to get picked up on Twitter or whatever to a different audience.” That is the nature of the internet. But it definitely distorts people’s perceptions of communities. I think we’d be in a much stronger place if the videos of, for example, kink at Pride in front of children were broadly denounced by the gay community or the L.G.B.T. community and they really were just fringe people who weren’t representative.
But instead, I think in large swaths, they’re defended or at least not commented on by mainstream figures. I mean, this headline is from 2021, but it still just blew my mind: “Yes, Kink Belongs at Pride. And I Want My Kids to See It.” I don’t blame a conservative person who sees that and feels disgust or feels, “Wow, that’s something inconsistent with my values.” And I think the issue of not cherry-picking extreme examples on social media would be a lot less effective if people on the left weren’t so reticent to ever disavow or disassociate the extreme stuff. I mean, there’s entire places that simply exist to cherry-pick clips of the most extreme right-wing nut jobs and share them. It’s not a one-side exclusive phenomenon.
Coaston: This is one of the challenges of movement politics and the L.G.B.T. community, though. I always joke when people talk about the Black community, I’m like, “What? We all get on a Zoom once a month or something? We do not talk.” But you will have people who are more political, more radical, and then you will have people who are just nice moms living in Ohio. I think one thing we’re seeing, maybe, is that maybe Black trans women living in New York and a white gay couple living in Silicon Valley aren’t really going to have that much in common. Do you think we still have a community? Is the idea of community helpful?
Polumbo: I think I’ve accepted the rhetorical framing of the L.G.B.T. community simply because it is widely adopted in our politics and in our discourse. But I tend to agree that it’s not necessarily a legitimate concept in that I’ve never really felt a part of any community. I’ve never felt welcomed. In fact, I’ve mostly felt rejected or attacked. I also think that I’m completely supportive of the rights of transgender adults to live their best lives however they see fit. But I’ve never truly understood the lumping in or connection of transgender issues and gay rights issues. They always have seemed to me to be somewhat distinct. But yes, I agree with you that even within the letters, two gay people might have radically different values and beliefs, especially in this day and age. One of them might have experienced almost zero homophobia and be completely welcomed by their family and their parents. And the other might be a survivor of a conversion therapy camp whose family disowned them.
I think, for example, and I’m not an expert on this, but I believe Hispanic voters are increasingly not voting as a monolith. And so you’re seeing a lot more nuance in how they’re discussed. Maybe as how people see us changes and evolves, we’ll see something similar happen with the L.G.B.T. community, and I hope so. But that would also require a different approach from the Republican Party on these issues than the one that has been arising and gaining steam over the last year or two.
Coaston: What would that look like? What would a conservatism that was more — “embracing” isn’t the right word, but more congenial to L.G.B.T. people, what would that look like?
Polumbo: I think there’s a third way on these issues between the old school, homophobic, religious way and the way that simply adopts the progressive views. That other way is a politician who says, I’m for equality under the law. That means gay marriage is the law of the land, whether or not I personally religiously agree with it or not. I’m for transgender people, adults having the right to live their lives how they see fit and being treated equally under the law. However, I support restrictions that ensure fairness in sports based on biological sex. And I support evidence-based restrictions that ensure minors aren’t accessing care they can’t fully understand.
I believe in the gay couple’s right to be legally married. And I also believe in the Christian baker’s right to not have to celebrate their wedding. I think there is a middle-ground approach here that a center-right politics could embody where a lot of gay people are capitalists. A lot of gay people aren’t on board with Sanders-style socialism.
A lot of gay people aren’t on board with the excesses of woke politics. They would be gettable by the G.O.P. if they didn’t feel that the Republican Party was inherently hostile to them. A lot of Republicans aren’t. But parts of the official party platform still are. So you can look at the Republican Party and find what you want to see in it, but a lot of L.G.B.T. people do feel like it’s not even an option for them. And I think taking a more centrist approach on the issues, you don’t have to adopt social progressivism. You really don’t.
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