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Peter Thiel's speech was an LGBTQ milestone, just not the one we wanted

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Last night, Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel made history as the first openly gay speaker in the history of the Republican National Convention.

His speech drew real applause, however hesitant or polite, and made big headlines across major media outlets and every social platform. Here was an openly gay man, advocating on behalf of a political party that has long refused to acknowledge the existence of people like him. Peter Thiel's presence was, if nothing else, a cosmetic nod to gay humanity from the GOP.

Yet Thiel's speech wasn't used to advance the rights of the LGBTQ community, but to instead do what Republicans have long accused the Democrats of doing — to cynically exploit a person's identity in order to advance a regressive political agenda. 

It was the cultural milestone we in the queer community were waiting for, just not the one we deserved.

Thirty years ago, Thiel's speech would have been unthinkable. Republican president Ronald Reagan — the hero of this week's GOP convention — refused for years to provide funding for AIDS research, a disease that disproportionately affected the gay community and ultimately killed more than 650,000 Americans. Groups like the Moral Majority, which once issued a "Declaration of War" against homosexuals, found a safe haven in the Republican party. Throughout the '80s, '90s, well into the 21st century, the Republican Party stood for "traditional family values," a euphemism used to disguise an anti-queer, anti-trans, anti-human rights agenda.

As a gay teenager growing up in the '90s under the Clinton administration, the distinction between the parties was memorable. The Republican party was the party of "traditional family values," and the Democratic Party — who helped to pass the Defense of Marriage Act — well, they were too, but they were just nicer about it.

It was a miserable set of choices.  

2016 should have been better. But this year's Republican party platform was called the "most anti-LGBT platform in history" by none other than the Log Cabin Republicans, the most popular gay Republican group in the country. The platform wasn't just anti-gay marriage and anti-discrimination laws. It further gave nod to gay conversion therapy, a dangerous and abusive practice denounced by the American Medical Association. And sitting atop that platform was none other than gay Republican billionaire, Peter Thiel.

For the millions of people who watched the GOP convention this week, and the thousands more that read about it the next day, the message was clear: You can call gay people your friends, you can invite them in as neighbors and fellow party members, while simultaneously voting for their destruction.

It's a dangerous precedent for the Republican party, if not a familiar one. Donald Trump himself captured the paradox perfectly last night. During his speech, Trump made a historic overture to members the LGBTQ community.

"As president, I will do everything in my power to protect LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology," Trump said, to applause.

A little while later, however, Trump went to shake hands with his Vice Presidential appointee, Governor Mike Pence, a politician celebrated for his anti-LGBTQ views

During his run for Congress in 2000, Pence advocated to redirect funding used to help AIDS victims, to fund gay conversion therapy. In 2009, he voted against the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which extended hate crime legislation to include gender and sexual orientation.

Thiel's inclusion at the ceremony, and Trump's appointment of Mike Pence, made the party's positions clear: Homophobia from our enemies should be denounced, but when hate comes from "real Americans," it comes with a heart. 

To Thiel's credit, he did express open distaste for some aspects of the Republican platform:

"I am proud to be gay. I am proud to be a Republican, but most of all I am proud to be an American," Thiel said, before gently encouraging Republicans to lets trans people to use the bathrooms of their choice. "This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares? I don't pretend to agree with every plank of our party platform."

For some in the queer community, including myself, it's mind-boggling to imagine how Thiel could so clearly advocate on behalf of one of the most anti-LGBTQ platforms in modern American history. But it's not entirely novel. For decades, members of the queer community have lined up behind far more sympathetic candidates like Barack Obama, who was late to protect transgender inmates in prison, or Hillary Clinton, who delayed her support for gay marriage well beyond when she "needed to."

Compromise is a routine feature of LGBTQ life, but there's a fine line between politically expedient compromises and gratuitous disavowal.

And Thiel seems to have missed, or been disinterested in, the larger point that so many LGBTQ activists have stressed over the past decade: It's not just anti-gay, anti-trans laws that the community is fighting against. 

The LGBTQ community is fighting for an agenda that benefits low-income folks, who are disproportionately transgender, and people of color, who are more likely to be victims of hate violence. Oppression doesn't work in isolation, but in unison, and it's alienating to watch a towering industry figure like Thiel so casually dismiss the remainder of a platform that would have adverse affects on the majority of the LGBTQ community — though maybe not him.

Thiel was, simply, the safest representation of the LGBTQ community the RNC could have picked — not queer but gay, not trans but cis, male, white, profoundly wealthy, proudly assimilated and committed to the destruction of Gawker.

None of this is to say that Thiel's story doesn't matter, or that his speech wasn't some sort of sick, strange accomplishment. Surely, there must have been queer kids out there sitting on couches with their conservative families watching Thiel speak. And it might have provided some comfort to see themselves represented, or given them the hope that they too could grow up and express this part of their identity without being abandoned by a party or a community.

That matters.

But it's limiting to call Thiel's speech progress, and while his performance was no doubt a milestone — it comes with painful baggage. 

Thiel is entitled to his views, and no one in the queer community — liberal or conservative — should be forced to wear a political straightjacket. Maybe Thiel thought he could help create a more compassionate Republican platform. Or advocate for the end of democracy. Or maybe he just really wanted to eliminate floppy disk waste. As much as I and many people in my community vehemently disagree with Thiel's worldview, it's unfair to label him as a "bad gay." There is no right or wrong way to be gay, there are just better ways to be human.

History was made last night — which is why we'll keep waiting for the future. 

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January 1, 1970

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