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Gay Conservatives Are Valid And Could Be A Powerful Asset For Rights Advocacy

Popular narratives around gay conservatives just don’t get them…

By Adam Zivo

Gay conservatives (“gaycons”) have historically been universal outcasts. Until recently, they were outsiders within their own political circles, given tolerance without acceptance. At the same time they also were, and continue to be, ostracized by large swathes of the LGBTQ community, which has mythicized them as self-loathing traitors. The cultural homelessness of gaycons isn’t a trivial issue. Despite being publicly erased from the rainbow, conservatives constitute a significant subset of the LGBTQ community. As an example, a 2014 Gallup Poll found that, in the United States, 20 per cent of LGBTQ individuals identified as conservative, while 33 per cent identified as moderate and 46 per cent identified as liberal.

While some gaycons can be self-loathing, the reality is that the majority identify as conservative on the basis of other issues. Their conservatism coexists with support for LGBTQ rights. You can be progressive on queer rights while also believing in conservative approaches to fiscal discipline, economic development, foreign policy and smaller government, among other things. Synthesizing an LGBTQ identity with economic conservatism isn’t that hard, but reconciling it with social conservatism is more difficult and appears to be rarer. It does occasionally happen, though, such as at the intersection of queerness and faith, where one can see constructive attempts to mediate religious freedom with queerness. Others retain aspects of social conservatism by upholding some elements of traditional family values, prioritizing the sanctity of family while expanding the definition of family to be gender-blind.

What makes this possible is the underlying assumption that political beliefs don’t have to be tightly bundled together, and instead ought to be evaluated individually. When beliefs are allowed to be judged on their own merit, rather than being forced upon someone as the admission cost of a political tribe, you get ideological hybridization. Hybrid political ideologies can take on all sorts of forms, creating mixed identities and alliances. Oftentimes they’re innocuous. We tend to accept that politics can be complicated and that people’s personal beliefs don’t neatly fit into partisan categories. There is nothing particularly strange about someone who, for example, both fears government overregulation and also wants robust protections for minority rights.

Patronage activism

Hybrid politics becomes controversial when it involves identities that are thought to be owned by specific ideologies. For instance, the far left had been the earliest and loudest champions of gay rights. Though, contrary to popular belief, it never monopolized LGBTQ advocacy, its leadership in forging the rights enjoyed today is indisputable. Hence it seems strange that gaycons exist. Where is the loyalty? The problem with this attitude is that it treats rights advocacy as transactional patronage, where liberation is politically and ideologically conditional. “We will free you, but only if you adopt our beliefs and lend your support to our full agenda of causes.” Failure to meet these conditions is met with ostracization.

At the same time, there ought to be some expectation that people, once freed, will act morally. It would understandably be infuriating to advocate for a group only for its members to use their newfound freedom to become Nazis. That being said, cruelty and violence can be condemned without letting political liberation degenerate into a patronage game. The worst of the Trumpist gays can be condemned by their bigotry alone, without evoking obligations rooted in sexual orientation. It would even be preferable. To say that cruelty is made worse when perpetrated by the marginalized is to also say that, when committed by an oppressor, it can retain a modicum of acceptability.

What counts as violence and cruelty, though? For some in the LGBTQ community, and particularly in the queer activist class, it is defined as deviation from far left ideology. For this subpopulation, to erase gay conservativism is to purge evil within one’s own home. It is justified through the crusade for justice. That other people may have their own conceptions of justice, or that they might share the same broad goals but want to achieve them through different means, is inconceivable. Embedded within this attitude is a domineering impulse that resembles what is seen in religious evangelists who wish to convert the world.

The LGBTQ community is not a political hive mind, nor will it ever be. Like any community, it is composed of real human beings who hold complex belief systems. It naturally experiences a degree of ideological diversity. This diversity is inconvenient for anyone who wishes to monopolize community power. The workaround is to stigmatize, exclude and erase competing groups. In this light, framing gaycons as traitors can be understood as one part of the community weaponizing patronage activism against a rival, consolidating power by invoking a historical debt that could never be consented to, seemingly can never be repaid, and should never have been treated as debt in the first place. Militant confidence in one’s own moral correctness can blind people to the ethical problems of this kind of behaviour.

This stigmatization can be experienced not just by individuals, but entire communities. The recent vilification of cisgendered gay men can be understood through this lens, as a vendetta against a demographic that had the audacity to become ideologically diverse rather than toe partisan lines. As gay men led the fight for their own liberation, controlling them through political debt has been difficult. The solution has been the creation of revisionist histories that expunge gay men from their own past, perpetuating the lie that they passively benefited off the work of others. This is epitomized by the myth that Marsha Johnson threw the first brick at Stonewall, a single act that we are supposed to believe we are more indebted to than decades of gay activism. The whole process is a case study on how even an implicit drift towards conservatism is enthusiastically policed.

For gaycons, there is a resentment against the expectation that their sexuality ought to define them and compel them to support political positions that they genuinely don’t believe in. Why should your sexuality be instrumentalized for someone else’s agenda? No one likes having political debt used coercively against them, and this complicates how gaycons choose to position themselves. Should you align with the right, which matches most of your values but can hate your identity? Or should you align with the left, which celebrates your rights but, at the same time, shares few of your other values and wants to turn your sexuality into a yoke? Do you advocate for LGBTQ acceptance in conservative spaces, or do you advocate for conservative acceptance in LGBTQ spaces?

The flawed status quo

As conservative spaces have become more tolerant of LGBTQ rights, it has become much easier to be openly gay in them. A reciprocal tolerance of conservatism in LGBTQ spaces does not seem to have emerged, at least insofar as mass culture and institutional beliefs go. Consequently, for some people it is easier to be gay in conservative spaces, carving out a niche there, than it is to be conservative in LGBTQ spaces. Within the safety of these niches, gaycons advocate for LGBTQ acceptance, often engaging with audiences that don’t understand them and sometimes dislike or distrust them. Advocates in these spaces lack the benefit of preaching to the choir. It can be exhausting, but it is necessary work.

Social advocacy can be broadly broken up into two missions: raising the roof and raising the floor. To raise the roof is to be the vanguard of new rights, to push the envelope of what is accepted and protected. To raise the floor is to ensure that support for new rights, once given a foothold in society, is shored up so as to prevent its erosion. The two processes work in tandem. Without the vanguard, rights advocacy stagnates, but without the rearguard, progress becomes unstable as greater chasms open up between believers and non-believers.

Gaycons, as insiders, better understand conservative communities and so can more effectively frame LGBTQ rights to them in a way that makes sense to them. They’re uniquely positioned to constructively engage the parts of society that have the most room to grow. They’re uniquely equipped to raise the floor. This advantage is, however, undermined by the current way that conservative gay activism exists in society. Crucially, conservative niches of activism tend to be divorced from the larger ecosystems of LGBTQ rights advocacy, cutting off conservative activists from expertise, networks and resources that would empower them to make change. This is not an accident. Many LGBTQ activists are reluctant to engage with conservative groups and purposefully starve them of assistance.

To use my own life as an example, last autumn I was exploring opportunities to connect Conservative MPs with LGBTQ activists, the goal being a series of roundtable discussions where each side could better understand each other’s priorities and constraints. I can still recall the disappointment I felt by the reaction when I spoke with some veteran activists whom I thought of, and still think of, as mentors. “This could help them win the election,” they warned. “Don’t betray our allies.” Elsewhere, I was warned that some activists, if they caught wind of my initiative, would actively try to sabotage it. My optimism for targeted social progress ran up against what read, to me, as the prioritization of partisan politics over community safety. Some activists seem to almost prefer that conservatives, as a whole, maintain regressive attitudes on LGBTQ rights, since it’s a useful electoral liability.

Gaycons have their own shortcomings, too. They are sometimes exclusively focused on validating their existence within the wider LGBTQ community. While this need for validation is important and makes sense given intense stigmatization, it’s a form of advocacy that doesn’t have much relevance to other members of the community. What does it matter to a non-conservative whether gaycons are stigmatized or not? In fixating too much on their own issues, gaycons can come off as whiny and parochial.

Conservative LGBTQ advocacy groups are usually embedded in partisan political infrastructure, which makes it hard for them to be impartial and undermines their credibility. A vicious circle ensues: isolation makes them rely on partisan resources, but reliance on partisan resources makes them more isolated. Log Cabin Republicans are an excellent example of this. As a group that advocates for LGBTQ rights within the US Republican Party, they are enormously influential as a bridge between conservative and LGBTQ spaces. At the same time, their dependency on Republican resources exacerbated internal tensions on how to treat Donald Trump, causing several of the organization’s leaders to resign. In the end, a lack of independence helped political tribalism win out, causing the group to stay mute in situations where they should have been fiercer defenders of LGBTQ rights.

Lastly, gaycons are too complacent with allowing themselves to be poorly represented by extremists and minstrels. Take Milo Yiannopoulos as the perfect example. He was once one of America’s most visible gaycons. Ideologically vacuous, his persona was cobbled together entirely from provocative stunts, such as his Privilege Grant for white men. Listening to him, it would be surprising to learn if he had any real thoughts at all. Yet his outrageousness, calculated to inflame everyone’s worst suspicions about gay conservativism, was mesmerizing and kept him in the limelight. He even went so far as to marshall Boston’s pathetic “Straight Pride Parade.”

Rather than call Yiannopoulos out on his peroxide circus, gaycons let him run amok. Perhaps they had no choice. The Trump era, particularly in its first two years, has uplifted all sorts of caricatures at the expense of adult politics. Gay conservatism may have just suffered the same fate as American conservatism in general, being co-opted by a juvenile radicalism that is more interested in “owning the libs” than advocating for good governance. Yet even with these extenuating circumstances, the damage remains. Yiannopoulos is gone, but more serious gaycons, who were either unwilling or unable to publicly denounce him, must deal with his memory in the public imagination.

A better alternative

A more effective kind of gaycon activism is possible, but making it happen would require work and maturity. First, gaycons need to expand their value proposition to society. Rather than solely fixating on their own stigmatization, they need to forcefully communicate how they can be important supporters of rights advocacy. This may be difficult for a group that, by its very nature, is filled with people who tend to see their orientation as incidental to who they are, but gaycons need to work past that and meet this ethical responsibility. The easiest way to do this is to reframe their intimate connection to conservative communities as an asset rather than a liability.

In order for that to work, gaycons need to call attention to the importance of securing popular, broad support in democratic systems. The fact is that, within democracies, it is difficult to unilaterally impose your agenda. Pushing your priorities, and then entrenching them, obliges you to earn the consent of other parts of society, including those you don’t get along with. Many within the LGBTQ community forget this, since rights have traditionally been won through litigation, in effect using the judiciary to circumvent popular will. Judicial activism has its limits, though. It may set the basic contours of legal rights, but you cannot legislate from the court. The bulk of governance happens elsewhere, in spaces more susceptible to the influence of public opinion.

Gaycons also need to engage in more advocacy work within both LGBTQ and conservative communities, advising them on how to talk to each other. Many conservatives exoticize and fear the queer community based on harmful stereotypes. Gaycons should commit to deconstructing and contextualizing these stereotypes to conservative audiences. At the same time, many LGBTQ activists live in cultural bubbles and expect their ideological frameworks to be universally applicable. Within the queer community, gaycons need to hammer an important point: what works in the downtown core of a major city may not work in other contexts. The language used at a poetry event in a gay bookshop may not be appropriate for a rural mom. Woke jargon might not translate well in a predominantly racialized and working class inner suburban neighbourhood. Respecting context matters.

When it comes to engaging mainstream LGBTQ activists, helping them think outside their bubble is just one part of the solution. The other part is actually building the strategies to adapt LGBTQ activism for different audiences. Take PrEP accessibility as a case study. Many enjoy framing it according to sexual liberation. Great, but evoking hookup culture isn’t a fit for everyone. With more conservative communities, it’s more productive to focus on the sanctity of human life and empowering people to take personal responsibility for their health. Small shifts in framing like this can do wonders for opening up people’s minds.

Coming up with methods for strategic engagement isn’t something that can be done just from an armchair. Understanding what works best with different communities is ultimately an empirical project. That’s why gaycons need to take leadership in producing new knowledge on this front. That means conducting in-depth interviews within their networks, communicating their own lived experiences, and creating forums where conservative audiences and mainstream LGBTQ activists can talk and better understand each other, however difficult that may be. The methods matter less than the results, with the ideal output being concrete, evidence-based and actionable recommendations that improve activist engagement with conservative audiences.

Finally, gaycons need to more actively champion LGBTQ rights in conservative communities. If most LGBTQ activist infrastructure is based in downtown urban centres, then how does one reach the sprawling expanses of rural North America? You can’t change the minds of people you can’t reach, and it’s very difficult to reach people if you aren’t in contact with the institutions present in their everyday lives. This is where gaycons can make a difference, by diplomatically fostering connections between LGBTQ organizations and social institutions that would otherwise be impossible to reach.

For this to work, though, the rest of the LGBTQ community needs to rethink its attitudes as well. This means less stigmatization and more constructive engagement. This means having the maturity to accept that, whatever political hostility might exist at the grand ideological level, any opportunity to collaborate for the sake of community safety is one worth exploring. It means not attempting to starve or sabotage conservative-led human rights activism. It means being willing to listen to the insights offered by gaycons, and being willing to share resources where appropriate. Disagreements and fighting will always happen, but simmering down, if not ending, this cold war will help keep everyone safer.

ADAM ZIVO is a Toronto-based social entrepreneur, photographer and analyst best known for founding the LoveisLoveisLove campaign.

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