Donald Trump may say he’s “much better for the gays,” but one of his most prominent backers tried to make support for gay conversion therapy an official part of the Republican Party platform.
Remnants of the effort—led by Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, according to three sources who were there—remain: Some of the Republican Party’s most ardent supporters are aghast at what they see as a hidden “dog whistle” in their official platform that implies support for the harmful and widely condemned practice used to try to change an individual’s sexual orientation.
And even as the Republican presidential nominee has expressed support for LGBT rights, the issue continues to be a wound within the party that some in the party’s right wing will not let heal.
“It shows that there are segments—I’m sure a minority segment in the party—that want to overstep the bounds of the rules of government, politics, and the Constitution and reinforce this backward, harmful, damaging practice, which has demonstrated to lead LGBT individuals to become suicidal and kill themselves,” Rachel Hoff, the first openly LGBT member of the Republican platform committee, told The Daily Beast.
Republican Party bigwigs gathered in Cleveland last month to debate their party’s official policies—and away from the television cameras in an obscure subcommittee, included a watered-down allusion to a method that has been condemned by leading psychiatric and counseling organizations as potentially harmful.
“Avoid any treatments that claim to be able to change a person’s sexual orientation, or treatment ideas that see homosexuality as a sickness,” the American Academy of Pediatrics advises, for example. Five states and the District of Columbia ban the practice.
Tony Perkins—the president of the socially conservative Family Research Council and the receipient of a recent $100,000 pledge from Trump—rose on July 11 to read aloud a long proposal that suggested parents had the right to send their minor children to gay conversion therapy, three individuals present in the subcommittee room told The Daily Beast.
Annie Dickerson, a Republican platform committee member from New York who is supportive of LGBT rights, immediately spoke up and called the proposal “outrageous.”
Perkins, who was a Republican platform committee member from Louisiana, then huddled with concerned Republican National Committee officials who appeared concerned about the topic.
When the proposal resurfaced for reconsideration—without any specific mention to what kind of therapy Perkins originally referred to—it was eventually passed and is included in the Republican Party platform as follows: “We support the right of parents to determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their minor children.”
There’s no reference to LGBT people—or attempts to “convert” them. But the fact that the section is even in the Republican platform presents an outrage to pro-LGBT Republicans, who charge that even with the word’s omission, everyone knows that the language refers to conversion therapy, since it is what Perkins actually mentioned in his verbal remarks.
“It went from explicit to implicit recognition, saving face for Perkins and giving him, at least, a dog whistle to his community,” Dickerson told The Daily Beast.
“I don’t know any other therapy that is controversial that we would want to assert parental control over,” Hoff asserted, although she was not present at the subcommittee meeting.
Despite the eyewitness accounts and contemporaneous tweets on the proposal by Time’s Zeke Miller, Perkins now insists he never discussed the topic of conversion therapy.
“In the discussion of the amendment, there was no mention of ‘conversion therapy,’ and the therapy was a part of the overall amendment that addressed medical treatment and abortion. Whether intentional or not, reports have been misleading in portraying this as being all about homosexuality when it was an issue of parental rights,” Perkins told The Daily Beast. “I am satisfied with the current language in the platform.”
Perkins did not respond to a question about whether he had the original text of his proposal, or whether he in fact supports gay conversion therapy.
There is no available written record of the event. The Republican National Committee did not respond to a question about whether minutes were available but previously indicated that records for GOP platform subcommittee meetings were either discarded after the proceedings or not available for public review.
But even the perception among Republicans that the GOP platform includes a wink and a nudge in favor of conversion therapy may be enough to alienate voters. Indeed, it even alienates Republicans on the platform committee.
“I would be disgusted if that was proposed,” said Jessie Law, a Republican platform committee member who did not sit on the relevant subcommittee. “The nature of the platform committee is that people who want to pontificate about the platform tend to be social conservatives.”
Giovanni Cicione, another Republican platform committee member who was not present during Perkins’s remarks, said that most people he knows consider it “very odd and bizarre that we’re not having enough conversations about” conversion therapy.
Pro-LGBT Republicans said the party needs to move past these sorts of issues to focus on broader topics of wide relevance to voters, rather than social conservative flashpoints.
“We need to focus on what’s really important: We need to keep our message in line of the priorities of the American people, with the priorities of Republican voters, and get these distractions out of the platform,” Hoff said.
—with additional reporting by Alexa Corse.