The final item at auction on Thursday night at the 2022 Lincoln Day Dinner of the Log Cabin Republicans of Houston was a white baseball hat with the familiar slogan “Make America Great Again” in rainbow letters. The hat, signed by the former president and protected in a translucent case, sold for $6,000.
The Log Cabin Republicans were founded in the late seventies to promote gay, lesbian, and bisexual rights within the Republican party. For years, they had to make do with little nods and symbolic gestures from GOP elected officials while also enduring withering hate and rhetoric from much of the rest of the party. That was thanks to simple math: Evangelical Christians and social conservatives were a much more important part of the conservative coalition, and the number of votes that LGBTQ Republicans brought to the table was minuscule. The math still holds. Social conservatives in Texas are vast in number, while LGBTQ Republicans are not. Every two years, for at least twenty years, the Log Cabin Republicans of Texas have had their application to place a booth at the state GOP convention invariably denied. A booth is the bare minimum—a token symbol of respect and acceptance—but that has always been too far.
The MAGA hat is as good a symbol as any that something has changed, at least on the national level. The nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015 was a major change, of course, one that freed queer voters to make priorities of issues other than their own civil rights. Then there was Donald Trump, a veteran of the New York City club scene in the seventies and eighties, a not-especially-churchy man whose rallies are prefaced with songs by Elton John and the Village People. (“They call it the gay national anthem,” the former president said recently about his love for the song “Y.M.C.A.”)
But it is still a strange time to be gay in the Texas GOP. The Log Cabin Republicans of Houston profess to be an organization of “GLBT and allied” Republicans. State elected officials may be overtly bashing the Ls and Gs and Bs less than they used to, but members of those groups are not appreciably more welcome in the grassroots—in many parts of the state, right-wing activists bash queer Texans in much the same way they did in the nineties. And transgender-bashing among elected Republican officials has risen in prominence as voters have come to terms with the once terrible threat of same-sex marriage. For years, statewide leaders have been using their sizable platforms to stigmatize transgender adults and to accuse those who seek to help transgender children of “genital mutilation.” Governor Greg Abbott last year ordered state school boards to investigate Texas school libraries for “pornography” and, this year, ordered state agencies to investigate the families of transgender children for potential child abuse if their children are receiving gender-affirming medical care.
I popped into the Lincoln Day Dinner on Thursday night at a ballroom in the Omni Riverway, curious if the Log Cabin Republicans would be grappling with any of this publicly. To be fair, Lincoln Dinners, commonly held by local GOP groups, are celebratory affairs, not opportunities for policy debate. But of the three speakers at the event, only one, Republican Party of Texas Vice Chair Cat Parks, substantively engaged with the fact that the audience was LGBTQ, speaking about attending a Trump rally in Texas and seeing two men in their thirties side by side, one with a “farmers for Trump” hat and one with a “gays for Trump” hat, happy as clams.
Matt Schlapp, chair of the group that puts on the Conservative Political Action Conference, began his speech with an Elizabeth Taylor joke and moved on to his standard stump, touting his book along the way. Wesley Hunt, running for Congress in a Houston-area district, opened with a Rudyard Kipling quote instead, before making one of the few oblique references to debates over gender of the night. “We have a Supreme Court justice who got nominated just because she’s a Black woman,” he said in reference to nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, who parried a question at her confirmation hearing designed to involve her in a debate about trans issues, “and she doesn’t even know she’s a woman.” It was his biggest laugh line.
Parks has often emphasized her desire that the Texas GOP become a more inclusive and diverse place—a position which has put her at odds with many in her party who want a more tightly ideological coalition. She wanted “more representation [in the party] for the people in this room,” she told the audience of about a hundred people. “There is within the Republican party a small but vocal faction who thinks they get to decide who is Republican enough, who is conservative enough, who is Christian enough,” she said. “I am your ally, and there are Republicans all over this state who are your ally.”
It’s striking to hear a Republican party official voice this, but Parks was careful to say that there might not be enough of those allies yet. She addressed the “elephant in the room,” by which she means the group’s petition, once again, to place a booth at the upcoming party convention. “The votes are not there this year, probably,” she said. But “if the votes are not there, I will not step foot in the hall with any of those booths.” There was very strong applause. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another,” she said in conclusion, reciting one of the most unintentionally homoerotic Bible passages. “I love you guys and stay in the fight.”
After the speakers concluded, I talked with Chris Halbohn, a young lawyer in black plastic glasses who became president of the Log Cabin Republicans of Houston this year. “We’ve become more of a big-tent party,” he said. Trump helped, even when it was risky to do so, Halbohn told me. “He stood up on stage with an LGBTQ flag, albeit an upside-down flag. He stood there proudly with it, and he wasn’t even elected yet.”
What did Halbohn make of the national backlash to Texas’s crackdown on transgender kids and adults? The Log Cabin Republicans, he said, “are on the side of standing up for LGBT members and for also supporting parents, and supporting the right to parent your child the way you see fit,” he said. “What [we’re] against is schools and other people making choices about your kids that you don’t have a say in. That’s probably as far as we can go into that without being a little divisive.”
Halbohn was speaking for his organization and had a tightrope to walk. Perhaps unfairly, I gave him a shove, asking him about his fellow Houstonian Steven Hotze, the leader of the Conservative Republicans of Texas and a major donor in the party. In 2015, not that long ago, I watched Hotze speak in a hotel ballroom much like the one in which the Log Cabin Republicans met. He told the audience then that he was tired of fighting the encroaching “homosexual agenda” with his hands tied behind his back—and that from now on, he would “run them through with God’s word.” To illustrate the point, he pulled out a sword and waved it at the audience, asking them what it would feel like to be penetrated by it. That’s what he would use God’s word to do to LGBTQ Texans. (He had also passed out copies, printed on yellow construction paper, of the “Homosexual Agenda,” a satirical document in which gay men vowed to feminize and rape real America’s sons, and which Hotze took seriously and read aloud from.)
What did it feel like, I asked Halbohn, to be in a political party with a guy like that? “I can’t really comment on that,” he said, referring to the sword. But, he said, like Hotze, the Log Cabin Republicans “want to see Republicans elected up and down the ballot.” It was important to focus on what they have in common. “We agree on 90, 95 percent of the issues,” Halbohn said. The remaining five percent, he added, “wasn’t even worth stressing over.”