To the chagrin of moderates within the party, social conservatives in control of the GOP platform committee last week took a hard line against LGBT rights. The document, which sets the political agenda for the Republican Party over the next four years, calls for the rollback of same-sex marriage and restrictions on legal protections for transgender people.
Donald Trump, who will officially accept the party’s nomination tonight in Cleveland, has said he will support the stances presented in the platform, despite his previous support for transgender celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner.
So LGBT advocacy organizations, unable to engage with the party itself, have turned to a more direct method to reach the nation’s Republicans with their message of inclusivity. Tonight, on Fox News, in the final commercial block before Trump’s acceptance speech, a coalition of LGBT rights groups are running an ad that features a transgender woman from North Carolina, in an effort to introduce America to a minority group they may not have met before.
"There’s so little understanding of who transgender people are," said Ineke Mushovic, executive director and co-founder of the Movement Advancement Project, which created the ad. "People have a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions, so we discovered just having conversations with everyday transgender people and seeing videos of transgender people really helped Americans realize how harmful a lack of nondiscrimination protections are."
The ad buy, which (combined with a timeslot on MSNBC during the Democratic National Convention next week) cost about $300,000, will reach a huge audience. Fox News drew 6.35 million viewers for the first night of the Republican National Convention on Monday, and the numbers will almost certainly be higher for the final night.
"This is the best opportunity we have to engage in a moment where people are really thinking about these types of issues where they're being discussed," said Matt McTighe, executive director of Freedom for All Americans, one of the groups sponsoring the ad. "What we really hope is that the people that might have a negative reaction will actually take 60 seconds to watch the ad and see how powerful it is and how real the story is."
If the GOP platform is an indication of the party’s direction, advocacy groups will need to make the most of this opportunity. The positions the platform lays out could hardly be worse for the LGBT community. The 66-page document calls for a Constitutional amendment repealing the Supreme Court decision that legalized same sex marriage. In addition to condemning bills that guarantee public accommodation for transgender people, it also opposes restrictions on the kinds of therapy parents can choose for their children, a reference to the scientifically unsound practice of "ex-gay" conversion therapy.
Those are positions that "do not speak for the majority of most Republicans," McTighe said. "There's a really small but vocal counterpoint that’s dragging the party in an extreme direction."
In the minute-long spot running tonight, a restaurant manager attempts to stop Alaina Kupec from using the women’s restroom before several other women come to her aid. Kupec has been a vocal opponent of North Carolina’s HB2, which requires transgender people to use public restrooms corresponding to the gender listed on their birth certificates.
The Kupec spot is part of a series of LGBT rights-focused ads created by the Movement Advancement Project for Freedom for All Americans and other groups. One ad stars Zeke Christopoulos, a transgender man from Asheville, and his co-workers, one of whom admits that they were uncomfortable at first after learning of his transition. Another ad features a lesbian couple who worry about losing their jobs and housing because of their sexual orientation. The spots are simply produced, and subjects usually speak directly to the camera. Casting real people who are actually facing discrimination humanizes the consequences, Mushovic said.
"It’s important to have another voice out there that gives Americans pause and say, ‘Hey, this is what this would look like in practice. When you have these laws, this is what the result is,’ " she said. "Fundamentally, Americans want to do the right thing, they want to be good people. The hope is that instead of attempting to score political points, people will take a deep breath and start treating people like they want to be treated."
If that sounds hopelessly naïve, recall that in 2001, only 35% of Americans supported same-sex marriage. Now, after a hard-fought battle across living rooms, the airwaves and the courts, support stands at 61%. Already, the transgender rights movement has made inroads among Republicans.
"We've been able to work with a lot of good moderate Republicans who vetoed bills in South Dakota and Georgia and Tennessee," McTighe said. In May, the Republican governor of Massachusetts signed a bill into law that protects the right of transgender people to use public accommodations corresponding to their gender identity. And in South Dakota, the Republican governor vetoed that state’s version of HB2 after meeting with a group of transgender South Dakotans and their parents. "Once you humanize it, it totally changes the conversation."