Outside the State House last November, police used bicycles and their bodies to block confrontations as a right-wing Rally for the Republic reached its climax. Amid the tumult, a conservative activist began chanting at counterprotesters.
“Gays for Trump! Gays for Trump!” cried Chris Bartley, 22, who wore a red “Make America Great Again” knit hat and a stars-and-stripes neckerchief.
“LGBT right here, right here,” Bartley yelled, referring to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. “Whatever you might say, gays for Trump — it exists!”
Bartley, a Barnstable native, is one of the most visible faces locally of what supporters say is a growing movement.
Gay and lesbian conservatives interviewed recently in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island said they have long embraced low taxes, small government, minimal regulation, and Second Amendment rights, but some previously felt unwelcome inside the Republican tent.
And though it may sound unlikely, some argue that President Trump has helped open GOP doors long closed to them.
They point to then-candidate Trump’s smiling acceptance of a rainbow flag at a Colorado rally and his Republican National Convention speech — in which he promised to protect LGBT Americans — as milestones toward greater acceptance.
Alex Hagerty, 22, of Abington, “started crying” when he saw Trump give the speech, he said.
“For me, that meant the world . . . to see the Republican nominee talk positively about someone like myself, when [Mitt] Romney or [John] McCain or even Jeb Bush spoke negatively,” he said.
The group is a minority within a minority. Edison Research exit polling found that just 14 percent of LGBT voters cast ballots for Trump in 2016.
Even many gay conservatives have been reluctant to back the president.
In 2016, the board of the Log Cabin Republicans, the nation’s largest LGBT Republican organization, voted narrowly against endorsing Trump over concerns about his mixed record on gay issues and his fitness for office.
Many LGBT Americans see Trump as anything but an ally, pointing out his vice president’s long record of supporting antigay policies, his attorney general’s efforts to roll back federal protections, and Trump’s own attempt to bar transgender service in the military.
“I will never understand the phenomenon of gays supporting Trump, because you’re undermining your own interests,” said Deborah Shields, executive director of MassEquality, a statewide advocacy group. “Essentially, you’re selling out yourself and your community, because he is an open and notorious homophobe.”
Gay and lesbian Trump supporters largely shrug off such claims. Some say Trump administration acts such as removing protections for transgender students or declaring that workplace civil rights protections do not apply to sexual orientation only remove “special rights” and level the playing field.
Rob Kelleher, 26, of Hampton, N.H., said he rejects the left’s culture of coddling.
“A lot of people are just asking for handouts,” Kelleher said. “A lot of people want things they haven’t earned.”
It’s impossible to reliably count Trump’s gay supporters. They have had a small but visible presence at local rallies, but their impact is more conspicuous on social media, especially Twitter, where some clash frequently with liberals.
Accounts such as @GaysForTrump and @QueersForTrump have roughly 1,500 followers each, while more than 56,000 users follow the personal account of Peter Boykin, who calls himself the president of Gays for Trump.
Twitter does not publicly share data on a hashtag’s frequency, but two social media marketing websites showed #gaysforTrump appeared in 345 posts from 125 users in a recent 10-day period.
Some gay and lesbian conservatives embrace Trump despite reservations about his temperament — particularly his Twitter tirades — and the allegations of sexual misconduct against him.
Marguerite Levasseur, 54, of Spencer, said she backs the president largely for his economic policies.
“President Trump does not walk on water,” Levasseur said. “I think he will go down in history as a good president, maybe even a great president. [But] I do not like Donald Trump the man.”
Joseph Bowmaster, 32, of Dover, N.H., and others said there is a stigma against conservatives in the LGBT community, and they have found far more acceptance within the Republican Party.
“Truly, if you are a gay Republican, you are the worst of the worst in the gay community — a traitor, a villain,” Bowmaster said.
Still, Trump’s gay advocates back him even when their support threatens a central aspect of being gay: the ability to socialize and have relationships with other gay people.
“I’m an American first, a Republican second, and gay third,” Bowmaster said.
Trump supporters are often shunned in the gay dating world, Bartley said. When he meets someone he’s interested in, he says, “I’ll try to keep politics out of it until I get to know them better.”
Bartley and other gay and lesbian Trump supporters present themselves as idealists who believe in American values and the “marketplace of ideas” — the belief that when people discuss their views freely, the best rise to the top.
Too often, Kelleher said, both liberals and conservatives draw assumptions that make civil debate impossible.
“The left uses the far-right to generalize about all the right,” Kelleher said. “The right uses the far-left to generalize about all the left.”
But in practice, some gay Trump supporters embrace divisive rhetoric and positions that are unlikely to foster reconciliation.
In a recent Twitter post, Bartley used the hashtag #LiberalismIsAMentalDisorder. In discussing Trump’s efforts to ban visitors from several Muslim-majority countries, he said Islam is inextricably tied to terrorism, as well as dangerous to gay men, pointing to online videos that show gay men thrown off rooftops by Islamic State militants.
Former Cambridge City Councilor Nadeem Mazen, the first Muslim elected to public office in Massachusetts, said such views are bigoted and discount the 4 million Muslim Americans who respect their neighbors’ liberty.
“American Muslims do not condone murder of any kind,” Mazen said. “Race-related, religion-related, way of life-related, sexual-orientation-related violence is even worse in the letter of the religion, because you’re not letting someone undertake their own way of life, which is an Islamic mandate.”
Trump supporter Russ Hryzan brushed aside charges that Trump’s anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric has emboldened white supremacists. Hryzan, 38, of Providence, who is Northeast regional director of the Republican Liberty Caucus, said Trump’s statements are less divisive than the rhetoric of then-president Barack Obama.
Hryzan pointed to Obama’s comment that Trayvon Martin — the unarmed black teenager shot and killed in 2012 by a neighborhood watch volunteer — “could have been my son.” He said the statement helped lead African-Americans to riot in Ferguson, Mo., and other cities.
“The way people were emboldened under Obama was a lot more dangerous than the way people are perceived to be emboldened under Trump,” Hryzan said.
Even on events that have roiled the LGBT community, gay Trump supporters sometimes side with the president. Hagerty said he wasn’t troubled when Trump’s administration, on Inauguration Day, removed pages addressing LGBT issues from the official White House website.
“I remember the outrage and everything about it. I didn’t think anything of it,” he said. “Maybe I’m not [as big an] LGBT supporter as I should be. I like just being treated as a person.”