In an apparent first, a Republican convention speaker on Thursday took the stage during the final, most high-profile night, just minutes before the nominee himself, and uttered these words: “I am proud to be gay.”
Peter Thiel (pronounced “teel”) is an eccentric character in Silicon Valley: a legendary financier and co-founder of PayPal; an early investor and current board member of Facebook; a Stanford-educated billionaire who pays students to drop out of college and do entrepreneurial work; a staunch libertarian who poured millions into Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential bid.
Earlier this year, he made headlines as the sponsor of Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against news and gossip site Gawker, which outed Thiel as gay in 2007.
This campaign season, as the New York Times puts it, Thiel is also “the most prominent public face of a species so endangered it might as well be called extinct: the Silicon Valley Trump supporter” — and at that, an openly gay one.
“We are told that the great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom. This a distraction from our real problems. Who cares?” Thiel told the Republican convention on Thursday, referring to the debate over new laws restricting the use of bathrooms by transgender people.
“Of course, every American has a unique identity,” he continued. “I am proud to be gay. I am proud to be a Republican. But most of all, I am proud to be an American. I don’t pretend to agree with every plank in our party’s platform. But fake culture wars only distract us from our economic decline.”
The crowd applauded after Thiel said the words “I am proud to be gay” and cheered louder, some on their feet, as he kept going, about his pride in his party and in being an American.
It was not the only moment that signaled more support and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans among the Grand Old Party’s biggest night in front a large national audience. Later in the evening, Donald Trump voiced his support for the LGBTQ community in his acceptance speech. He cited the recent attack that killed 49 people at an Orlando gay nightclub by a gunman who pledged allegiance to ISIS. “As president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.”
The crowd applauded and cheered. Trump paused and seemed to soak up the moment. “As a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said.”
This year, the Republican Party’s platform has remained conservative on the issue of same-sex marriage, despite the Supreme Court’s assertion of the right of same-sex couples to wed, saying that children “deserve a married mom and dad” and referring to “natural marriage” as between a man and a woman. As NPR’s Brian Naylor has noted, the platform is more right-leaning than Donald Trump himself.
Thiel is not the first gay person to address the Republican convention — former Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe spoke at the 2000 convention, though he did not acknowledge his homosexuality. In response, the AP reported at the time, the members of the Texas delegation, seated in front, removed their straw cowboy hats and bowed their heads in prayer.
Thiel is not a prominent gay-rights advocate. In his convention speech, the note about his orientation arrived toward the end, almost as an aside to his argument that the economy and the government are “broken”; that America’s recent wars are “stupid”; that Hillary Clinton is “incompetent” and Trump will “lead us back to that bright future.”
Thiel’s support of Trump, as well as Thiel’s politics broadly, have mystified many of his peers in Silicon Valley, as Bloomberg Businessweek describes:
“Thiel is not only gay, he’s a pro-marijuana immigrant in a party that has long seemed hostile to all those things. … Among other generally agreed-upon concepts about which Thiel has expressed doubts: antitrust policies (he’s pro-monopoly), women’s suffrage (in a 2009 essay for the libertarian journal Cato Unbound, he noted that women have a troublesome tendency not to be libertarian), and the political system of the U.S. (in the same essay he noted, ‘I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible’).”
With Thiel’s funding, Hulk Hogan successfully sued Gawker Media over publication of a sex tape. Gawker was ordered to pay $140 million in penalties; it subsequently filed for bankruptcy and sold itself to digital media company Ziff Davis.
“It’s less about revenge and more about specific deterrence,” Thiel told the New York Times at the time, calling the lawsuit one of the “greater philanthropic things” he has done. “I saw Gawker pioneer a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest.”
NPR researcher Candice Kortkamp contributed to this report.