Schrödinger’s Homophobia is Alive and Dead

On Monday 18th March 2024, the Gender and Sexual Diversity Research Group welcomed one of its early career researchers to give a talk on his PhD research. The fascinating subject was the ideological changes in LGBT+ Conservatism in the US. Tom Newton, in the revisions stage of his Politics PhD at the University of Reading, explored the phenomenon of ‘doublethink’ in the online rhetoric of the Log Cabin Republicans. The event was hosted by Dr Sebastian Cordoba, the chair of the GSDRG, and a recording of the presentation is available on YouTube. 

Tom (he/him) is one of LMU’s Associate Lecturers, having joined the School of So- cial Sciences and Professions in the Autumn of 2021. He teaches GI5070 ‘Compar- ative Politics’, GI5067 ‘Contemporary US Politics’, and also teaches GI4053 ‘What is Politics For? Political Aims and Ideas’ in the Summer term for those students who began their courses in January. He teaches similar modules at his alma mater, Reading, were he also holds an AsL position. His research interests include pop- ulism, authoritarianism, LGBT+ rights, the far right, and critical discourse analysis methods. He has yet to publish, but is looking to turn his PhD into a book and several articles in the near future, one such article will stem from the work presented here; and we look forward to having him back in the future to discuss his next steps as an academic. 

Schrödinger’s Homophobia is Alive and Dead explores the authoritarian ‘double- think’ rhetoric engaged in by the Log Cabin Republicans, the US’ largest (and frequently only) political representation for the quarter of its LGBT+ community that regularly votes for the GOP. The title alludes to Erwin Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment in which it is equally likely that a cat placed in a box with a poison vial is alive or dead after a certain period of time, and thus is considered to be both, thanks to quantum superposition. Log Cabin’s rhetorical use of ‘dou- blethink’ leads them to present LGBT+ issues under the Trump administration as highly changeable in order to best defend Trump from criticism and legitimise his actions; in their rhetoric, homophobia and victimhood are both alive and dead. 

Tom began his talk by exploring the concept, and its relevance to the study. ‘Dou- blethink’, an authoritarian rhetorical/psychological state proposed by George Orwell in the dystopian novel Ninteen Eighty Four, is the seemingly simultaneous holding of contradictory beliefs for the purpose of never questioning the state. Amongst the examples Orwell gives is believing that the state is legitimate because it defends democracy, and that the state’s authoritarianism is legitimate because democracy is impossible. To not flit between these beliefs when prompted would lead the au- thoritarian follower to question the state, so they hold them together instead. After a lengthy and inductive critical discourse analysis of a sample of 1300 LCR Tweets for his PhD (drawn from LCR, its chapters and its leaders - all anonymised), Tom argued that LCR simultaneously promote contradictory beliefs about how to treat political actors with homophobic records, whether or not LGBT+ people experience victimhood, and whether it is legitimate for the community to win its rights through Supreme Court victories. They change them on the fly (and back again) to ensure they always present Donald Trump and his administration in a positive light. 

Tom then outlined, in brief, the history of LCR; their founding in 1977 to fight the ‘Briggs Initiative’ in California, their struggle to make the Republican Party a more inclusive place from the inside over many decades, and their frequent mistreatment by the party in turn. He expressed his admiration for the group’s overall goals, but then introduced his Thesis’ argument that LCR had fundamentally changed under Trump in rhetorical terms; they had backslid from a critical, libertarian position, to an uncritical authoritarian one. This change, Tom argues, has severe implications for their ability to meaningfully fight for LGBT+ rights and for Democracy more broadly. 

Tom introduced the first aspect of his research, noting the distinct differences in how LCR portrayed the homophobic records of Democrats and Republicans. Finding that they would frequently extend olive branches and forgiveness to GOP members who had once supported anti-gay policy, but would ‘keep the reciepts’ of Democrats who had done the same. At times they would even excuse Republicans for their past actions because, at the time, Joe Biden had agreed with them; whilst simultaneously castigating Biden for having had those views himself. Tom went on to discuss how faith-based discrimination on the right-wing is also double-thought by LCR; with the record of Mike Pence perpetually defended on the grounds of religious freedom, but the Texas GOP, who cite similar arguments to continually ban LCR from at- tending their convention, as ’rank homophobia’. Thereby faith based discrimination from within the Trump administration is acceptable, but the same from without is not. Tom concluded that these phenomena represent LCR engaging in ‘doublethink’ about homophobia, simultaneously thinking it is forgivable and not - but changing their response based on the proximity of the subject to the Trump administration. 

Tom moved on to discuss LCR’s portrayal of LGBT+ victimhood - something that they consistently deny exists. Such denial allows LCR to present an unproblem- atic and assimilated front to the GOP, and thus wins LCR political capital. He noted instances where LCR instead invoke the spectre of an LGBT+ ‘activist elite’ who, jointly with the Democratic Party, perpetuate the ‘myth’ of gay victimhood to maintain their status and relevance; a populist argument in which the controlling elite enemy are the left-wing and the LGBT+ community the people they prey on. Tom then went on to discuss how LCR, in spite of this constant denial, selectively remember their victimhood when it will help them make other conservative argu- ments - such as supporting gun rights so gay people can shoot back in response to widespread hate crime. ‘Doublethink’ is engaged in once again, with victimhood be- ing dead and alive depending on whatever best serves LCR’s conservative credentials at a given time. 

Tom rounded out his talk by discussing LCR’s commentary on the Bostock v Clayton County (2020) SCOTUS case. He demonstrated LCR’s defence of Trump’s decision to file amicus curiae briefs arguing that the plaintiffs had no workplace protections under the Civil Rights Act. He then highlighted LCR’s arguments at the time that the case represented an illegitimate attempt to win rights by ‘judicial fiat’ and to flout Congress. He compared this to the group’s celebration of the earlier Obergefell decision that won the right to marry and their eventual celebration of the Bostock ruling when it was handed down, and that a large part of their praise went towards crediting the Republican Party with these victories. This was because both Anthony Kennedy and Neil Gorsuch, the respective decisions’ authors, had been appointed by Republicans (Reagan and Trump respectively). Tom argued that LCR essentially invented an objection to judicial activism on the spot to align themselves with Trump’s actions, then forgot it again once they could credit him with the victory. 

The event concluded with a summary of the work’s implications - namely the po- tential for other LGBT+ Conservative groups worldwide to ingratiate themselves into the inner circles of authoritarian leaders. LCR had been given mainstream sta- tus in the party for the first time, thanks to their closeness to Trump; with several of their members appointed to judiciary and executive roles (Richard Grenell most famously becoming the first openly gay person to serve in the cabinet). Tom argues that LCR have rewarded this mainstreaming with uncritical loyalty - and that this ‘Homo-Authoritarianism’ (an extension of Homonationalism, as articulated by Jas- bir Puar) may become a model used in other authoritarian contexts. In the process it contributes to the wider mainstreaming of the far right, and the undermining of Democratic institutions. Furthermore, it robs those LGBT+ organisations caught in it of the ability to meaningfully fight for LGBT+ rights; because if ‘big brother is always right’, they can get away with homophobia because their followers will re-contextualise and excuse it. 

A period of Q+A followed, which allowed Tom to elaborate on some of the finer points of the work and related issues; like the role of cognitive dissonance in LCR, and the wider conservative trend in the LGBT+ community. Tom firmly believes there is a great deal of scope for more research into this topic, as there has been so little academic attention paid towards LGBT+ conservatism at all. He is hoping to contribute to ongoing publications, both in his own right, and jointly with the other members of the GSDRG. 

Hand-painted in a range of rainbow colours

Alexander Grey's photo: hand-painted in a range of rainbow colours.