It's not easy being a gay Republican living in the Bible Belt, Justin Banks told a room full of Republicans and Libertarians at Republican Party headquarters this week. But making the GOP more accepting of LGBT rights is essential to its future, he said.
"I've met a lot of resistance, about why I am Republican and I am also gay," said Banks, a 19-year-old from Havelock. He wants the party to reach out to gay people who share the principles of smaller government and lower taxes.
"If you do not reach out to us, you will lose us," he said. The party that wins future presidential elections, Banks said, is "going to have the bigger tent."
The Triangle Urban Republican Network — or TURN — a group that fosters discussions on issues such as clean energy and marijuana legalization, organized the forum on LGBT rights, what the group's founder Matthew Hebb called "a very difficult topic within the Republican Party."
While some members of TURN want the GOP belief in limited government to extend to people's personal lives, the party has firmly established anti-LGBT positions.
Republicans pushed what's known as "the bathroom bill," or HB2, in 2016. In 2012, Republicans in the legislature championed the constitutional amendment that banned gay marriage and civil unions.
A 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalized gay marriage, striking down all state bans against it. In their national party platform a year later, Republicans denounced the Supreme Court decision as "a lawless ruling," and restated the party position on marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
President Donald Trump this year barred transgender people from military service, allowing for some exceptions. The U.S. Department of Justice under Attorney General Jeff Sessions has argued that federal law does not protect gay people from being fired from their jobs because they are gay.
Gay Republicans don't have much of a voice in the state. The North Carolina branch of Log Cabin Republicans, the organization for gay Republicans, has been dormant for years. Some who attended the TURN forum are thinking of trying to revive it.
A majority of people in the U.S. support gay marriage, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center poll. Gay marriage had its strongest support among millennials, or people born on or after 1981, with 74 percent approving.
Among white evangelical Protestants, a cornerstone of the GOP base, only 35 percent approved of same-sex marriage, according to the Pew survey.
The GOP could tap a well of younger voters if the party was more accepting of LGBT rights, said Christina Williams of Wake Forest. Williams, 27, is not a member of the LGBT community, but described herself as an ally.
Unaffiliated people who don't vote would be more likely to vote Republican "if the party could change a little bit, if the party could be more accepting," she said.
Gay Republicans and white evangelical Republicans can co-exist in the party, said Kayla Saunders, an officer in TURN who said she is bisexual and a registered Republican. Many people in the LGBT community are Christians, she said in an email.
"While some of the most vocal and politically active elements of the party can be exclusionary, oftentimes they are reacting out of fear and lack of familiarity," Saunders wrote. "I have personally watched many people soften their stance on LGBT members of the party after actually interacting with, and getting to know them on a personal level. Straight evangelical Christians in the party simply want to know that they are also allowed to conduct their personal lives in accordance with their religious beliefs."
NC GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse, as he welcomed the group to party headquarters, focused on topics that unify Republicans such as state budget surpluses and lower taxes.
He said in an interview that the GOP was already a "big tent" party.
"The biggest things in our party are national security, lower taxes, lower spending, and school choice, and a variety of social issues," he said. "I don't think somebody has to be for or against gay marriage."
"We are likely going to continue to be the party that questions massive upheaval of social norms," Woodhouse added, "because somebody needs to.."