President Trump’s list of special guests for his State of the Union address Tuesday night included the brother of a bisexual high school student who committed suicide last year after he was outed on social media.
The White House press release did not mention that the high school student, Channing Smith of Tennessee, was bisexual or that he was bullied over his sexual orientation. Trump did not share his story with the nation or even acknowledge his brother Joshua’s presence at the event.
Trump made a general statement: “Every young person should have a safe and secure environment in which to learn and to grow.” He also applauded First Lady Melania Trump for having launched a “Be Best” initiative aimed at discouraging cyber-bullying and attacks through social media.
It was a decidedly anti-climactic nod in an evening that was notable for its dramatic reveals—the reunion of a soldier with his family, a scholarship award to a young student, and the presentation of a Presidential Medal of Freedom to right-wing radio talk figure Rush Limbaugh, who is battling cancer, in the middle of the formal address to the nation.
In announcing the award to Limbaugh, Trump praised Limbaugh—who is known for his anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, including statements derisive of laws that prohibit discrimination based on HIV infection.—“for all you have done for our nation and all of the incredible work that you have done for charity.”
Trump also promised to “eradicate the AIDS epidemic in America by the end of this decade.” That stood out for Log Cabin Republicans spokesman Charles Moran, who called the speech “upbeat” and “forward-thinking.”
“President Trump could have gone low but he went high, and inspired the country to do the same,” Moran said. “I’m heartened that, for the second time in his State of the Union address, he recommitted to the initiative to end the spread of HIV/AIDS in 10 years. We haven’t forgotten, and neither has he.”
Trump also said “everyone is made equal by the hand of almighty God.” But he said his administration would continue “defending religious liberty, and that includes the constitutional right to pray in public schools.”
That latter statement stood out for many LGBTQ activists. Sharon McGowan, national legal director for Lambda Legal, said Trump was “weaponizing religious liberty arguments.”
“This administration has relentlessly attacked not only the LGBTQ community, but also women, communities of color, and religious minorities,” said McGowan. “And by using tonight’s State of the Union to bestow the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Rush Limbaugh, President Trump displays his utter disdain for the overwhelming majority of our country who neither look like him nor share his cynical world view.”
Trump was probably displaying some disdain for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Tuesday night when he declined to shake hands with her as he presented her with a copy of his speech, as is tradition. She seemed to return the favor at the end of his address when she tore up the copy of the speech and tossed it away in full view of the Congressional audience and television cameras following the president’s remarks.
Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg appeared on MSNBC for some brief post-SOTU commentary. Buttigieg, who was in Concord, N.H., said he thought the address was “highly partisan, highly polarizing,” that it appeared to be pandering to Trump’s base of supporters, and that it included “some disturbing efforts …to further divide the American people.”
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