After years of progress on gay rights, how did the US become so anti-LGBTQ+?
A slew of bills are rolling back recently won freedoms. Is America ready to fight for LGBTQ+ rights all over again?
Peter-Astrid KaneThu 28 Apr 2022 05.00 EDT
In 2019, the Atlantic ran an opinion piece titled “The struggle for gay rights is over”. Written by the rightwing academic James Kirchick, the piece was obviously meant as a provocation, but its argument that “for those born into a form of adversity, sometimes the hardest thing to do is admitting that they’ve won” was at least considered cogent enough at the time to publish.
It came towards the end of a slew of political victories for the LGBTQ+ cause. At that time, it seemed as though the US supreme court would hand down a landmark ruling immediately before Pride Weekend every couple of years. The demise of the homophobic Defense of Marriage Act in 2013 was followed by the end of the federal ban on marriage equality in 2015. Widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage rights, gay people serving in the military and the need for protections for LGBTQ+ people followed. As recently as 2020, the court, then with two Trump appointees, ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protected gay, lesbian and transgender workers. For all the terrible crises of our century, LGBTQ+ people’s rights were solidly enshrined, and attitudes were shifting in line with legislation. In 1985, 89% of parents said they would be sad if they discovered their child was gay or a lesbian. By 2015, it was down to 39%.
Yet in the past few months, those victories have come under threat as the US has witnessed a pronounced acceleration of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and legislation, fueled chiefly by misinformation about what it means to be trans and hysteria over so-called grooming. A rash of laws concerning the teaching of human sexuality in school curricula, banning trans student athletes and stripping parents of the right to help their gender-variant children obtain appropriate care have popped up in numerous red states this year.
As same-sex marriage is now part of the fabric of America, conservatives have chosen to exploit Americans’ unfamiliarity with trans people and piggyback on parental anger over the perceived overreach of Covid-era school closures, conflating it with an insidious sense of “wokeness”, in the hopes of finding an electorally viable sluiceway for anti-LGBTQ+ hysteria.
The most famous of these anti-LGBTQ+ laws is the piece of Florida legislation banning instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in schools between kindergarten and third grade, the so-called “don’t say gay” law.
“A state hasn’t passed a law like this in more than 20 years,” said Shannon Minter, the legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and a trans man. “Like many other people, I thought there was no way they would, because it’s so draconian and obviously unconstitutional.”
Laying groundwork for a potential 2024 presidential campaign, Florida’s Trump-like governor, Ron DeSantis, has positioned the state as the last stronghold of liberty in America. The governor and his supporters have labeled as a “groomer” anyone who believes children can learn LGBTQ+ people exist, arguing that simply by talking about gay relationships to a child, you are sexualizing that child. DeSantis’ press secretary, Christina Pushaw, for example tweeted: “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children.”
To be gay, in their view, is to be inherently sexualized, a threat to innocence in a way that straight Americans are not.
Such vehemence has caught even veteran LGBTQ+ advocates by surprise. “At first, it was like 2015 again, with the bathroom bills, and I thought, ‘There’ll be a little pressure from national orgs and it’ll stop,’ but it didn’t,” says Ada Rhodes-Short, a roboticist and trans rights activist. “It started escalating and escalating.”
For her, the catalyst was when Texas Republicans such as Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton, the governor and attorney general, not only banned gender-affirming medical care for trans youth but reframed their parents as child abusers, Paxton signing a 13-page legal opinion that parents or doctors who helped children transition were abusers who should be investigated by law enforcement. He was followed by Arizona’s governor, Doug Ducey, who, after barring minors from gender-affirmation treatment, wouldn’t even state for the record that trans people were real.
Politicians are supported in the media by commentators like Tucker Carlson, who claimed “no one had heard of this trans thing four years ago”, or Charlie Kirk, channeling 1980s fears in saying “gays want to corrupt your children”.
Newly rejuvenated, the right wing is poised to make transphobia and homophobia cornerstones of the midterms and 2024 elections, with promises to deliver “don’t say gay” legislation in states including Michigan and New York.
Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, a conservative lobbying group, inveighed against the governors of Indiana and Utah for vetoing legislation banning trans women from participating in sports, calling the bills “timely, mainstream protections”. The Republican US representative Marjorie Taylor Greene vowed to introduce a federal “don’t say gay” bill if Republicans win the House this November, only to one-up herself days later by tweeting that for people to be pro-trans is to be pro-pedophilia. The dynamic is one of perpetual ratcheting-up.
What began in Florida has the potential to spread nearly everywhere.
Convinced that “there’s a culture shift happening and we need to be focused on survival”, Rhodes-Short and a dozen others co-founded Tear It Up. Modeled on Act Up, the organization that staged die-ins and other aggressive tactics to draw attention to the lack of funding for HIV/Aids, it is simultaneously confrontational and focused on mutual aid.
“While we are under a huge attack, we can see what’s coming in November and the spring and we need to prepare for the next fight. People are running on insane nonsense, like trans people should face a firing squad,” says Rhodes-Short, referring to to Robert Foster, a former Mississippi lawmaker and gubernatorial candidate who said that anyone “advocating to put men pretending to be women in locker rooms and bathrooms with young women should receive the death penalty by firing squad”.
Republican-dominated state legislatures have even begun bringing back North Carolina-style “bathroom bills” mandating that people use the facilities that correspond with the sex they were assigned at birth.
“That started to supercharge this issue,” says Alejandra Caraballo, an attorney and instructor at Harvard University’s Cyberlaw Clinic. “That’s what DeSantis ran with. It’s the new tactic du jour. You saw Tucker Carlson saying that Disney supports the chemical castration and sexual grooming of children – stuff you would have heard two years ago and thought it was off the wall. Now it’s going to an audience of 4 million.”
The business-friendly wing of the GOP that would quietly team up with Democrats to scuttle rabidly homophobic bills is now outnumbered, and legislators in a dozen or more states that lean even farther to right than DeSantis are taking note.
Minter, the National Center for Lesbian Rights legal director, believes Florida is the test case for a renewed push for an aggressive, Christian-nationalist program.
“That’s why it’s important that Disney has dramatically stepped up,” Minter says, referring to its initially uneven but increasingly vocal opposition to Florida’s new law. “The GOP is in an internal battle between the moderate, center-right legislators who have historically controlled the party and a very extreme Trumpian right wing that poses a threat not just to the Republican party but to our democracy,” he says. “We’re seeing that play out in real life. LGBTQ+ people and women and people of color are the primary targets.”
The “don’t say gay” bill, Minter notes, is very similar to what’s been passed in Russia, tethering American conservatives to their authoritarian counterparts who have successfully rolled back democratic norms across eastern Europe.
“There is a worldwide authoritarian resurgence and our country is not immune from that,” Minter says.
“I’ve seen this movie before over the last 30 years: The right wing decided to target the LGBTQ community, whether it’s around marriage or adoption or trans kids playing sports or bathrooms,” says the California state senator Scott Wiener, who is gay. “One state does something, and then they all start proposing it.”
Wiener introduced legislation to explicitly make California a refuge for families who may no longer feel that they can raise a queer or trans child in states such as Texas.
“I thought it was really important to push back on the policy level, and to send a clear signal that California and other states really care about these kids,” he says.
He believes that “don’t say gay” is “patently unconstitutional” but also contends that relying on the judicial system to protect human rights may no longer be a sound option.
“Once the court lawlessly allowed that Texas abortion law to stay in place, that sent a powerful signal that we can’t rely on the courts,” Wiener said. “We have to rely on the political process.”
But even that process has limits. Bella Blue, a burlesque dancer in New Orleans who is a pansexual, queer cis woman, homeschools a teenager whose stepfather is a trans man. Her child is “very aware” of the full spectrum of human sexuality, she says, but “he himself has not kind of landed” on a firm identity.
“I guarantee you when they’re writing these bills, they’re not asking how the kids feel,” she says. “The only thing you can do is remember they’re going to turn out to be whoever they are.”
The urge to legislate the diversity of human experience so it conforms with the Christian-nationalist project Minter points to seems certain to intensify. Although the confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson didn’t change the ideological balance of the supreme court, Republican senators’ opposition to her consisted mainly of conjuring up a nonexistent sympathy for child abuse images, tying her to the QAnon-led tropes about satanic child trafficking that seem ever closer to Republican orthodoxy.
Indeed, conservatives’ messaging heading into 2024 feels like a hypercharged version of the eternal paranoia that America’s very existence is forever on the cusp of annihilation at the hands of liberals, immigrants, and LGBTQ+ people. The far-right One America Network recently called Joe Biden the “groomer-in-chief”, alleging that Democrats are now the party of perversion, gender “mutilation” and an end to human reproduction itself.
This renewed movement, channeling itself through overheated rhetoric about “parents’ rights” that first gained traction during discussions of students masking up, now has the potential to undo much of the progress America has made on LGBTQ+ rights over the last 15 years.