(The Hill) — Pride Month celebrations across the country are playing out against a backdrop of growing threats to the LGBTQ community from conspiracy theorists and far-right extremist groups, and the results have already turned violent.
The vitriol and bloodshed come after a decade of stunning advancements for LGBTQ rights, as more Americans accept and embrace marriage equality and as more states adopt anti-discrimination legislation. Just over a decade ago, fewer than half of Americans favored same-sex marriage; today, 70 percent do. Acknowledgement of the community has also broadened. The vast majority of MLB teams now offer specific Pride celebrations at home games.
Experts who follow the national conversation over LGBTQ rights say the growing acceptance of gay and lesbian people has forced opponents to target a new minority group — the transgender community.
“This is fundamentally an anti-trans movement that has come to target other parts of the LGBTQ coalition,” said Sasha Issenberg, author of “The Engagement,” a book detailing the history of the fight for same-sex marriage rights. “Even before the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that gay and lesbian couples had the right to marry, those on the losing side of those cases accepted their defeat, and redirected much of the infrastructure developed over two decades to fight same-sex unions towards issues related to gender identity.”
Conservative legislatures across the country have passed measures barring trans people from the bathrooms that conform to their gender identity, and from girls’ and women’s sports. In some states, legislatures and governors are working to block access to gender-affirming medical care for transgender minors.
“As recently as 2004, the Republican Party was using gay marriage as a wedge issue,” said Melissa Michelson, a political scientist at Menlo College and the author of several books about the LGBTQ community and public opinion. “They can’t do that anymore because people generally support gay marriage. So they’re looking for a new wedge issue, and transgender people are not nearly as supported. People feel very uncomfortable about transgender people, so Republicans are able to use them as a wedge issue. And they’re doing it with fear.”
Many of the threads connecting fear of and violence against transgender people rehash common slurs once used against gays and lesbians.
The pastors who called for executions repeated disproven tropes about pedophilia. The Proud Boys who broke up the book reading accused the drag queen, Panda Dulce, of grooming children. A conservative agitator affiliated with the group Turning Point USA published videos accusing parents who attended the Pride parade in Los Angeles of grooming their own children.
“The terrain on trans matters resembled the marriage landscape when it emerged as a national issue in the 1990s. Public opinion was overwhelmingly opposed to recognition and state laws were unformed, which permitted anti-LGBT forces to regain the front foot in the culture wars,” Issenberg said.
Those attacks mirror conspiracy theories pushed by believers of the QAnon cult, which accuses prominent Democrats and members of the media of being complicit in a global ring of child sex traffickers. Those falsehoods, spread by online influencers, inspired a man to enter a Washington-area pizza restaurant in 2016 with an AR-15-style rifle, firing three shots; no one was injured.
Some of the same people who spread hate against the LGBTQ community have connections to the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection and former President Trump’s failed efforts to hold on to power.
The conservative agitator in Los Angeles was also present at the Trump rally that led to the insurrection, according to videos he published on Twitter. And leaders of the Proud Boys were charged last week with seditious conspiracy in connection to the Capitol riot.
“It’s all part of the same hard right authoritarian movement in the country,” said Michael Edison Hayden, a senior investigative reporter at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “This synergy between social media culture and the mobilization of extremists is really scary, and it shows how easily it can spill over into something much bigger than” the Jan. 6 insurrection.
The influencers responsible for stoking hate are careful to cloak their messages in innuendo, Hayden said.
“You will never hear any of these people propose any particular thing,” he said in an interview. “What they want to do is stoke a mob, and what we’re seeing is the mob.”
The number of hate crimes specifically targeting LGBTQ people has risen in recent years, according to statistics published by the FBI. At an event at the White House last month marking International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, President Biden cited both the progress made in recent years and the ongoing violence.
“We continue to witness disturbing setbacks and rising hate and violence targeting LGBTQI+ people in the United States and around the world,” Biden said. “This is wrong.”
Though most hate crimes are not reported to law enforcement, one in five of those that were reported in 2020 had been committed because of an offender’s sexual orientation bias, the FBI said in October, and one in 40 were because of the offender’s gender identity bias.
“This is a logical reaction to when you dehumanize people. When you dehumanize the transgender community, when you say they are monsters and a danger to children, people are going to think they have to neutralize that threat,” Michelson said. “It just takes one guy or one small group of people to decide, ‘This threat is so serious, I need to do something.’”