The United States is experiencing its worst wave of homophobia in decades.
Hatred for LGBTQ people has roared back into American life with the amplification of Republican governors, senators, and propagandists. State legislatures across the country have proposed approximately 240 anti-LGBT bills. And high-ranking Republican officials have likened law-abiding gay and trans teachers, government employees, and librarians to pedophiles.
Christian Nationalists and far-right extremists are running on the noxious fumes of paranoid conspiracy theories involving secretive cabals of sex traffickers, maniacal pederasty, and devious plots in schools, libraries, and pizza parlors. As a consequence, states like Florida (with its infamous “Don’t Say Gay” policy), have passed laws eliminating LGBTQ history from school curricula, and banned books with gay or trans protagonists from libraries. Under the old con of “religious liberty,” several states are also proposing to allow business owners and medical providers to discriminate against LGBTQ customers and patients. The Texas Republican Party, in its official platform, makes no attempt to even conceal its agenda of persecution. Denigrating homosexuality as an “abnormal lifestyle choice,” the Texas GOP announced opposition against “all efforts to validate the transgender lifestyle,” and denied the Log Cabin Republicans an opportunity to participate in its convention.
As the unhinged QAnon conspiracy theory has become increasingly influential within mainstream Republican Party politics, some of its adherents have ascended to Congress and right-wing media stardom. Mayra Flores, after winning a congressional seat in Texas, will soon join the Q-caucus alongside Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert.
The belief that Hollywood, the Democratic Party, and major media publications are collaborators in a widespread pedophiliac campaign against American children, coupled with the false notion that people with same sex attraction are likelier to abuse minors, is not only enabling legislative homophobia, but also an alarming rise in violence against LGBTQ Americans.
Patriot Front, a white supremacist organization, recently attempted to assault participants in an LGBTQ pride parade in Idaho. A few days later, the Proud Boys (no longer content to “stand by”) disrupted a drag queen story hour at a San Francisco library, shouting homophobic slurs and violent threats.
These are not isolated incidents. Hate crimes against LGBTQ Americans have steadily risen since 2015. The Human Rights Campaign reports that 2021 was the worst year on record for targeted murders of LGBTQ citizens since 2013.
According to the American Library Association, the same year saw the worst book banning effort in two decades: Five of the ten “most challenged books” in schools and libraries feature LGBTQ content. The targeting of schools has escalated in recent months as right-wing pundits and politicians have advanced the dangerous smear that LGBTQ teachers are “grooming” their students for sexual predation.
The ”grooming” charge is a resurrection of one of the oldest, and unfortunately, most effective weapons of homophobia.
In the 1970s, the singer and beauty pageant winner, Anita Bryant, joined forces with the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the religious right to advocate for the revocation of ordinances prohibiting discrimination against gay employees and applicants in the public sector. Bryant’s campaign succeeded in Florida and Oklahoma, which banned gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools. Bryant named her hate movement, “Save Our Children,” absurdly claiming that gay teachers were “recruiting” adolescent boys and girls to their sexual orientation.
When I exchanged emails with John D’Emilio, one of the country’s most accomplished and influential historians in the field of gay and lesbian studies, about the frightening recrudescence of homophobia, he wrote: “There is a long history of attacking LGBTQ people, and especially gay men, with the claim that they will corrupt children.” D’Emilio expressed particular concern for transgendered Americans, who have “fewer legal protections” than gays.
As much as his analysis provided further justification for rage and worry, he also articulated a promise of hope: “In the past, organized political attacks on the LGBTQ community have led to an upsurge in organizing by the community. As a Chicago activist told a reporter who asked about the impact of Anita Bryant's homophobic campaigns, ‘every kick is a boost.’”
The Democratic Party should accept the boost, and fight for the full protection and representation of LGBTQ Americans. The party’s most prominent officials have demonstrated resistance against rising right-wing homophobic hatred, but as is too often characteristic of Democrats, they’ve done so with insufficient aggression.
Vice President Kamala Harris spoke powerfully at a Pride event in Washington, D.C., and many Democratic governors, senators, and mayors have made similar appearances in their cities, states, and districts. Public declarations of support are laudable, but the anti-LGBTQ hate movement will not end next month, and the Democratic counterpunch should not either.
President Joe Biden should also become more consistently involved. He delivered an excellent address at a White House Pride event on June 14, and signed an executive order directing federal agencies to oppose the anti-LGBTQ laws passing at the state level. The president should continue to raise the issue to public prominence, but Democrats must recognize that executive orders are vulnerable to reversal from future presidents.
Only legislation on the municipal, state, and federal levels can codify protections for LGBTQ Americans—and permanently revoke the gains that right-wing homophobes have made over the past two years. The party boasts a roster of impressive LGBTQ officials who can lead the charge, including Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Democrats have overcome their rhetorical passivity on LGBTQ rights, and most of the American public has joined them. A Public Religion Research Institute poll from March 2022 demonstrates that more Americans support anti-discrimination measures for LGBTQ Americans—including gay marriage—than at any point in history.
Even so, there are foreboding indicators that the cultural collision between social liberalism and puritanical hostility is about to grow more severe, and the rights of millions of LGBT Americans hang in the balance. According to an April Politico/Morning Consult poll, only 25 percent of Republican voters object to a political candidate making anti-LGBT remarks. Reactionary right-wing propaganda is beginning to succeed, and Democrats must prevent further regression with a muscular commitment to LGBTQ advocacy in ways legal, political, and cultural.
Given the centrality of Christian nationalism to the American right, and the importance of LGBTQ voters to the Democratic coalition, weakness in the face of homophobia would amount to political and moral failure.