“Happy Pride” feels a little ironic this year.
Because along with our parties and parades, the new wave of anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ laws in Republican-led states across the country has been horrifying. To many, it seems to have to come out of nowhere, and it is more vicious, mean, and extreme than anything we’ve seen in years: banning hormone therapy for trans kids (as Arkansas, Florida, and Texas have done), banning any talk about sexuality or gender (including one’s own) in schools, banning books from school libraries, calling every liberal a “groomer,” and openly stating that once abortion rights fall, same-sex marriage is next.
It is terrifying for every queer person, including me, and even more so for every trans person.
Jay Brown, a senior vice president at the Human Rights Campaign, said that as a trans man, he “shares the fear and despair” that many are feeling right now. “At the essence, these laws are trying to make sure no trans person exists: providing no support for us in our early lives, making medically necessary health care a felony, prohibiting even mental healthcare. It is hard to find the words for how damaging these laws and policies are.”
So how can LGBTQ people, activists, and allies fight back?
The answers are simple, but not easy. The LGBTQ activists I spoke with were optimistic, in some ways: they’ve seen the Christian Right and the Republican Party run this playbook before, and they’ve beaten it before. But, to put it bluntly, it’s going to take a lot more people giving a shit about this war on queer people, and voting, speaking out, and getting their friends to do the same, than we’ve seen so far.
In other words, it’s going to be up to you. So consider these your marching orders.
1. Vote out the bigots
First, it’s obvious that this wave of attacks is largely about pandering to the Republican party’s base of religious fundamentalists (who comprise over half of the party) and angry, white populists who are scared and resentful of any change from how things used to be.
As Brown put it, “Of course, our opponents are using these tactics in advance of the midterms in the hope they can turn out their extremist base. But a lot of this is also rooted in our success. We are more visible and more open about who we are. As a trans person, I see that in a powerful way…. We are part of folks’ communities, workplaces, churches, and schools. This is a reaction to that reality.”
The way the campaign is unfolding reflects that. In fact, as new as this wave of laws may seem, a lot of the rhetoric is actually quite old.
As far back as Anita Bryant in the 1970s and anti-gay paranoia of the 1950s and ’60s, conservatives attacked gay people the same way they’re attacking trans people and “groomers” today. We’re child molesters, they said. We’re trying to “recruit” your kids. (LGBTQ icon Harvey Milk turned that charge on its head, telling gay people in 1977 that he wanted to recruit them to be activists for their civil rights.) We’re mentally ill. And, for good measure, we go against God’s plan.
“They’re saying the quiet part out loud,” said Cathryn Oakley, HRC’s state legislative director. “They’re not pretending anymore that they care about the efficacy of puberty blockers or whatever… [Alabama Governor] Kay Ivey just came out and said she doesn’t believe trans kids should exist, because that’s not how God made them.”
But this could actually be good news. Because while this kind of rhetoric may help Ron DeSantis, Greg Abbott, and others burnish their credentials with the Republican base of angry, white religious fundamentalists, it does not reflect the mainstream of public opinion. They’ve overreached.
“They have underestimated our community,” Brown said. “They are starting to say things that remind us of what they said before: family values, God’s plan… It is the same thing they tried to say when gay kids were coming out in the 1990s. This is the same playbook—and we have the muscle to fight back.”
That’s why every activist I spoke to talked about voting in the upcoming elections. Remember, Ron DeSantis only won his last election by 0.5 percent, and had former felons actually been allowed to vote as Floridians overwhelmingly approved in a referendum, he most likely would have lost. If enough people care about their queer families and friends, he will lose this year.
But of course, that only works if people who say they care about us f-ing vote accordingly. That’s especially true this year, with Republican voter suppression targeted largely at communities of color, with Republican Big-Lie believers now running many state and local elections, and with many voters are focused on inflation and the economy. Allies have to actually f-ing vote.
2. Tell and amplify LGBTQ stories
Of course, people only vote for pro-LGBTQ politicians if they’re pro-LGBTQ themselves. And that takes deeper, and more personal, work.
I worked as an LGBTQ activist from 2003 to 2013. Exhaustive research had already shown that greater intergroup contact corresponds with lower intergroup prejudice, whether with regard to people with a different sexuality or gender, or people from a different ethnic group. Ultimately, knowing someone L,G,B,T, or Q was the greatest predictor of supporting our right.
So, in the 2000s and 2010s, activists focused not only on rights and lawsuits, but on gay visibility in the media (Will & Grace, Ellen, Brokeback Mountain) and, even more importantly, in people’s churches, schools, and communities.
To an extent, it worked. Gradually, year by year, support of LGBTQ equality in general and same-sex marriage in particular rose, from 35 percent in 1999 to 60 percent, when Obergefell v. Hodges was decided, to 70 percent today.
Ross Murray, an activist friend of mine from those days who is now the vice president of the GLAAD Media Institute, was part of that work then and now. “We have to make sure that people know the reality of LGBTQ people’s lives, especially trans lives,” he said. “They need to know and understand that we are their friends and neighbors and coworkers, and that they don’t want to see harm come to people they have a relationship with.”
Culturally, in the 2000s, Murray and GLAAD worked with shows like Will and Grace—which President Biden has credited with changing his own mind about LGBTQ equality. In the 2020s, they work with visibly transgender celebrities like Laverne Cox or “regular folks” like Jeopardy! champion Amy Schneider, who was told by many people that she was the first trans person they’d been exposed to.
The public work also includes highlighting the stories of actual transgender kids, rather than the mythical ones demonized by politicians like DeSantis. Brown said, “We have to make sure that people understand what it really means to be a 12-year-old trans kid,” said Brown. “It’s not about surgery, you’re not going to dominate JV lacrosse… When our opponents lie to people and say ‘Do you know what they’re doing to these kids?’ they make people afraid.”
But this strategy works only up to a point. While 87 percent of Americans report knowing someone gay or lesbian, only 30 percent say they know someone transgender, according to a recent poll. Most Americans don’t know someone trans, so they are more susceptible to misinformation and exaggeration.
That’s why allies need to step up.
3. Want to be an ally? Say something
“This is a moment where we need allies to be courageous,” said Brandon Wolf, press Ssecretary at Equality Florida, who has been on the front lines fighting that state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law. “We need people speaking out vocally in solidarity with LGBTQ people—not just at Pride, not just in our circle of friends where it’s comfortable, but at city council meeting, talking to their neighbors, their fellow church-goers. The rhetoric of ‘grooming’ is making life dangerous for LGBTQ people—it’s incumbent on allies to be courageous.”
Every activist I spoke to cited the now-viral speech by Michigan Senator Mallory McMorrow, who is straight and devoutly Christian but was smeared as a ‘groomer’ by a colleague, as the perfect example. Said Wolf, “She is an ally who stood fiercely and refused to back down, and said ‘This is why I do what I do, and I’m not going anywhere.’ That’s what we need from allies right now.”
Ultimately, these personal stories—especially what are called “feel/felt/found” stories by allies, meaning “I understand how you feel, because I felt the same way, but then I found….” – were shown during the marriage battles to persuade the ‘movable middle’ to support equality. Such narratives are especially compelling because they give “permission” for people to admit their hesitation, the exact opposite of the puritanical “cancel culture” that often predominates today.
For example, President Obama’s carefully prepared 2012 interview (with the lesbian journalist Robin Roberts) in which he declared his “evolution” on same-sex marriage fit this pattern. “I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people, the word marriage was something that evokes very powerful traditions, religious beliefs, and so forth,” he said. “But I have to tell you that over the course of several years, as I talk to friends and family and neighbors,” his view “evolved.”
Allies can also amplify the stories of trans people being misrepresented by opportunistic politicians on social media. Yes, it means putting yourself at risk of angry trolls, relatives, and even friends. But that risk pales into comparison with the risks a visibly transgender person takes every time they walk down the street. Want to fight the Christian right’s lies? Speak your truth, loudly and clearly.
“This is a dark time in our nation’s history,” said Wolf. “We need to lift the stories and experiences of trans folks, non-binary folks, people living at the intersections of marginalized identities. This is a time for allies to lift up those stories, and to share their own stories of why they stand in solidarity with LGBTQ people.”
4. Here’s why there’s hope
To be sure, there’s no one action, no one speech, no one law that will turn back this tide. It’s not even solely about queer people: these attacks are part of wider attacks on women, people of color, and immigrants, not to mention “wokeness,” democracy, science, and the truth itself. Legal and political activism remains essential, and it is happening.
The ACLU and others are suing in Texas, Florida and Alabama. GLAAD, HRC, and others are pushing their celebrity and corporate partners to pressure state governments, as Disney has (belatedly) done in Florida. And organizations like Equality Florida continuing their safe schools programs, despite the new law.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration's Department of Justice has warned states that many anti-trans laws violate both the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act—a prelude to suing them. Of course, much more needs to be done in the legal and political arenas. Local governments can and must pass laws to protect vulnerable youth, fund LGBTQ service programs, and ensure that no doctor or parent is ever punished for providing appropriate care to a transgender child. And if it weren't for two conservative Democratic Senators, we’d have a national LGBTQ equality bill—not to mention a national reproductive rights bill, action on climate change, and so much more.
Ultimately, though, this battle is going to be fought and won by millions of individual people either caring enough to do something, or not. I’ll put it bluntly: either you vote for equality, speak out on LGBTQ issues, and get supportive friends and family to vote too, or you can't call yourself an ally, no matter how fierce your pride party looks are.
We all know that, mostly owing to larger forces global economic instability and the continued effects of the pandemic, America is poised to return Republicans to power. If you’re not LGBTQ-identified yourself, I invite you to pause and really imagine what that feels like. My community is under vicious attack, and Americans are about to reward our attackers.
But, speaking as a confirmed pessimist here, there is reason for hope. The hatred and misinformation that’s part of this wave of anti-LGBTQ animus is actually good news, because our enemies are revealing who they really are. And that makes them vulnerable.
HRC’s Oakley put it this way. “If this was a movie,” she said, “the person who puts the kid in harm’s way to advance their own political career—that person is the villain. These people are the villains. The glimmer of hope that I see is that our opponents have way overplayed their hand.”