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The new, old, anti-Queer backlash
Early in June, more than two dozen white men climbed into the back of a rented U-Haul van — their faces covered in white cloth. They lined up in the back of the truck, three-by-three, with their scuffed-up red-white-and-blue riot shields delineating each row.
“Purely defensive,” an organizer instructed them as they bumped along to their destination. Their leader told them to avoid their urge to hurl slurs or insults, and to instead opt for a silent, calm, intimidating presence.
Their destination? Pride in the Park, held in the small Idaho town of Coeur d'Alene.
Waiting for them at the park was the city’s police force.
One by one, they were arrested, handcuffed, and unmasked.
It was a tiny victory for those growing increasingly concerned with Patriot Front, the far-right white nationalist militia that has been flexing its muscle in recent months. Born out of the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville — split from a prior more explicitly neo-Nazi organization Vanguard America — Patriot Front has succeeded largely by creating a distinct visual identity for itself.
There is no shortage of far-right clubs in America, but Patriot Front has emerged from the pack thanks to its flashy graphics, its fraternity-like vibes, and its unapologetic willingness to target the LGBTQ community.
Borrowing both from Donald Trump and a century of fascist movements, Patriot Front isn’t concerned with electoral politics or respectability — it is anti-war, anti-corporate; but also racist, misogynistic, and anti-Queer. Exactly what they advertise on the tin.
The group paid its bail just hours after their arrest. Their social media channels lit up not long after, posting footage of the arrest underneath layers of stylized filters.
“Risk comes with the territory of being a revolutionary,” Thomas Rousseau, leader of the group, said in an interview statement posted to an official Patriot Front Telegram channel, over images of a drag queen performing. In his typical overwrought attempt at being an orator, Rousseau rambled on about “drag things, pedophiles, crooked police, and lying media.”
Today, Patriot Front is right back to holding training camps and skulking around the country spray-painting stencils onto bridges and overpasses — their preferred mode of communication.
They may have been stopped from disrupting that one Idaho Pride event, but we are likely just beginning to witness an alarming rise in anti-LGBTQ backlash. It has been years in the making, and borrows from a century of terrifyingly effective efforts to dehumanize Queer people. Patriot Front are just the brownshirts for an emerging political, media, and cultural push to target the Queer community.
The only remedy for this is to stop pretending like there is a valid discussion to be had, and instead start calling out all this stuff — the “groomers” discourse, demonization of drag, attacks on trans people — for what it is.
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1977 felt like a huge year for the Queer cause. In the near-decade since the Stonewall riots, political reforms were finally coming.
Canada had decriminalized homosexuality in 1969, with the majority of the United States following suit through the 1970s. Cities began implementing anti-discrimination ordinances, which forbade Queer people from being denied employment, fired, or refused housing or other services based on their sexuality.
Homosexuality was hardly a fault line in national politics at the time. President Gerald Ford was not a lion for LGBTQ rights while president (he would become a vocal supporter decades later, however) but at the very least he did not use Queer civil rights as a wedge issue — owing, perhaps, to the fact that his life was saved by a gay man.
It was an orange juice pitchlady, Anita Bryant, who helped weaponize the much-feared gay agenda into a weapon. "Homosexuals cannot reproduce, so they must recruit,” she told her legion of fans, who viewed her as a Christian cultural icon.
And she started winning. Cities rolled back their anti-discrimination clauses, and cities shot down proposed new pro-gay laws. In 1977, her work led to the introduction of the Briggs Initiative in California — which forbade “public homosexual activity” in schools.
Bryant warned that homosexuals in the classroom would lead to teachers showing up “in drag.” A bumper sticker on her car read “there’s no human right to corrupt our children,” The Detroit News reported that year.
The Initiative would fail, but Bryant’s toxic campaign would live on — even as her career was sunk by dogged Queer activism. (Good luck trying to find a Screwdriver in any gay bar across America in those years.)
By the 1980s, evangelical hucksters like Jerry Falwell would crib her language: “Please remember, homosexuals don't reproduce! They recruit! And they are out after my children and your children,” private jet-owning Falwell wrote in a fundraising letter.
Junk science would emerge in the years that followed, claiming to prove that gay men were more susceptible to pedophilia. It was roundly discredited as hate masquerading as research by every expert body, but the belief continued on.
The HIV/AIDS crisis would reframe the anti-gay crusade, and light a new fire under Queer activism. The following decades were a tough, often uneven, ride towards legislative protections and social acceptance.
But that pernicious idea that Queer people were a toxic influence on children was, frankly, never fully dispatched. While it became politically toxic to espouse the idea publicly, it continued to bubble under the surface.
Not even Donald Trump’s rise released that pandora’s box of homophobia. If you can say one thing about the former president, it’s that he knew how to attract unlikely allies — and through his presidential run, he welcomed in all manner of gays, lesbians, and even trans advocates like Caitlyn Jenner. So long as they were onboard with his other nationalist policies, of course.
Through his administration, Trump hacked away at the critical protections for the trans community, exactly as Queer people predicted he would. We also saw the rise of intellectual charlatans like Ben Shapiro and Jordan B. Peterson, steeped anti-trans agitating in pseudo-academic bullshit.
By the time Trump left the White House, trans rights had been set back years — which was just fine for many of white cisgender gay men, like faux-progressive-turned-MAGA-influencer Dave Rubin, a gay man who seemed pretty sure the leopards would never come to eat his face. The full-scale culture war had not yet emerged.
That’s changed over the last year. While you were sleeping, the attack on trans youth has exploded into a full-frontal assault on the broader Queer community. Florida has essentially codified Bryant’s long-failed initiative into law, with its ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill; Alabama has made providing trans healthcare to youth an actual felony; and there are a litany of other laws winding their way through legislatures across the country. More anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in the United States in the six months of 2022 than in any other year in history, and it’s not just in the Southern states.
So why now?
While this problem has absolutely been driven by years of media and politicians pretending like the fight to deny healthcare to trans youth was a good faith argument, informed by good medical advice — when it was, we know now, a trojan horse underpinned by junk science — it’s also impossible to ignore the rise in the “groomer” attacks as a motivating factor.
Piggybacking on an absolutely deranged crusade against Critical Race Theory in classrooms, right-wing activists managed to insert baseless fears around trans people and drag queens into heated grassroots fights with school administrators.
The Libs of Tiktok Twitter account has been hugely influential in this respect. The account has relentlessly targeted drag queens and trans people doing outreach to children, portraying all drag as inherently sexual. (While drag queens love a double entendre, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that drag performances for youth are pretty PG.)
“We have a serious groomer teacher problem in this country,” the account tweeted in April.
While this nonsense is literally indistinguishable from Anita Bryant’s Christian moralizing, it has a built-up delivery vehicle she didn’t have: QAnon.
While it would be wrong to say that QAnon is the driving force behind the groomer discourse, it certainly doesn’t hurt. QAnon sprung out of an unhinged belief in international child sex trafficking networks run by Democrats. The idea that Democrats are using drag queens to groom children fits neatly into that worldview.
Long before an anti-Disney crusade was launched earlier this year, alleging that the megacorp was intent on grooming children into a life of depravity by, uh, depicting Queer people in cartoons, QAnon was all over it.
In 2019, the QAnon boards lit up around the idea that Disney’s “Puppy Dog Pals” was grooming children into sex trafficking. (Apparently anyone heading to the dog groomers should think twice.) Others had done a deep dive into Beauty and the Beast to conclude….frankly, I’m not entire surely.
Suffice it to say, the “groomer” language was rife on the QAnon boards for years, as they tried to connect any and every non-MAGA figure to Jeffrey Epstein and the secret satanist deep state cabal.
What we’ve learned well in recent years is that QAnon is an incredible focus group for vile messaging.
As politicians like Florida’s Ron DeSantis moved to eradicate mention of Queer people in schools and to withhold healthcare from trans people, right-wing influencers grabbed the QAnon-approved messaging and ran with it.
When DeSantis introduced the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, one Catholic magazine proclaimed he was “Smoking Out the Groomers.” Newsmax host Benny Johnson simply rebranded the legislation an “anti-groomer bill.”
Wily online hucksters have glommed onto this movement, too. Milo Yiannopoulos, once an out and proud anti-immigrant influencer for Donald Trump, recently claimed to have successfully gone through conversion “therapy” and is now living as a happy straight man. (With his boyfriend being downgraded to a roommate, he told his social media followers.)
To prove his straight credentials, Yiannopoulos (who, recall, was driven out of the right-wing ecosystem after making some comments that many construed as being pro-grooming, essentially) began calling for other out gay right-wing broadcasters to be killed. “Dave Rubin is why I support the death penalty for unrepentant sodomites,” he posted on Telegram earlier this year. (Leopards, face, etc.) Yiannopoulos is now an intern with completely unglued Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor-Greene.
One particular video, posted to Twitter by far-right agitator Andy Ngo, shows a man disrupting a drag queen story time for children and loudly hurling slurs, throwing a temper tantrum, and asking “who brought the pedophile?” That video racked up over 600,000 views on Twitter alone, and spread like wildfire on far-right social media channels. A whole genre of videos confronting drag queens have begun springing up, with far-right yahoos looking to boost their clout at the expense of both drag queens and the children who are sitting there and enjoying the show.
This has already broke well free of America. Pride events have been targeted in Canada, and the idea that parents who support drag queen story hour should be “investigated” has found its way onto British TV.
Historically, this kind of cultural backlash feeds directly into violence. Amid a debate about trans peoples’ very existence, 2021 became the deadliest year on record for violence against trans and gender non-conforming people. This year is shaping up to be just as bad.
With Friday’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, a litany of anti-Queer groups will be emboldened to take aim at protections for Queer people, trans folks in particular. With that will come renewed anti-Queer organizing. Except that to dovetail with a bitter Republican primary season.
In other words, we are only seeing the beginning of this anti-Queer backlash.
It is about to get really, really ugly.
Happy pride, I guess.