In state legislatures across the US, Republicans have been pushing a suite of anti-LGBTQ laws with concerted speed in recent months. From Texas to Florida, Alabama to Utah, lawmakers have targeted trans people in youth sports, medical care for trans children, and LGBTQ discussion in classrooms.
For those fighting against these laws, the onslaught has been overwhelming.
“It feels relentless and never-ending at this moment, which I haven’t felt in quite some time,” said Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas. “It feels like we’re being attacked from many places. It feels like we’re being erased, or people are trying to erase us from schools.”
But these LGBTQ advocates are also clear-eyed when it comes to the political strategy they’re up against — one that centers on classrooms. Schools have been the subject of intense political fights since the start of the pandemic as angry parents vented about masks or vaccines at once sleepy school board meetings. Conservative strategists then weaponized that anger in nonsense fights over critical race theory, leading to school board elections that were suddenly fiercely partisan. Now, LGBTQ activists say, the same playbook is being used yet again.
“Folks have learned about what was most effective from previous cycles,” said Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, executive director of GLSEN, a national group advocating for LGBTQ students. “They’ve taken those little bits of what had been successful and gained traction, and they’ve pumped it full of steroids and they’ve unleashed it on all of us.”
“It’s a classic case of ‘We’ll throw this at the wall and see if it sticks.’ And when they do, they’re gonna run with it and they’re gonna keep going,” said Allison Scott, the director of impact and innovation at the Campaign for Southern Equality. “And they found that going after LGBTQ children and schools is something that they can make stick.”
Adam Polaski, CSE’s communications director, said the pandemic had served as a “throughline” or connecting theme in right-wing strategy, particularly when it comes to “activating” parents who attend school board meetings and hear discussions about curriculum that they also object to.
“You’re there to complain about the pandemic and complain about school closures or whatever…but you have this extreme and very engaged group of people who go and then they get activated on all the other issues too,” Polaski said.
Right-wing activists have been open about how influential schools and board meetings have been in engaging parents on issues beyond the pandemic. In an interview with BuzzFeed News last year, Sherronna Bishop, a right-wing activist in Colorado who previously served as campaign manager for Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert, also said that listening in on their children’s remote learning had shocked many parents.
“We started seeing what curriculum they were learning, we started hearing the lessons that were being taught to them, and we started realizing that we don’t really align with a lot of what’s being taught to them,” Bishop said.
Tim Miller, a gay man who served as communications director for Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential bid before quitting the Republican party in 2020, said his old colleagues on the right were energized and inspired by Glenn Youngkin’s successful bid for the Virginia governorship last year on a campaign that emphasized parental sway over schools and curriculum.
“They see school and this frame of ‘We’re going to protect children from all this liberal propaganda that's being pushed in schools’ as a winning message,” Miller said. “And so it all kind of ties together: the COVID school closings, the CRT hysteria, and now these ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bills.”
In at least one state, the link between CRT and anti-LGBTQ policies is quite literal. Ohio House Bill 616 is overwhelmingly concerned with banning CRT and the 1619 Project in schools, but also sandwiches in restrictions on teachings about sexual orientation and gender identity.
“[Republicans] have been, as a strategic matter, pretty good at tying this all together, and having it support that broader message that they're looking at protecting kids. It’s preposterous, but I think that message is working,” Miller said. “And I think that’s why the gays just kind of got sucked up in this.”
As part of this recent legislative push, transgender Americans have come under the most intense assault — and the pace is quickening. In 2020, there were 79 bills introduced in state houses that targeted trans people, according to Cathryn Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign. Last year, that number jumped to 150 bills.
“This year, we’re at about 140 — and it’s just April,” Oakley said. “This will be the most anti-transgender legislative session of all time in the state legislatures.”
Polaski, with the CSE, said the number and nature of states going after LGBTQ people has also surprised him.
“It almost feels like the shift this year has been that some states where folks are like, ‘Oh, but they wouldn't pass anything anti-LGBT’ suddenly are,” said Polaski, pointing to Florida and its gay-friendly cities like Miami, Orlando, and Tampa. “It’s waking people up into the idea that, ‘Oh, the anti-LGBT sentiment hasn’t gone away.’”
What feels different for Oakley now is that she thinks her opponents have abandoned any pretense that their laws are designed to protect people, as they did by spreading the myth about trans women being predators in bathrooms.
“They crossed a line several years ago, but they have just crossed another line somehow,” Oakley said. “They’re no longer trying to mask the cruelty that is motivating them. They’ve stopped trying to pretend that they’re doing anything other than coming after LGBTQ people because they don’t like us.”
Things are certainly getting uglier. Suddenly, gays are again being equated to pedophiles, a disgusting trope that was revived when Christina Pushaw, press secretary to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, wrote on Twitter last month that his Parental Rights in Education Act was an “Anti-Grooming Bill.” The grooming term was suddenly everywhere, from Fox News to Congress.
Soon, people were arguing that merely being out as a teacher was a threat to children. “These are the people teaching your kids,” the right-wing Twitter account @LibsOfTikTok wrote to its 600,000 followers about a video of a fifth-grade teacher who told his class he was gay. “Any teacher who comes out to their students should be fired on the spot.”
The suggestion that gay people prey on children in order to “convert” them is not only a false claim but also a tired one that stretches back decades. The New York Times has dubbed it “vintage homophobia.” But much as the classroom strategy has been replicated and repackaged, so too have old anti-gay slurs.
“These are words that were used in the ’70s that were effective in messaging back then. I’m not surprised they’re being used now because a lot of the strategy is being replicated,” said Martinez, the Equality Texas CEO. “It’s meant to scare people. It’s meant to go back to the message of protection. You’re protecting someone from some scary bogeyman. It’s another fictitious moral emergency. It’s used to make people more afraid than they are right now.”
All of this is happening at a time when Americans’ support for LGBTQ people is at historic highs, but that context is important for understanding the aim behind this “nasty, drive-by homophobia,” Slate legal writer Mark Joseph Stern has argued.
“It seems to me that casual mockery of gay people and their families is on the rise among the conservative media figures whose job is to restore a cultural environment in which anti-gay legislation is deemed acceptable,” Stern said. “We are backsliding on gay rights with truly shocking speed.”
Both Miller and Oakley said they suspected that much of the ugliest rhetoric was directed at the Republican party’s die-hard fringes, as well as winking to believers of QAnon, the collective delusion that claims to be aimed at protecting children from secret sexual abuse by the powerful.
“If you incentivize making the most outrageous attacks on the libs,” Miller said, “and then a debate comes up where there’s discussion of grooming and pedophilia, obviously it’s going to be a popular attack for Republicans to use because their voters are rewarding them when they are as nasty and mean as possible to their perceived enemies.”
And while that may play well in the short term, it could backfire with the broader electorate.
“I think that by saying the quiet part out loud, they’ve abandoned any effort to sort of persuade a white suburban mom,” Oakley said. “I think it’s going to backfire because for lots of folks who maybe did have questions about what is fair for a 14-year-old trans girl who wants to play lacrosse — those people are going to be like, ‘Oh, the QAnon people are behind us? OK, maybe I’ll just not worry about this.’”
In the meantime, the five LGBTQ activists and organizers who spoke with BuzzFeed News for this story all stressed the critical need to educate people about LGBTQ issues and particularly what being transgender does and does not mean.
“Being gay is not contagious, being trans is not contagious, being nonbinary is not contagious,” Willingham-Jaggers of GLSEN said. “But what we are seeing legislatively is this assertion that ‘As a parent, I get to tell my child who to be,’ and that’s heartbreaking.” ●