On May 9, less than 24 hours after a leaked Supreme Court draft decision foreshadowed Roe v. Wade’s possible reversal, New Yorkers gathered in lower Manhattan’s Foley Square. One social media call to join the protest read: “Channel your rage into action.” Groups who protested included Planned Parenthood of Greater New York, Girls for Gender Equity, and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice.
Wayne Besen, founder of Truth Wins Out, an organization formed to fight anti-gay religious extremism, agrees it’s time to express rage. (Part of TWO’s mission is to close down destructive “gay conversion therapy” programs.) Besen is adamant that the LGBTQ community must join intersectionally with women to push back on Roe’s reversal. At its core, intersectionality, especially as used in terms of social protest, asserts that no form of oppression exists in isolation.
“It’s time for the queer community to use this year’s seasonal Pride venues to directly message on abortion issues and plan for the continuing and new attacks against the queer community,” Besen tells the Voice during a phone interview. “We are in the same boat as women who are about to be denied reproductive freedom. Our hard-won rights are next on the chopping block. If we don’t unite with allies and others being oppressed to form a winning coalition, we will be divided and conquered by a disciplined minority of zealots with a radical agenda.” Then he adds, emphatically, “The idea of partying during Pride season instead of organizing for political action is, quite frankly, insane. There is a time for fun and a time to fight. This moment calls for the latter. If Republicans can ban abortion without consequences, they will come for us very soon.”
The Voice spoke with both seasoned and newer activists about the multitude of threats to queer rights, including hundreds of proposed anti-queer laws, unprecedentedly violent trans deaths, the national influence of Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, book bans, and calls for our national TV rating system to include parental warnings on queer content. Clearly there’s been a shift in perspective on how Pride activism can push back on the avalanche of anti-gay legislation in play nationwide.
So far this year, state lawmakers across the country have proposed more than 200 bills eliminating or limiting LBGTQ citizens’ rights. That’s more than three a day, with about half specifically targeting transgender people, reports NBC News. Since 2018, 670 anti-queer bills have been filed, according to data tallied by the American Civil Liberties Union; nearly all of the country’s 50 state legislatures have debated at least one such bill.
New York, both state and city, stands in contrast to these developments. In April, Mayor Eric Adams partnered with private companies to erect digital billboards in Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa, and West Palm Beach, projected to deliver five million impressions over eight weeks. “This political showmanship of attempting to demonize a particular group or community is unacceptable, and we are going to loudly show our support and say to those living in Florida, ‘Listen, we want you here in New York,’” said Adams.
And on May 13, New York State Assemblymember Harry Bronson and New York State Senator Brad Hoylman introduced legislation characterized as a “trans refuge” bill, which would protect rights and access to care for transgender constituents (similar measures have been introduced in California and Minnesota). New York’s refuge bill continues the state’s pattern. In 2019, New York’s Human Rights Law was amended via the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), which explicitly added gender identity or expression as a protected category. In 2021, the Gender Recognition Act codified into law the ability of transgender, gender-nonconforming, nonbinary, and intersex New Yorkers to obtain and update government-issued identification documents to accurately reflect their gender identity.
But although New York has pulled ahead of much of the rest of the nation in embracing queer protections, Elisa Crespo, New Pride Agenda executive director, still worries. “We’re so tribal and divisive in our politics, it’s causing hate and harm to our community. It’s no longer a matter of celebrating during Pride month, we have work to do all year long,” she tells the Voice. “We must do more by codifying our rights and protections into budgets and laws,” reflecting NPA’s mission of advancing the health, economics, and racial and gender-identity justice of the most marginalized people.
A recent New York State budget allocation signed by Governor Kathy Hochul includes $12.5 million to support LGBTQ+ Health and Human Services Funding. Added to the allocation is an additional $1 million that will be directed to transgender- and nonbinary-serving organizations. “That’s a concrete example of creating systemic change with tax dollars to support it,” Crespo explains. “We may not always have friends in Albany or the city. We cannot slump back because our allies are in office. They may not always be there for us, which makes systemic and legislative change paramount.”
Sandra Pérez, Heritage of Pride executive director, tells the Voice that she took the job a little more than six months ago “because there is a real desire to move the city’s Pride presence and programming beyond a seasonal approach.” For Pérez, “Our call to arms is to cultivate new voices and to include the voices of the most marginalized.” With this year’s Pride season themed “Unapologetically Us,” Pérez stresses that it “can be as much about activating and educating people as well as remembering those who came before us.”
Truth Wins Out founder Wayne Besen is adamant that the LGBTQ community must join intersectionally with women to push back on Roe’s reversal.
Pérez reflects the alarm that has also been sounded by the Reclaim Pride Coalition, which will hold its 4th annual Queer Liberation March on June 26, at 2 p.m. In a statement, the RPC encourages marching to bring attention to “trans and BIPOC freedom, reproductive justice, and bodily autonomy,” noting the dangers to all rights inherent in a reversal of Roe v. Wade. “Now is the time for us all to fight together. If we don’t fight together, we’ll die together,” Janis Stacy, a trans-identified Native Two Spirit, said in a news release.
Reflecting on Roe’s anticipated reversal [today, June 24, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade] Pérez says, “Like abortion has been considered ‘settled law,’ the queer community has also considered many protections as settled. That may not be the case, with legal analysts cautioning that ‘body autonomy’ issues may generalize into an attack on all sexual minorities. For example, Melissa Murray, NYU law professor, told Vox: ‘Although Justice Alito insisted that the draft opinion’s antipathy for settled precedent was limited to abortion, the opinion was littered with casual references to Lawrence v. Texas, a 2003 decision decriminalizing same-sex sodomy; Obergefell v. Hodges, a 2015 decision legalizing same-sex marriage; Griswold v. Connecticut, a 1965 decision legalizing contraceptive use; and Loving v. Virginia, a 1967 decision legalizing interracial marriage.’” (One wonders, might Alito’s legal contortions eventually backfire to dissolve the interracial marriage of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Ginni Thomas?)
To encourage street-level activism, Heritage of Pride is offering two events this year. Both “The Conference,” on June 23, at New York Law School, and “The Rally,” on June 24, at The Battery at State Street and Battery Place, will explore queer human rights around the world and call for protest and action around politics and policies. Acknowledging that Pride events have evolved into a business model relying on corporate sponsorships, Pérez says, “We’ve asked sponsors to ask employees how they feel about what is happening to the LGBTQ community vis-a-vis Florida’s law.” Opening this kind of dialogue, she explains, “is a concrete way to address disparities in a corporation’s high Human Rights Campaign Equality Index rating and their PAC contributions to sitting elected officials and candidates who actively work against queer civil rights. We can hopefully ‘activate’ corporations to more clearly recognize that although they financially support Pride, they also simultaneously donate to elected officials working against us.” Pérez asks sponsors what they can do beyond Pride season to foster understanding, since many of those elected officials are on the front lines of anti-queer/anti-trans legislation nationwide—while trans deaths mount.
So far in 2022, 14 transgender people have been “fatally shot or killed by other violent means,” according to the Human Rights Campaign. In 2021, HRC identified 50 fatalities among a record number of violent incidents against transgender and gender-nonconforming people, up from 37 in 2020.
Against a backdrop of what started out as anti-trans laws related to bathrooms and sports, Pérez worries that many citizens are underestimating what lies ahead for all segments of the queer community. “This may have begun with Roe and abortion, but it’s clear now many other groups will be next. We need to be ready to act,” she says.
Proactive rather than reactive is Crespo’s stance in the face of alarmingly high trans deaths. “Hateful legislation like in Florida and elsewhere fuels violence across the country. It gives a green light to do harm,” she warns. New Pride Agenda promotes the involvement of trans people as front-line responders. The goal “is to directly involve transgender people in the creation, leadership, and ongoing stewardship of organizations, resources, and philanthropy around trans violence. For every $100 given to LGBTQ organizations, only 4 cents is directed to support trans efforts at forging change,” Crespo explains, citing data from Funders for LGBTQ Issues. Thus, the significance of specifically marked funds for transgender issues that is included in New York State’s budget. Further advancing trans rights and stakeholding is the Trans Equity Fund, now in committee in the New York Assembly. If passed, A9418A would codify into state law a statewide Transgender Wellness and Equity Fund. (The bill is patterned after California’s $13 million fund.)
Florida’s anti-gay law has unleashed 19 similar bills nationwide, according to the Movement Advancement Project. “It’s difficult not to worry about what may lie ahead,” veteran activist Ann Northrop tells the Voice. “If you’re a regular news consumer, you know that things are not well in the nation.” A former ABC and CBS news producer, Northrop joined ACT UP in 1988, facilitating their development of “sound bites” for street actions. “What’s happened here is that the queer community has been enormously successful in ways we may not even have imagined. So now it’s time for our opponents to drag out all the old tropes.” Noting how state-level bills would prohibit the way educators can talk about or teach LGBTQ issues in school, Northrop adds, “Sexuality is the proverbial hat on the stick of hate being waved around as an entry point into a full assault on democracy.”
Iowa music teacher Matthew Gerhold’s sexual identity was used against him when, in late May, Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” morphed into Iowa’s “Don’t Be Gay.” Gerhold was forced to resign after his sexual orientation was revealed through having his phone hacked and personal information posted about him on Facebook, reported the Iowa Capital Dispatch. In a hearing to determine Gerhold’s unemployment benefits, a judge noted that he was hired on the condition that his “sexuality needed to be kept a secret,” and that he would neither come out to students nor date while employed by the school.
But there was nothing secretive about Pastor Jonathan Shelley, of Stedfast Bible Church, in Texas, who in March said that gay people were “worthy of death” (which caused his church to be evicted from its building). In May, Shelley spoke at an Arlington, Texas, city council meeting about upcoming Pride celebrations, stating, “According to God we should hate pride, not celebrate it,” and adding that “God has already ruled that murder, adultery, witchcraft, rape, bestiality, and homosexuality are crimes worthy of capital punishment.”
And then there’s QAnon’s discredited Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which claimed that prominent Democratic Party members were engaged in a global child-trafficking ring, morphing into what The Nation called “a homophobic moral panic making the current Republican grooming smears a threat to the physical safety of LGBTQ people.” Josh Marshall, of Talking Points Memo, and Sarah Jones, of New York magazine, use the word “eliminationist” to describe this rhetoric. “These aren’t so much purported factual claims or even conspiracy theories,” Marshall argues. “They are libels designed specifically to stir elemental primal fears, render their targets so evil and threatening as to be less than fully human, and set the stage for mass violence against them.”
“The idea of partying during Pride season instead of organizing for political action is, quite frankly, insane. There is a time for fun and a time to fight.”
In August, violence was the experience of a gay 31-year-old Pompano Beach, Florida, man, who was allegedly ambushed, severely beaten, and left blinded by his boyfriend’s family, CBS News reported, because they believed he’d “turned” their son gay. “What’s old is new again, but has now moved from blocking rights to openly doing bodily harm, eliminating those who are different,” says Northrop.
On June 13, a group of Proud Boys disrupted a reading by Panda Dulce, a drag queen, during story hour at a library in San Lorenzo, California. The men shouted homophobic slurs at the performer, who has been taking part in the library’s Story Hour for five years. “It totally freaked out all of the kids. They got right in our faces. They jeered,” Dulce wrote on Instagram. Local police are investigating it as a hate crime.
Add to these dangers the GOP’s crusade to stigmatize LGBTQ themes on the small screen. Republican senators Mike Lee (Utah), Mike Braun (Indiana), Steve Daines (Montana), Roger Marshall (Kansas), and Kevin Cramer (North Dakota) have issued a letter to Charles Rivkin, chair of the TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board, requesting action to alert parents to “sexual orientation and gender identity content on children’s TV shows,” concluding, “… we expect the Board to fulfill its responsibility in updating the TV Parental Guidelines to reflect these concerns.”
Elsewhere, Virginia Republicans Timothy Anderson, a lawyer who serves in the House of Delegates, and Tommy Altman, a congressional candidate, have asked a court for restraining orders that would prevent private bookseller Barnes & Noble from selling two books: Gender Queer, a memoir about identifying as nonbinary and asexual, and a fantasy novel featuring LGBTQ characters, A Court of Mist and Fury, both of which they consider obscene. The requested restraining orders would also prohibit distribution of the two books by Virginia Beach City Public Schools, which voted last month to remove all copies of Gender Queer from its libraries. And insurance company State Farm has canceled a partnership with the GenderCool Project, which would have given LGBTQ books to schools, community centers, and libraries, after howls from extremists, according to LGBTQ Nation. Referring to the cancellation, the company said, “Conversations about gender and identity should happen at home with parents,” reflecting language used to support other anti-gay bills.
“The call for banning books and establishing TV ratings for programs with queer content is another attempt to discredit our community, to pathologize us and effectively institutionalize hatred against us,” says Northrop. “We now have school boards across the country simply trying to silence us.”
Regarding the onslaught of legislation repealing—or establishing blocks to—basic civil rights, longtime activist Sue Hyde tells the Voice, “It’s time for the very serious formation of coalitions around women’s reproductive rights, queer issues from all directions, and immigration.” Hyde has more than 20 years of experience with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and co-created, with the late Urvashi Vaid, the Creating Change Conference, which since 1988 has trained thousands of queer activists. With generic hatred of queers now snowballing into hybrid threats of media ratings, book bans, and school board declarations, Hyde observes, “I’m not very impressed with our national LGBTQ organizations.… There’s a lot on their plates, but there needs to be a better-coordinated effort among them to protect the rights of transgender children and adults, all of us.” Consider too that a new Morning Consult poll indicates that 40% of Republican adults believe that teachers can influence students’ sexuality and gender identity. Only 27% of Democrats and 29% of Independents agree.
If you still think the narrative of hate has little effect, consider Ethan Schmidt, a 24-year-old right-wing extremist who has announced that he will be “hunting” LGBTQ supporters around Phoenix, Arizona, during June—Pride month. In a Twitter-posted video, Schmidt explains that he plans on “exposing” the “Satanic Pride shrines for children” and the LGBTQ-supportive employees at Target retail stores. “So, Target, we’re just giving you a heads-up that we’re going to be coming after you hard…. This is going to be next-level stuff,” he warns, going on to say, “… if you support the LGBT agenda, you are not safe.”
Hyde emphasizes that the anticipated Roe decision is the “starter position” for opponents of queer civil rights: “Marriage equality and other established freedoms are what comes after contraceptive rights are destroyed,” she stresses, summarizing what’s going on now under the heading of “body autonomy.” Given the composition of the Supreme Court, Hyde believes, “If we don’t act now, our opponents will soon come knocking on our doors.” She recalls part of a speech Urvashi Vaid gave during a 1993 march on Washington: “The gay rights movement is not a party. It is not a lifestyle. It is not a hairstyle. It is not a fad or a fringe or a sickness. It is not about sin or salvation. The gay rights movement is an integral part of the American promise of freedom.” ❖
Frank Pizzoli is a journalist who has been covering politics, queer issues, healthcare, and literary celebrities for the past 25 years.
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