Repressive social backlash and extreme anti-LGBTQ sentiment are complicating Pride celebrations in the US this year, even potentially inciting violence against queer people and gatherings meant to celebrate the LGBTQ community.
Though LGBTQ people and by extension Pride have won important rights and gained fairly widespread acceptance in US political and social life in recent decades, right-wing politicians, religious leaders, and talking heads are creating a renewed environment of animosity and uneasiness for queer people throughout the country.
In Los Angeles, an ostensibly liberal city with a large LGBTQ community, the Los Angeles Dodgers disinvited — and then re-invited — the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to a June 16 event honoring the group for its activism after complaints from conservatives. The SPI is an activist group and nonprofit that accepts members of all identities and backgrounds to raise money for LGBTQ causes. In Florida, the cities of Port St. Lucie and St. Cloud canceled Pride events due to uneasiness and fear in the wake of anti-LGBTQ bills signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. In Fayetteville, Arkansas’ queer mecca, Northwest Arkansas Equality canceled events at the Walton Arts Center due to its ban on drag performances in front of minors.
The status of multiple Tennessee pride events was uncertain after that state passed a vaguely-worded bill— widely understood to be targeting drag performances — limiting “adult cabaret” shows in March. Events in both Knoxville and Murfreesboro seemed to be on track despite earlier concerns. Organizers of both events did not respond to Vox’s request for comment by press time. And previous reports of Tampa’s Pride festivities being canceled may actually have more to do with the management and finances of the group running those events than a climate of fear in Florida, according to reporting from Axios.
Regardless, the number of anti-LGBTQ laws passed over the last year combined with growing anti-LGBTQ antagonism and very real threats of violence mark an alarming shift away from equality and inclusion.
The legislation of hate and threats to safety from extremist groups
In the past year, several states have passed bills targeting medical care for trans youth, teaching LGBTQ history or discussing queer sexuality in public schools, and restricting drag performances, causing confusion and fear for queer people throughout the country.
Florida and Arkansas have both passed laws targeting LGBTQ people, including prohibitions on discussing gender and sexuality for certain age groups in public schools. Florida’s legislation made headlines as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and was recently expanded to prohibit discussion of LGBTQ sexuality in all grades, not just through third grade. Florida, like Tennesee, has passed a bill limiting drag performances, though restaurant chain Hamburger Mary’s is suing the state to block the law, saying it infringes on the First Amendment.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders also jumped on the anti-drag bandwagon shortly after she started her tenure in January, endorsing legislation to classify drag as “adult-oriented performance.” “I think we have to do everything — I’ve been very clear and talked about this pretty extensively — to protect children,” Sanders said in a January interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “I think that’s what this bill does.”
Furor over drag performances — and the fear that such expression will somehow harm children — seems to have originated with drag story hours held at libraries across the country since 2015. Even in New York City, where the nonprofit Drag Story Hour is located and which has long been a nexus of queer activism, performance, and acceptance, protesters recently disrupted a story hour event hosted by New York Attorney General Letitia James, just blocks away from the Stonewall Inn.
The theme of “protecting children” runs through anti-LGBTQ legislation and rhetoric, as Vox’s Nicole Narea and Fabiola Cineas reported in April.
It’s become a means of proving conservative bona fides to GOP primary voters, including right-wing evangelicals, and it’s coming from the top down: Former President Trump announced earlier this year that, if reelected, he would “stop” gender-affirming care for minors, which he said was “child abuse” and “child sexual mutilation.” He also said he would bar federal agencies from working to “promote the concept of sex and gender transition at any age.”
As Narea and Cineas point out, several states have already approved anti-trans legislation. DeSantis earlier this month signed a bill prohibiting gender-affirming medical care for trans youth, and Sanders signed a bill in March making it easier to file a malpractice suit against medical providers giving gender-affirming care to trans kids. That’s in addition to a law already on the books banning hormone treatment, gender-affirming surgery, or hormone blockers for trans youth, which is currently being held up in court. Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Texas, Oklahoma, and Alabama are among the states seeking to limit care for trans youth or restrict trans people’s ability to participate meaningfully in society, whether that’s through so-called bathroom bills, bans on trans athletes, or making it difficult for people to change their sex on official documents.
There’s also the very real possibility of violence against queer people this Pride; as Insider reporter earlier this month, the extremist group the Proud Boys has pledged to hold its largest-ever anti-LGBTQ “Proud” events this year. The “Western chauvinist” group has interrupted and protested at drag story hours in the past, and although their specific plans reported by Insider haven’t thus far included plans for violence, the group is known for inciting chaos and fighting at its events.
“I don’t see how we don’t end up having more violence next month,” Heidi Bierich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, told Insider. “It’s frankly getting a little out of control.”
Anti-LGBTQ sentiment evokes Pride’s roots in activism
The present milieu has set back progress for queer people all over the country, not just in states that have passed anti-LGBTQ legislation. Violence against queer people — whether that’s via legislation, social exclusion, or outright brutality — has never stopped in the US. As LGBTQ people won rights and recognition through collective action and protest, such violence became less socially acceptable.
But as the right has leveraged anti-LGBTQ backlash as an electoral strategy, the risk that queer people will be even more of a target for violence than they already are increases.
The concept of stochastic terror — that violent rhetoric and communication by influential people allow their followers to see violence as a viable political tactic, even without explicit instruction, thereby increasing the chances that at least some people will commit targeted violence — echoes Bierich’s concerns leading up to Pride month.
The risk has already borne out in recent months; in November, a man entered Colorado Springs’ Club Q and opened fire, killing five people and wounding 17 at a drag queen’s birthday party. He has since been charged with hate crimes.
On a consumer level, institutions like Target, Anheuser-Busch, and the Dodgers have responded to criticism and threats from conservatives by walking back pro-LGBTQ products and statements, rather than standing in solidarity with a marginalized community. Target said its employees faced harassment over Pride merchandise, specifically a “tuck-friendly” swimsuit intended for trans adults, thus its decision to pull some products from its shelves.
The anti-LGBTQ atmosphere brings into focus the real history of Pride — as a celebration, but also as a protest. Though politicians, celebrities, and corporations have adopted the rhetoric of allyship in recent years, acceptance and visibility blunted the necessity of activism. AIDS is no longer a death sentence with proper treatment, and gay marriage is the law of the land. RuPaul’s Drag Race has found international success, and huge corporations sponsor floats at Pride parades in major cities; socially and politically, queer people have largely become part of the fabric of American life.
But despite massive progress in the decades since Pride officially started in 1970, life for many queer people in the US is still dangerous and difficult. The high rates of homicide, violence, and harassment against trans people, and particularly trans people of color is just one critical issue facing the LGBTQ community; with the proliferation of anti-LGBTQ legislation and the right’s ability to stoke anti-LGBTQ sentiment for political gain, the threat to the queer community increases.