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How the right’s defeats gave us the anti-LGBTQ moment

The American right is returning to its homophobic roots.

Protestors face off with their opposing opinions as they join crowds gathering outside a Glendale Unified School District meeting where parents and activists differ over teaching sexual identity to kids at Glendale Unified School District
Protestors outside a Glendale Unified School District meeting on teaching sexual identity to kids in Glendale, California on June 6, 2023.
Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times / Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Last week, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) sent a tweet criticizing a draconian new anti-LGBTQ law in Uganda. The law imposed strict criminal penalties for same-sex relations — including execution for “serial offenders” who commit “aggravated homosexuality.” Cruz, quite reasonably, condemned Uganda’s law as “grotesque and an abomination.”

Almost immediately, Cruz faced a wave of criticism from prominent conservative accounts with large followings.

“Unlike the lawmakers in Texas, the Uganda government recognizes that if you give an inch, the LGBTQ Mafia will take a mile,” wrote Lauren Witzke, the 2020 GOP Senate candidate in Delaware. “While you guys struggle to stop drag queens from twerking on the laps of toddlers, they stop it before it starts.”

The attacks on Cruz were a sign of the times for American conservatism, which is currently in the grips of a renewed and increasingly vicious anti-LGBTQ fervor.

In January, Donald Trump released a campaign video decrying “the left-wing gender insanity being pushed on our children.” He vowed that, in a second term, his administration would work to ban gender-affirming care for minors “in all 50 states,” officially recognize “male” and “female” as “assigned at birth” as the only genders, and reconfigure school curriculums to teach students “positive education about the nuclear family [and] the roles of mothers and fathers.”

Trump’s leading competitor for the 2024 nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has gone even further, making laws attacking LGBTQ inclusion, especially in schools, into a core plank of his “anti-woke” governing agenda. DeSantis’s campaign is part of a broader trend, with 2023 seeing a fresh wave of anti-trans legislation in Republican-controlled statehouses across the country — with over 530 bills proposed by late May, by one tally. Right-wing activists are leading boycotts against brands that celebrate LGBTQ identity and Pride month, like Target and Bud Light. Just this Tuesday, a school board meeting about teaching gender in Glendale, California, schools devolved into a fistfight.

Politically, the anti-LGBTQ turn may well turn out to be counterproductive for the right. Polling data suggests that the public, and especially younger generations, are becoming increasingly liberal on LGBTQ issues. The fact that conservatives are going after corporations like Disney, Anheuser-Busch, and Target — some of the biggest and most famous icons of mainstream America — indicates just how out of step they are with the country.

Yet it’s this reality, somewhat paradoxically, that might explain the resurgence in anti-LGBTQ politics: The cultural right is lashing out because it’s been losing for so long. Much as the rise of Donald Trump and the panic about “wokeness” began (primarily) in reaction to challenges to America’s racial hierarchy, so too has the return of anti-LGBTQ politics been a reaction to changing norms about sexuality and gender.

To a certain extent, anti-LGBTQ conservative intellectuals openly acknowledge that they are on the defensive. In their worldview, they are standing up for the “ordinary” American against an overwhelmingly progressive elite culture successfully imposing its own values on everyone else — a claim that implicitly rejects the idea that changing attitudes on sex and gender are moving from the bottom up rather than the top down.

But as we’ve seen in the renewed energy behind anti-LGBTQ politics and the raft of anti-trans bills in statehouses across the country, a rearguard backlash politics can still be powerful — mobilizing a committed minority in ways that have significant consequences for real people’s lives.

When liberals won the culture war over gay rights

In 2020, New York University sociologists Delia Baldassarri and Barum Park published an article with a provocative thesis: The “culture war” that once dominated American politics, centering on moral divides between religious conservatives and more secular liberals, was over. The liberals had won.

Using detailed data sets covering the years 1972 to 2016, Baldassarri and Park traced the evolution of public opinion on a large variety of policy questions. On most issues they examined — in areas like economics, race, immigration, and foreign policy — average public opinion stayed relatively static.

But on “moral” issues, like feminism or drug use, the picture was remarkably different. “Among all of the 37 moral issues under study, only for one issue, namely whether extramarital sex is wrong, was the proportion of liberal responses lower in 1972 compared to 2016,” they write. In virtually all of those 36 cases, the public shifted notably in the liberal direction (with the important exception of abortion, where opinion stayed static rather than trending left).

Nowhere was this trend clearer than on gay rights, where the authors found “by far the most pronounced opinion change we observe in the data.” (Note that their study did not include any surveys on trans issues, since there was no reliable data from most of the time period under examination.)

“In only two decades, more than a third of the population has changed its position on gay rights: the approval of gays’ right to adopt children rose by 48.8 percentage points between 1992 and 2016,” they write. “Gay marriage support grew from 12.4 percent in 1988 to 59.4 percent in 2016, a 47 percentage point difference.”

Looking beneath the hood, Baldassarri and Park uncovered an interesting partisan pattern in the moral issues data: On topic after topic, Democrats would become more progressive faster than Republicans, who would eventually start to catch up years later. What at first looked like a persistent partisan gap, akin to views on tax cuts and abortion, would eventually give way to bipartisan consensus.

Notably, the Republican shift on gay rights took off during arguably the most intense recent period of partisan conflict on the issue: the struggle over same-sex marriage in the George W. Bush presidency.

In the 2004 presidential election, legally codifying marriage as something between a man and a woman was a central plank of the Republican Party’s platform. Yet as that was happening, it appears rank-and-file Republicans were already shifting to the left on LGBTQ issues.

Demonstrators hold sign reading, “homosexual marriage is an act of terrorism” as they chant slogans against same-sex marriages at an anti-gay rally on May 18, 2004 in Los Angeles, California.
A protest against same-sex marriage in Los Angeles on May 18, 2004.
David McNew/Getty Images

These changes were too fast to be explained by older Republicans dying off and younger, more liberal ones taking their place. Instead, Baldassarri and Park suggest the best explanation is that many Americans genuinely changed their minds.

As the overall cultural environment became more liberal thanks to decades of LGBTQ activism, gays and lesbians around the country felt more comfortable coming out of the closet. The result is that more Republicans had personal contact with gay people, which in turn made them more sympathetic to LGBTQ equality. There is a wide body of literature supporting this so-called “contact hypothesis,” and Baldassarri and Park see it as central to the new bipartisan consensus on issues like same-sex marriage.

“At least in recent years, both Republicans and Democrats have similar probabilities of knowing someone in their close social circles who is gay or lesbian,” they write. “This may explain why Republicans have turned towards more progressive views so easily on these issues.”

How an anti-trans backlash reopened the queer culture war

On the right, the smartest voices have understood the basic contours of the new reality for quite some time.

In 2014, a year before the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was a constitutional right in Obergefell v. Hodges, the New York Times’s Ross Douthat wrote a column negotiating “the terms of our surrender” on same-sex marriage.

Seeing the debate on the matter as essentially lost, Douthat pleaded for magnanimity from the victorious left, hoping for a world where “religious conservatives would essentially be left to promote their view of wedlock within their own institutions, as a kind of dissenting subculture emphasizing gender differences and procreation, while the wider culture declares that love and commitment are enough to make a marriage.”

This view — we’ve lost the culture war, now let us be conservatives in peace — morphed into something like the mainstream right’s official position on LGBTQ issues after Obergefell. Rallying under the banner of religious liberty, the right championed causes like a Christian baker refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. What liberals called discrimination was, conservatives argued, actually an exercise of religious freedom.

Around the same time, some on the right even flirted with trying to build a kind of pro-gay conservatism akin to certain European far-right movements. During his 2016 Republican National Convention speech, Donald Trump tried to win over LGBTQ voters by touting his proposed ban on Muslim immigration: “I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.”

He also opposed a North Carolina law forcing people to use the bathroom that matches their sex assigned at birth and unfurled a Pride flag on stage at an October rally. The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman declared that “it is his views on gay rights and gay people that most distinguish Mr. Trump from previous Republican standard-bearers.”

Obviously, things have changed — both with Trump and with the right more broadly. The language of religious freedom has been muted, and pro-gay conservatism feels like (at best) a distant dream. Today, the right is defined by calls to stamp out “gender ideology,” panic about drag queen readings at public libraries, and accusations that LGBTQ activists are “grooming” kids for sexual abuse.

The difference between then and now is not that the religious right, the traditional source of anti-LGBTQ sentiment, has gotten more influential. If anything, the conservative base has moved in a slightly more secular direction. Between 2010 and 2020, the percentage of Republicans who belonged to a church declined by 10 points (from 75 to 65 percent).

Nor was this spearheaded by Trump’s presidency. Trump’s policy record on LGBTQ issues was — contrary to his pronouncements as a candidate — fairly hostile. But it wasn’t a major focus of his rhetoric in the way that race and immigration were. In fact, he once again attempted to reach out to LGBTQ voters in the 2020 campaign (with little success).

Understanding the right’s return to anti-LGBTQ politics instead requires understanding two things: the rise of trans identity and the emergence of a broader right-wing war on “wokeness.”

In 2014, Time magazine published a cover story on “the transgender tipping point”: the notion that trans people were finally “emerging from the margins” and demanding rights and public recognition. Today, the article feels quaint — but usefully so, in that it documents just how new the ideas of the trans movement are to many straight cisgender Americans.

In many ways, the notion that 2014 was a “tipping point” for trans equality feels overly optimistic. But there’s no doubt that there’s been significant progress since then as well.

In 2022, the journal Public Opinion Quarterly published an analysis by five scholars examining data on trans people and trans issues in the same way that Baldassarri and Park studied gay issues. Examining “feelings thermometer” data between 2002 and 2020, in which respondents were asked to rate how warmly they feel toward trans people, the researchers document a clear positive trend — with nearly all of the increase happening between 2015 and 2020:

Lewis et al./Public Opinion Quarterly

Drilling down on that period, they also find a generally pro-trans trend on specific issues. “Support for allowing transgender people to serve openly in the military has increased from 52–54 percent in 2015 to 76 percent in 2020, reflecting a change from a relatively divided public to near consensus by 2020,” they write.

That said, the public is still more divided on trans issues than on gay and lesbian ones. A 2022 Pew survey found that majorities of Americans say that whether one is a man or woman is determined by sex assigned at birth and oppose requiring that health insurance cover gender-affirmation care. A 2023 Washington Post/KFF poll found that a large majority supported anti-discrimination protections for trans individuals, but a (slightly smaller) majority also opposed trans women participating in women’s sports.

This is a climate rife for right-wing backlash.

The overall rapid trend toward trans inclusion and visibility generates the dual sense of vulnerability and threat that powers much of social conservative politics. And the fact that they are specific issues where the public is still seemingly on their side is seen as an opportunity by the anti-LGBTQ right to halt and even reverse the overall trend.

You can’t take the T out of LGBTQ

The backlash against the trans movement’s challenge to traditional ideas has radicalized the right more broadly on sex and gender — making the post-Obergefell “religious liberty” arguments feel almost as quaint as the Time essay. Today, the right has gone on offense against not only trans identity but LGBTQ inclusion more broadly, as seen in policies like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law or attacks on Kohl’s for selling a onesie with a Pride flag on it.

Matt Walsh, a Daily Wire podcast host and a leading advocate of boycotting LGBTQ-friendly companies, made that goal explicit in a recent tweet: “The goal is to make ‘pride’ toxic for brands. If they decide to shove this garbage in our face, they should know that they’ll pay a price. It won’t be worth whatever they think they’ll gain.”

This development grows out of the sense of loss that Douthat gestured at, and not only on LGBTQ issues.

In the past several years, the culture warrior right has developed a narrative of total isolation and cultural besiegement. From their point of view, the left controls the commanding heights of culture: the universities, Hollywood, the media, and even Fortune 500 companies. Increasingly, they claim, these institutions have been captured by a hostile “woke” ideology that won’t be happy with cultural detente — nothing less than stamping out conservative thinking on every cultural issue will do.

The Catholic conservative Sohrab Ahmari put this thinking clearly in a 2019 essay: “Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism.”

In this increasingly influential line of right-wing thought, any expression of left-wing cultural values in public life is an example of wokeness’s assault on conservative values. Those conservatives who never really reconciled themselves to defeat in the marriage war now point to the trans campaign for acceptance as proof that the slope was in fact slippery — and that if wokeness as a whole is not defeated, the result will be the destruction of everything conservatives hold dear.

This is why the backlash against the “T” in LGBTQ was bound to consume the other letters as well: Conservatives see the increased visibility of the queer movement in general as a threat to their survival. The LGBTQ movement started this culture war, in the conservative mind; the new backlash against Pride Month and “woke corporations” is simply a defensive action.

“Pride was never such a controversial thing when it was gay men and lesbians,” the prominent right-wing commentator Erick Erickson tweeted. “Sure, there were issues, but no major public backlash till Pride also meant celebrating people with mental health disorders who bully those who disagree with them.”

Erickson’s argument ignores both the right’s history of anti-Pride agitprop and the author’s own long record of homophobia. His tweet was widely mocked by Twitter liberals. But Erickson’s fellow conservatives thought he had a point.

Pride events “were more commonly ignored before the 1-2 punch of pervasive corporate propaganda with transgender politics,” writes National Review’s Dan McLaughlin. “15 years ago, the average American might associate gay pride events with a parade in the Village, not their employer, their church, and the State Department flying the rainbow flag.”

This fear of “woke” conquest of American institutions doesn’t just explain the motivation behind the right’s increasing anti-LGBTQ politics — it also explains their theory of victory.

In their view, left-wing beliefs about sex and gender are not deeply and authentically held by a majority of Americans. Instead, their rise is the result of manipulation by cultural gatekeepers — nefarious woke elites indoctrinating the country into thinking things that are immoral are not. If Middle America can be aroused from its slumber, the anti-woke right believes, America can return to a time where queer identity is rightly consigned to the shadows.

“Regular people care greatly about the society their children are inheriting. That’s a concern that cuts to [the] deepest part of their soul. They are terrified that their children will be destroyed by our degenerate culture,” as Walsh puts it.

Certainly, the boycott campaigns have had startling success in punishing corporations. And the anti-LGBTQ turn on the right has influenced the legislative agenda in Republican-controlled states like Florida, with significant consequences for real people’s lives.

But recent data suggests the broader goal of changing minds, of reversing grassroots support for LGBTQ inclusion, will be a much tougher lift.

An analysis of data on the 2022 midterms by Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, found that Republican candidates for statewide office who spent heavily on anti-trans campaign ads in 2022 underperformed those who focused on other issues. This is in part because trans issues were a low priority for the electorate compared to issues like inflation, crime, immigration, and abortion — classic areas of persistent partisan conflict.

And this is because progress on LGBTQ issues is not, at root, an artifact of a handful of progressive elites forcing their ideas on everyone else, but the result of incremental and bottom-up cultural change: individual LGBTQ people changing the minds of people in their own lives. Corporations like Bud Light are not pioneers working to impose “wokeness” on America: They are late movers responding to a new pro-LGBTQ consensus that’s reflected in their sales and marketing research.

A sign reading “Love Wins” at the Queens Pride Parade and Multicultural Festival on June 4, 2023.
A sign at the Queens Pride Parade and Multicultural Festival on June 4, 2023.
Theodore Parisienne/NY Daily News/Getty Images

A majority of Americans already believe that Republicans talk too much about “wokeness,” with some of the right’s hobbyhorses — like ESG, a kind of socially conscious investing practice — scarcely registering with the general public. When politicians like Ron DeSantis take up the banner, their language — peppered with anti-woke jargon about “gender ideology” and “ESG” — feels out of step with where the electorate is.

We find ourselves in a strange and worrying political moment, where one of our two political parties has become consumed by anti-LGBTQ fervor, even as signs point to that position’s weakness in our culture and politics. Extremism has become normalized, and not just in Ted Cruz’s comment section. At the March Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in DC, arguably the leading conservative movement event of the year, prominent anti-gay commentator Michael Knowles proclaimed that “transgenderism must be eradicated” — to sustained applause.

But as dangerous as this new anti-LGBTQ right is, there are real political costs to living in a fantasy world — one where LGBTQ inclusion is seen as the result of a plot against America rather than authentic social change. While the backlash has been ugly and troubling, and the harms real and consequential, the long history of public opinion on LGBTQ rights should give some reason to think the bill may come due for the GOP sooner rather than later.

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