This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
Threats to our humanity, and to our democracy, come in many forms. The possibility of nuclear destruction, the natural or non-natural spread of biological toxins, and environmental threats to our planet are all existential threats to our country’s future. Now we must put the extreme radical right in the same category. Americans are increasingly turning on one another, a serious problem I have often discussed in the classroom with my graduate students and in public writing. No one understands this reality better than the communities who have been targeted by the resurgent right, which has, especially in recent years, focused its ire on LGBTQ+ Americans.
The anniversary of January 6 just passed us. It will be remembered as a clarifying moment, when the right’s most violent extremists joined together with MAGA die-hards to storm the Capitol to achieve a political end through violence. They were unsuccessful, but make no mistake: This movement did not leave with Trump’s unwilling departure from office, and the interplay between violence and politics continues to hang over our democracy. While January 6 occurred over the course of one day, every day someone in the LGBTQ+ community faces discrimination, protests, or, increasingly, violence.
In 2022, the number of anti-LGBTQ+ protests tripled, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. The rise accounted for much of the increase in U.S. far-right activity measured by the group that year. Such protests did not abate throughout 2023, either, or in these first weeks of 2024. NPR reported in June that Los Angeles-area school board meetings on inclusivity issues had prompted protests that at times turned violent; the New York Times reported in November that a far-right hate group intended to protest the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade because of the inclusion of nonbinary Broadway performers. These public displays of hate attract attention, but they are the tip of an iceberg: More than 36,000 people signed, at the urging of an extremist group, a petition to protest the Macy’s parade because “it will expose tens of millions of viewers at home to the liberal LGBTQ+ agenda.” While protests and petitions are forms of free speech and are protected by the 1st Amendment, the intent behind these types of activities are to stifle the freedoms of the LGBTQ+ community. The intent, simply put, is to force the LGBTQ+ community into hiding.
The same sort of us-versus-them, anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric has increasingly saturated Republican politics, and become common among members of Congress — including the recently elevated Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson. Johnson’s views on the LGBTQ+ community are menacing, and go back decades. In 2005, Johnson said, “if someone’s trapped in a homosexual lifestyle, it’s dangerous.” Simply put, Johnson’s rhetoric encourages his audience to see LGBTQ+ individuals as a threat, and can have the unintended effect of normalizing violence. Johnson’s op-eds have gone so far as to cast LGBTQ+ individuals as an existential threat to America, saying that “homosexuality will destroy the democratic system.” This is the language of othering — designed to stoke fears and foster behavior that motivates people to action. Johnson has never disavowed his antiquated and dangerous views, despite his new job in the presidential line of succession.
Data behind the rising tide of anti-LGBTQ+ hate in America shows it’s not just exemplified by protests and political rhetoric. Violent acts against LGBTQ+ people have also significantly increased. Last year, in California, a woman was shot and killed because she displayed a gay pride flag. Nearly one year prior, on November 19, 2022, an individual, using an AR-15 style assault rifle, opened fire on people at an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado Springs, killing five and injuring 17. These incidents are not outliers. Indeed, reports released by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) found that there has been a significant rise in violence against the LGBTQ+ community in 2023.
The ADL reported that there were 350 incidents of harassment against the LGBTQ+ community between June 2022 and April 2023, and further explained that the uptick coincided with an increase in rhetoric and legislation aimed at demonizing the LGBTQ+ community. For example, failed Republican presidential candidate and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis spearheaded an initiative to revoke special business privileges to Disney because it would not comply with DeSantis’s “Don’s Say Gay” law that is aimed at prohibiting discussion on sexual orientation and gender identity. At the same time, we’ve seen extremist groups like Moms for Liberty vilify the LGBTQ+ community, taking the fight full throttle at public schools throughout the country. In Oklahoma, the recent appointment to an Education Department advisory committee of a right-wing firebrand and LGBTQ+ hating book banner, Chaya Raichik of “Libs of TikTok,” is a case study of the GOP’s efforts to exert control over education. These politicians and activists, either explicitly or tacitly, through true belief or cynical political calculation, normalize the wrongdoing of violent right-wing actors who are trying to dehumanize and erase LGBTQ+ Americans, our neighbors and friends, from our streets, schools, stores, and country.
Like many right-wing causes, the growing movement against LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. isn’t really a coherent one. But there is a synergy between anti-LGBTQ+ politicians, activist groups, and fringe, violent extremists that is intensifying and may become a movement that will be difficult to confront and stop. The forthcoming 2024 election cycle and recent developments at the House of Representatives, such as the rise of a little-known political figure, Johnson, to the position of speaker of the house, are combustible ingredients that will raise threat-levels for all of us in this country, especially those in the LGBTQ+ community.
Very simply, the very extreme right in America poses an existential threat to the LGBTQ+ community, and to our democracy. Threats to the LGTBQ+ community are diffuse and varied, but they are united in one thing — blinded hatred. Politicians who traffic in the same rhetoric are playing with fire. Lawmakers at every level — federal, state, and local — need to recognize this and finally push back against the ugly tide of othering that truly threatens the tapestry of free expression and individuality, a right that every citizen should be able to peacefully enjoy.
Some threats we have no control over, like natural disasters; however, some, like voting for candidates who can make change to protect our humanity, we can control. Whatever hurts our LGBTQ+ communities hurts all of us. The 2024 elections can be the start of making positive changes to the leadership in Congress where we can replace othering with belonging while respecting and supporting our differences.