In Florida, a political fight ignited over the state’s treatment of LGBTQ+ people in the wake of an organized hate campaign. LGBTQ+ people who have the audacity to ask for equality are met with ugly slurs and angry crowds. Their opponents are anti-LGBTQ+ Floridians who claim they are fighting to protect children and families, but who don’t bother to mask their utter contempt for the LGBTQ+ community — which includes children and families.
If this fight looks and feels familiar, it’s because this anti-queer narrative has been on repeat in Florida for decades. In 1977, the “Save Our Children” campaign formed to oppose a newly established ordinance in Dade County, Florida, that banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The ban was repealed soon thereafter but restored in 1998 thanks to increased engagement by and solidary for LGBTQ+ people. The county also added gender identity to its non-discrimination ordinance in 2014.
This year, as Florida’s heinous “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” law inspires bigotry nationwide, we see signs everywhere of a concerted effort to revive the bad old days before LGBTQ+ people were accepted in mainstream society. In an effort to combat this dangerous trend, the Human Rights Campaign opposed over 340 anti-LGBTQ+ bills in state legislatures this year.
Much of the general public still remains unfamiliar with the transgender community. A report from the HRC Foundation found that only a quarter of people surveyed saw any news or media coverage about transgender people in the prior week. A 2022 study from Pew Research found that little more than four in ten (44%) American adults know someone who identifies as transgender, and a fifth (20%) know someone who identifies as non-binary. A 2022 poll by Morning Consult and The Trevor Project ￼ found even lower levels of social connection, reporting that fewer than 1 in 3 adults (29%) personally know someone who is transgender and only 17% know someone who is non-binary, compared to two thirds of adults who know someone who is gay or lesbian and nearly half of adults who know someone who is bisexual. This has created an environment ripe for disinformation meant to shove us back into the closet.
The attacks on our community are designed to disorient, but it is important to take stock of the damage in order to assess the future of our movement. 2022 started with attacks on trans girls participating in sports. Since then, we’ve seen the rapid increase of extremist positions targeting all of the LGBTQ+ community and our allies. We’ve seen a revival of bathroom bills like North Carolina’s infamous HB2, and bans on LGBTQ+ inclusive education and books modeled after Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay and Trans Bill.” We have also seen bans on gender-affirming care for minors and the continued weaponization of child protective services against LGBTQ+ affirming families. In Florida, Governor DeSantis’ administration, in conjunction with the Florida health department, has circumnavigated the legislative process entirely, rewriting state Medicaid policy to no longer allow Medicaid coverage for gender-affirming care for both youth and adults.
Against this backdrop, we have seen an escalation in anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric — false claims like the “groomer” narrative that have proliferated across social media. Such bigoted stereotypes are not new and, as in the past, they are being revived today in order to hijack discussions about the pressing need for equal rights for LGBTQ+ people. The end goal from the right-wing and anti-LGBTQ+ movement is to rile up support for their causes (and political party) through fear-mongering, gaslighting, and lying to the public. Think campaigns have cynically adopted the language and rhetoric of equality (e.g., ‘saving women’s sports’) to justify legislation that seeks to ban transgender kids from playing sports with their friends; more extreme approaches manipulate the public into believing supporting anti-LGBTQ+ bills is the right thing to do because it will “protect" their children from "groomers" and "woke indoctrination." By hiding their bigotry in the language of “reasonable concerns,” anti-equality forces try to fool the public into believing their views are moderate — even when they are anything but.
One of the latest attacks is a series of proposed laws that would ban kids from events with drag performers. These proposed bans hark back to anti-cross dressing laws — vicious attacks on any gender non-conforming expression under the guise of enforcing public decency. It’s an attempt to revive the same type of law that led to the Stonewall riots, one of the LGBTQ+ movement’s foundational events.
Beyond the immediate impact of these discriminatory laws, these attacks have created an atmosphere of hostility toward the LGBTQ+ community that has led to real danger. In Idaho, a pride festival was targeted in June of this year by dozens of armed extremists seeking to terrorize our community. Legislative proposals against drag have been met with hostile interruptions on drag story hours — fun, welcoming events for children and families that turn frightening. At the same time, mass media inadvertently (or, at times, explicitly) contributes to the risk of these attacks when it presents these extremist positions as a valid side in a debate against our civil rights. A recent study from ACLED, a global conflict-monitoring group, found that anti-LGBT+ mobilization, quadrupled in the United States between 2020 and 2021 (from 15 to 61 incidents). 2022 is on track to emerge as the worst year on record, with 33 incidents occurring as of the year’s midpoint, “as right-wing politicians and media outlets have mainstreamed the use of increasingly inflammatory rhetoric against the LGBTQ+ community in the United States."
These relentless attacks represent a desperate grasp for power by a rapidly shrinking coalition in fear of its own obsolescence. The American public’s support for LGBTQ+ non-discrimination protections is the highest it’s ever been, with nearly eight in 10 Americans supporting laws that would protect LGBTQ+ people against discrimination in jobs, public accommodations and housing. The 2021 General Social Survey found that only 15% of Americans believe books with LGBTQ+ content should be removed from public libraries. A recent Gallup poll found that support for gay marriage has grown by over 10% since it was legalized nationwide in 2015. Attempts by anti-equality forces to gain control are brutal and painful, but even the strictest authoritarian can’t force someone to believe something that goes against their values. A person’s heart and mind remain forever their own, and that remains our strongest asset. Despite their best efforts, anti-equality forces are failing to convince the majority of the public to embrace their views.
While we must remain ever- vigilant of authoritarians in our midst, we must also remember that our opponents are panicking. Attacks on LGBTQ+ rights are an attempt to control a future that they know is rapidly slipping out of their hands.
Opponents of LGBTQ+ equality don’t want to see happy LGBTQ+ people. They don’t want to see beautiful, thriving LGBTQ+ people. That’s because our visibility inspires the next generation of our community to know that they can find safety and belonging. So long as we keep the fire of hope alive in each of our hearts, our community will survive even the most ferocious assaults on our rights and safety. We have done so before, and we will do so now.