Following Sunday’s mass shooting at Pulse, an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, many progressives made a straightforward observation: If the gunman was not motivated directly by anti-gay activism, conservative Christian rhetoric around gay rights is both vicious and irresponsible—and the Orlando massacre could mark a moment for anti-gay advocates to reconsider the vitriol of their language. In response, and with tellingly defensive vigor, many conservatives rejected the notion that their rhetoric on LGBTQ rights might be reckless or dangerous. A statement by Matthew Franck, a National Review writer who has repeatedly compared same-sex marriage to slavery, is representative:
Christians who have resisted the redefinition of marriage, and who now want to be free to live what their faith teaches them is the truth about marriage, do not hate anyone, and legislation to protect their freedom is not “anti-LGBT” except in the minds of the intolerant enforcers of coerced conformity.
The thrust of Franck’s assertion—echoed by others—is that anti-LGBTQ have never done anything more than promote “traditional marriage,” and protect the belief that marriage is “a union of man and wife.”
Let us examine the recent historical record to ascertain the veracity of this claim. We will focus on Orlando, the scene of Sunday’s crime, and use as our anchor that city’s most famous and beloved icon: Walt Disney World.
Starting in 1991, Disney World drew annual anti-gay opprobrium as the theme park began to allow “Gay Days,” where gay people and their families set a date to enjoy the Magic Kingdom together. The first Gay Day lasted a single day and drew 3,000; it now lasts nearly a week and draws 150,000. Although not officially sanctioned by Disney, Gay Days earned the company the ire of conservative Christian groups, who denounced the event as a depraved celebration of sickness.
In 1996, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution excoriating Disney for “giving the appearance that the promotion of homosexuality is more important than its historic commitment to traditional family values.” The convention also denounced Disney for “establishing of an employee policy which accepts and embraces homosexual relationships for the purpose of insurance benefits.” It declared that Disney’s willingness to tolerate an independently organized gay and lesbian event was a “gratuitous insult to Christians.”
The convention’s boycott lasted eight years, and drew support from similar groups, including the American Family Association, the Catholic League, Catholics United for the Faith Inc., Citizens for a Better America, Concerned Women for America, and Free Will Baptists. Naturally, Focus on the Family—maybe the single most influential anti-gay group from the ’90s through the mid-aughts—jumped in as well.
“It has become clear that the Disney organization has utter disdain for those who hold traditional moral principles and conservative family values,” Focus on the Family President James Dobson declared. “Year after year, its leaders have insulted this large segment of the population by producing films, television and music that contradict cherished beliefs.” (Dobson is referring here to Disney’s production of My Best Friend’s Wedding, described by the American Family Association as gay propaganda and proof of “the entertainment industry’s open-armed embrace of the homosexual agenda.”)
“Focus on the Family now vigorously supports a boycott against anything that bears the Disney name and recommends that families,” Dobson continued, “especially those of the Christian faith, no longer trust or patronize their products and programming.” Dobson and his allies compiled a list of Disney movies to boycott, including 101 Dalmatians, Air Bud, and Bambi. Incidentally, the American Family Association promoted ex-gay conversion therapy in the same newsletter that announced the boycott.
The attacks on Disney and Gay Days have continued apace ever since. In 1998, televangelist Pat Robertson warned that Gay Days would cause hurricanes to descend upon Orlando, and that acceptance of homosexuality would bring about “terrorist bombs.” One month later, Robertson blamed Gay Days for the state’s massive wildfires that year. Robertson’s television show, 700 Club, still airs on ABC Family’s Freeform channel—which is owned by Disney.*
In 2008, the Christian Action Network, and anti-gay and anti-Muslim organization, launched its own campaign against Gay Days, calling the event an “orgy of depravity” and complaining that it was inappropriate for children to see “homosexuals kissing.” The theme park, CAN argued, should return to the days when it “enforced strict policies against homosexual behavior.” In 2012, the Florida Family Association hired three planes to fly banners reading “Warning: Gay Day at Disney 6/1.” The purpose of the planes, the FFA explained, was to ensure that children “were not exposed to this coming out sordid spectacle [sic].” In 2013, the notorious anti-gay group One Million Moms issued an statement regarding “Gay Days,” warning “unsuspecting families” that “homosexuals, bisexuals, and transvestites … with an agenda” planned “to expose and desensitize children to this lifestyle by same-sex couples holding hands, hugging, and kissing.”
And so on. Perhaps this rhetoric helps to explain why the Pulse gunman apparently considered Gay Days as an alternate target for mass slaughter.
It is critically important to note two things about the ongoing protests against Gay Days and Disney. First, the organizations behind the boycott—which today sound like batty loons on the fringe of conservatism—were completely mainstream in their day. There was, at the time, simply less societal pressure, as there is today, to dress up their anti-gay animus in neutral-sounding pabulum about “traditional marriage.” Second, many parents took these protests and boycotts seriously. Growing up in Florida, I knew of families that avoided Disney movies and theme parks specifically because of Gay Days. These parents’ actions sent a clear message to their children, some of whom turned out to be LGBTQ: Queer identity is so vile, so morally repulsive, that even supporting a gay-tolerant corporation is sinful.
Until very recently, the Christian right’s primary mode of attack on the LGBTQ community did not center around pleas for “traditional marriage.” It centered around cruel, ferocious attacks on our families and our identities, depicting us as debauched perverts and disgusting lechers. And once a year, the entire weight of this animus came crashing down on Orlando—just because a bunch of gay families wanted to take their kids to Disney World at the same time. Conservative Christian activists may not be directly to blame for the massacre at Pulse. But they are responsible for relentlessly vilifying the LGBTQ community in terms that often spilled over into outright hatred.
*Update, June 15, 2016: This post has been updated to clarify that the company ABC Family has renamed its TV station Freeform.