On Saturday, 31 men linked to the white nationalist group Patriot Front piled into a U-Haul truck in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Carrying shields, helmets, a smoke grenade, and long metal poles, they set off for a Pride event in a nearby park.
According to the local police chief, these men, who had traveled from a dozen different states, had written documents detailing their mission: Prepared for a riot, they would enter the park, antagonize Pride attendees, and set off smoke grenades as soon as someone tried to stop them.
It never came to pass, fortunately. After a 911 caller reported seeing a group dressed like “a little army” pack into the U-Haul at a local hotel, cops stopped the truck and arrested the men on the misdemeanor charge of conspiracy to riot.
That same day, in the Bay Area town of San Lorenzo, several men wearing the colors of the far-right Proud Boys invaded a public library, where, as part of a Pride event, the drag queen Panda Dulce was singing a welcome song and preparing to read a book to a group of children and their parents. In an Instagram post, Dulce said the men “got right in our faces” and “attempted to escalate to violence” before a security guard escorted Dulce out of the room.
A video taken after the confrontation shows one of the men wearing a shirt depicting a rifle and the directive to “kill your local pedophile”; another man repeats, of the event, “it’s sexual,” while two others flash the “OK” hand gesture that has become a calling card of white supremacists.
These incidents are the latest escalations of a mounting right-wing campaign to threaten, intimidate, and legislate LGBTQ people out of public life. As communities around the U.S. prepared to stage annual Pride celebrations this month, far-right extremist groups, with the encouragement of Republican leaders, saw an opportunity to take their violent rhetoric off the internet and into the streets.
It was, perhaps, inevitable. Over the past few years, the GOP and conservative activists have pushed more and more policies designed to ostracize and criminalize queer and transgender people. State lawmakers have fast-tracked bills that ban discussions of LGBTQ life in classrooms. In Texas, on orders from the governor, the Department of Family and Protective Services is launching child-abuse investigations into parents who provide gender-affirming care to trans kids. More than one-third of U.S. states have barred trans children and teens from playing sports on teams of their own gender.
Those who oppose these policies are lambasted as pedophiles or “groomers”: Drafting momentum from QAnon-related conspiracy theories, leaders in the GOP have taken to accusing people who advocate for a culture that includes and supports LGBTQ youth of harboring an inappropriate sexual interest in children.
Conservatives have used that narrative to validate regular old homophobia and transphobia, giving cover to Republicans who wish to turn voters against LGBTQ rights or simply drum up votes from their base by tapping into a moral panic. But it also appeals to white nationalist extremists, who see queer and trans people as a threat to the patriarchal, fascist state they seek to establish, and are willing to embrace violence against them.
The idea that gays and gender-nonconforming people are out to recruit and abuse children is something of a throwback. Rooted in anti-gay propaganda from generations past, the “groomer” smear had disappeared from everyday political discourse for the better part of a decade, while LGBTQ people gained cultural representation and made major strides toward equal protection under the law. Now, thanks to social media networks that didn’t exist 20 years ago, it has returned to the center of the right-wing worldview with astonishing speed, encouraging civilians to harass queer parents and advocate for the banning of books that depict queer lives.
This rhetoric is echoed across right-wing media, where public schools are called “grooming centers” and Democrats are accused of attempting to “sexualize 6-, 7-year-old children.” Libs of TikTok, an influential right-wing social media account, regularly elevates small-time LGBTQ events and posts from random queer and trans people to an audience of more than 1.2 million hostile followers; more than a few posts have been picked up by conservative news sites and become segments on Fox News.
One of the planned events Libs of TikTok publicized last month, in a lengthy thread of family-friendly drag performances, was the Drag Queen Story Hour in San Lorenzo.
The timing is jarring: This wave of right-wing threats and planned violence against LGBTQ people comes in a moment when it seems like more major institutions are paying lip service to queer and trans equality than ever before. Rainbow-hued advertisements have become such a ubiquitous part of Pride Month that it has become the stuff of satire.
This year, a meme about “partnering with” companies for Pride promotions took over the internet, as clear a sign as any that corporate attempts to capture the goodwill and spending power of LGBTQ people (and straight liberals) are now a conventional part of American life.
The confluence of these two trends—the resurgence of old forms of homophobia and violence alongside the corporatization of queerness—is no coincidence, as political and cultural progress often leads to concerted backlash. But it has lent a bizarre, incongruous air to queer Instagram feeds and Pride celebrations this month, as if we’re all listening to two separate conversations at the same time.
In one, LGBTQ culture and identities are so innocuous and commonplace that it behooves profit-driven companies to commodify them. In the other, they are subject to increasingly authoritarian means of suppression, as a sizable portion of the population—let’s call it 30 to 40 percent of Americans—stands ready to cheer on the clampdown.
The dissonance underlines a grim reality: LGBTQ people cannot count on cultural visibility and acceptance to protect them against threats to their lives and livelihoods especially when they come from neo-fascist agitators intent on intimidation and violence. Nor will the majority of America’s embrace prevent the Republican Party from working alongside these extremists to enact policies that criminalize trans health care, drum queer people out of the workplace, and ostracize LGBTQ kids from their peers.
The GOP’s political agenda motivates and emboldens the extremists; the support from the far right inspires even more radical maneuvers from lawmakers. Republicans are already equating drag shows with strip clubs and proposing legislation to ban minors from watching performers dressed in drag.
More drastic measures attacking fundamental rights could come to pass if the Supreme Court, which granted LGBTQ people federal protection from employment discrimination in 2020, chooses to dissolve other precedents protecting queer people’s rights to marriage and sexual intimacy, as it now appears ready to do. Just as the political constraints on the GOP’s program of queer and trans erasure are dwindling, the legal ones are too.
And it’s not just LGBTQ people who stand to suffer. Just this morning, three people were hospitalized in Baltimore, two of them in critical condition, after a four-house fire that authorities say began when an arsonist ignited a Pride flag outside one of the homes. In May, a Wisconsin school district that launched a Title IX investigation into three eighth-grade students who misgendered a peer had to cancel in-person classes after several bomb threats were made against the school, district employees, local utility companies, the library, and city hall. The district closed the investigation.
Whether or not any individual threat or white nationalist operation leads to bloodshed, the right’s multipronged attack on LGBTQ life will have a chilling effect among school administrators, event organizers, law enforcement officers, hospital executives, and others who will have to decide whether supporting, protecting, and caring for trans and queer people is worth the risk of a potentially violent backlash.
And that extends to corporations eager to cash in on Pride.
To wit: In an actually substantive example of corporate gay initiatives, State Farm used to support a program that provided books about what it means to be transgender to schools and libraries. After the head of a conservative organization posted about State Farm’s partnership with the program last month, the company pulled its support. “Conversations about gender and identity should happen at home with parents,” a State Farm spokesman said in a statement about the change of course. “We don’t support required curriculum in schools on this topic.” Expect more fair-weather friends to quietly back away from LGBTQ communities as the intimidation escalates.