Politics

“A Car Crash in Slow Motion”: Why Increasing Anti-LGBTQ Violence Feels Inevitable

Mourners gather around a white cross with a rainbow-colored lei on it in the dark.
People visit a makeshift memorial near the Club Q nightclub in Colorado Springs on Nov. 21. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Right before the holidays, the White House hosted a celebration. Actually, this was a signing ceremony; it just felt like a party. The boisterous crowd on the White House South Lawn was there to celebrate the Respect for Marriage Act, which is a law that protects the validity of same-sex and interracial marriages, both at the federal level and state by state. Strangely, it’s a law that doesn’t do all that much—yet. The mood was victorious anyway.

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“It’s funny, isn’t it? Because it’s a victory against a hypothetical,” says BuzzFeed’s David Mack.

Mack says it was a little jarring to see so much enthusiasm for what is, at its core, a defensive move. “They used this moment where they had the power in Congress to pass this should the Supreme Court do to marriage equality what they’ve just done to 50 years of abortion rights in this country—to  protect the worst-case scenario from happening.”

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The worst-case scenario seemed to be the last thing on the minds of the crowd at the White House. There were drag queens in the audience, Lady Gaga blaring out of the speakers, and Cyndi Lauper talking to reporters in the White House briefing room. When Chuck Schumer stepped up to the microphone, he gushed over his daughter’s gay wedding. Even though, back in the ’90s, he and Joe Biden both voted to define marriage as between a man and a woman, when they passed the Defense of Marriage Act.

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“That just shows the remarkable transformation that’s taken place in this country, where Joe Biden has become someone who gladly and willingly signs this legislation and celebrates it with a big gay party on the White House lawn,” Mack says.

But there’s an asterisk here. This happy crowd was also feeling palpable relief. Because, Mack says, being gay in America right now means carrying two realities around with you. Gay rights are more protected than they’ve ever been. But also, gay people are astonishingly vulnerable. “Suddenly there were these moments where we were being victimized very openly and politically once again, and people were coming after us in a way that I don’t think I’ve felt in a long time.”

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In the past year, there’s been a sharp uptick in anti-LGBTQ incidents around the country. One group estimates that there’s been a 12-fold increase in demonstrations and political violence targeted at the queer community, just since 2000. In fact, the very same people in the audience watching the Respect for Marriage Act get signed? They were fighting off harassment the moment they got home.

“I spoke to a drag artist by the name of Marti G. Cummings. They’re a nonbinary performer here in New York City, and they were invited to the White House ceremony. And the night after the signing, Tucker Carlson ran a segment about this and included references to Marti Cummings, saying that they have an unusual interest in children,” Mack says. “Marti Cummings told me that to them, Tucker Carlson knows what he’s doing. To frame drag artists as this predatory threat to children is something that felt very shocking to me in March. But now, I’m not shocked at all. That focus on children is not a coincidence. It is entirely related to the events that we saw in the pandemic and the political strategy that sections of the right developed.”

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On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, we try to make sense of this bifurcated moment for the queer community by examining the common thread linking conservative activism around COVID to anti-gay demonstrations in the street. My conversation with David Mack has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mary Harris: Back when a shooter opened fire in a Colorado Springs gay nightclub, in November, BuzzFeed’s David Mack wrote an article lamenting the fact that this kind of violence seemed inevitable. Mack was hurting as he wrote this—he’s gay himself; he felt at risk. But he also felt like he should have seen this violence coming. 

To him, it didn’t begin with gay people at all. Instead, it began with concerns around COVID and schools. Because protecting children seemed to resonate. Over the past year, he says he’s watched this political message metastasize. 

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David Mack: It’s funny. In November 2021, I was in Grand Junction, Colorado, for a school board race, of all things. I’d chosen to go there for a few reasons. It’s a bit of a hotbed for election denialism. It was having this school board race that was suddenly very partisan. And it’s also an overwhelmingly white area where suddenly “critical race theory” was this big subject of debate. One of the candidates told me that she’d knocked on a door and someone had told her that they blamed “critical race theory” for turning their child bisexual.

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Whoa. Quite a leap there.

It certainly was. But it spoke perfectly to this wonderful boogeyman that the right had created. Most people I spoke to, even the candidates themselves, couldn’t really define what CRT was. It became this wonderful catchall for anything that could possibly influence young minds to hate America or to make them less American. And to make them less conservative is where it naturally led.

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Protecting the presumed innocence of children is what connects all this. Whether conservative parents were talking about “critical race theory” or LGBTQ issues, the idea was the same: to avoid “corrupting the minds of young people.”

And to be clear, I’m not the one marrying these things. In Ohio, one of the bills that was put forward to legislate against “critical race theory” also included, in the very same bill, language that mirrored restrictions on sexual teachings, on sexual orientation, and on gender identity that you saw famously in the “don’t say gay” bill in Florida.

Do you think it is a top-down strategy? Or do you think it’s more like something was successful and then it spread and morphed?

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Certainly people at the highest levels of the Republican Party are aware of this strategy and are using this strategy. You saw Glenn Youngkin in Virginia run in 2021 on a campaign about giving parents more control over the curriculum and listening to parents when it comes to schools. And they’re clearly recognizing schools and classrooms are a winning issue. Steve Bannon famously said last year the path to retake the country runs through school board elections.

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This focus on kids is not new, and I’m wondering if you’re able to go back a little bit and explain how in the 1970s the fight for gay rights was turbocharged by these allegations that gay people were somehow going to harm children? I’m thinking specifically about how in Florida this woman named Anita Bryant became a real lightning rod. Do you know Anita Bryant’s story?

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I do. What you’re talking about are some of the earliest battles that happened in the first decade of the gay liberation movement. In the 10 years or so after Stonewall, it very quickly became a debate about gay people in schools.

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Anita Bryant, in 1977, she was living in Miami and the city was looking to pass an ordinance that would protect the civil rights of gay people. It was being spearheaded by someone whom she’d given money to. And it just really lit a fire under her to speak out against the civil rights of gay people. She eventually became part of this political coalition literally called Save Our Children. It’s interesting to look back on how that went, because she was successful and then she was not successful. It’s important to remember at this moment how this push and pull might continue for a while.

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That’s exactly right. That’s why, to me at least, I felt kind of flabbergasted in March to see these arguments being made again in the mainstream political realm. It was Ron DeSantis’ press secretary who first brought back this term groomer in a political context in March when talking about the “don’t say gay” bill. And from there, it took off like a rocket. It felt surprising to me, because I felt like we had left all that behind. It’s felt like this is the last gasp of this kind of movement that knows that they’re losing. They know they are losing the public. They know that the ship is sailing. They are reverting back to some classics to try to fight back one final time.

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The thing that makes this current attempt to frame queer people as a threat to children new is how the message is spreading—person to person, unfiltered, straight out of the faucet of social media. The internet firehose Mack worries the most about is an account we’ve talked about before: Libs of TikTok

Libs of TikTok is mostly a Twitter account that has over a million followers at this point. It’s run by a Brooklyn real estate agent who basically takes videos from TikTok of teachers or other public officials that she deemed corrupting to children. She’s sort of saying here is this teacher in so-and-so, Iowa, telling proudly how they are running a class on transgender issues for 9-year-olds.

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These innocuous videos of gay and trans teachers talking about their jobs and students can rack up hundreds of thousands of views and plenty of hateful comments. They’re always presented with a digital eyeroll, like, “Can you believe what those libs are saying now?” 

It was drawing national attention online to random people across the country. And then it started changing to drag queen story hours and pointing out when these events were happening.

Have they also been involved in promoting how hospitals are caring for trans children?

Yes. There has been a huge focus on the care that some hospitals and some medical clinics will give to transgender children. And a lot of misinformation. But you look at the language again: It is centered on children and what is being done to them.

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This word pops up again and again—mutilate—when they’re talking about what care is being done. The idea is that these liberal doctors are chopping off the genitals of 9-year-olds who may be corrupted by a trend that their teacher taught them in class.

And we have seen hospitals go into lockdown because of bomb threats and people facing federal charges because of the threats that they’ve made to hospitals, which is just an astonishing thing to say out loud.

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And political people started engaging with this account, right? 

It’s become a hugely influential account, and the right is also very protective of it. A big bunch of the Elon Musk “Twitter Files” that we’ve seen lately is whether or not this account was restricted or muted in some ways, or if it wasn’t—if it was protected, which some of those Twitter Files seem to indicate that there were special measures given to make sure this account was not taken down, because it has become such a political lightning rod. It bridges the gap between this political strategy that we’ve talked about, mostly interested in mobilizing people and getting them to the polls, and then this very dark online world where there are a lot of actors who politicians famously can’t control but have influenced.

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How much do you credit this account for what’s being seen in the real world? People showing up at drag shows or drag story hours and being threatening, having weapons, things like that. Is that directly related to Libs of TikTok?

Yes. And other accounts like them. They will promote events on that page. They will say this library is having an event or this bar is having a midday brunch for families. And people will turn up at that event. Armed people will turn up with that event. Or, the event will need to be shut down in advance because of threats that they’ve received. This has happened again and again and again. They will say that they are merely highlighting public information and letting people know that there is this event going on. But the wink-wink there is that you need to do something about this.

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And right now, we’re seeing armed people turning up at not just children’s events, but outside events at gay bars and inside gay bars—like in Colorado Springs.

This is clearly really personal for you. Over the past year, have you had to change the way you move in the world because of what you’ve noticed all around you?

It’s funny, I cover so many of these horrible things in this country, and it’s horrible to say, but you do become numb to covering so many of these things. And I woke up after that Club Q thing and I was furious. I felt anger in a way that I hadn’t felt because it felt to me like this was the end point that we knew was coming. It was like a car crash in slow motion that we could see all year long. And we know it will happen again. I do feel angry and scared, I’m sad to say, in a way that I haven’t. I was in a gay bar in Raleigh the week after Thanksgiving, and I found myself for the first time looking for the exits when I got in there. I caught myself doing that and I thought just how sad that is that I am in a bar with my boyfriend trying to just have a drink and I am worried.

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We started off the show talking about the Respect for Marriage Act and how celebratory the vibe was when it was signed into law. It seems to me in this moment that the fight that queer Americans are in is a lot harder than the fight for marriage equality. And I say that because the fight for gay marriage was a fight about allowing queer people to adhere to straight norms. And the fight now is really about making straight people deal with queerness. Do you see it that way, too?

I think your point, and it’s a fair one, is that above all it’s a cultural fight and it’s a cultural debate. My one ray of sunshine in all of this is that we gays are very good at the cultural stuff. If you think you can beat us on culture, you got another thing coming. You look at the media landscape that kids are coming up in now and the openness of queer shows and queer celebrities and I draw huge inspiration from that because if we’re going to be fighting this out in the cultural sphere, that’s a fight I’m willing to have because I think we’ll win.

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