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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Transgender Americans feel under siege as political vitriol rises

Richard Stevens, who performs as Barbra Seville, hosts a drag brunch in Scottsdale, Ariz. on Nov. 6, 2022.

By Maggie Astor

Alejandra Caraballo is used to seeing anti-transgender hatred.

As an LGBTQ rights advocate and a transgender woman, she has received death threats, and her and her family members’ personal information has been published. When she goes to her favorite bar in New York, she sometimes wonders what she would do if someone came in shooting.

But last weekend, it became too much. Members of the Proud Boys and other extremist groups, many of them armed, converged outside a planned drag event in Columbus, Ohio. Neo-Nazis protested another event in Lakeland, Florida. There was an anti-LGBTQ rally in South Florida, also attended by the Proud Boys. All of this just two weeks after the killing of five people — two of them transgender, a third gay — at an LGBTQ club in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“I had a full panic attack and breakdown,” said Caraballo, a clinical instructor at the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard Law School. “It’s one thing knowing there’s this extremist hate on the internet and seeing it in the abstract, and I can kind of compartmentalize. When this hate becomes manifested in real-life violence and there’s a celebration of it, is when it becomes too much to stomach.”

It was one more month in a year in which intimidation and violence against gay and transgender Americans has spread — driven heavily, extremism experts say, by inflammatory political messaging.

Since far-right social media activists began attacking Boston Children’s Hospital over the summer for providing care for transgender children, the hospital has received repeated bomb threats. Doctors across the country who do similar work have been harassed. The Justice Department charged a Texas man this month with threatening a Boston doctor; it also recently charged at least two others with threatening anti-gay or anti-transgender attacks.

Twelve times as many anti-LGBTQ incidents have been documented this year as in 2020, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, which tracks political violence.

“Being a trans person in particular in this country right now is walking around thinking that it’s possible this could happen any day,” said Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ suicide prevention organization, adding, “We are hearing every day from trans youth who are being impacted by that political rhetoric.”

The rise in threats has accompanied an increasingly vitriolic political conversation.

Over the past couple of years, it has become routine for conservatives to liken transgender people and their allies to pedophiles, and to equate discussion of gender identity with “grooming” children for sexual abuse — part of an intensifying push, reminiscent of campaigns against gay rights dating back to the 1970s, to turn increasing visibility of transgender Americans into a political wedge.

Just before Florida prohibited instruction related to sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, Christina Pushaw, a spokesperson for Gov. Ron DeSantis, called the ban an “anti-grooming bill.” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has accused President Joe Biden of supporting “genital mutilation of children.” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., declared that “communist groomers” wanted to “allow a for-profit medical industry to chop off these confused children’s genitals.”

Representatives for Cruz and Greene — both of whose comments falsely characterized the treatment transgender minors receive — did not respond to requests for comment. Pushaw said, “My tweet did not mention transgender people.”

Conservatives say they are trying to protect children from irreversible treatments and ensure women’s sports remain fair; in midterm election ads, right-wing groups argued that transition care amounted to “radical gender experiments” and that allowing transgender athletes to compete on teams matching their gender identity would “destroy girls’ sports.” (The treatments offered to transgender children are endorsed by medical associations and have been shown to reduce suicide risk, and few transgender women and girls seek to participate in women’s and girls’ sports.)

Wes Anderson, a Republican pollster, said he believed those two arguments could pose a “liability” for Democrats — though, he said, they were far from priorities for voters this year.

But experts on political violence say incendiary language has made attacks more likely.

“We know that they are animated by what they’re seeing in online spaces,” Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said of anti-LGBTQ attackers. “Those online narratives, the propaganda that is disseminated by these bad actors, is informed and often legitimized by other voices in our public discussion, whether it’s elected officials or others.”

The false specter of child abuse has long been a way for anti-LGBTQ campaigns to attract “people who otherwise would not join what they consider a homophobic movement,” said Eric Gonzaba, an assistant professor of American studies at California State University, Fullerton, and co-chair of the Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History.

It gained prominence 45 years ago, when singer Anita Bryant founded Save Our Children. Accusing gay people of “recruiting” children, the group persuaded voters in Miami-Dade County, Florida, to repeal an anti-discrimination ordinance months after it was passed. Then the movement took its case nationwide.

“Her rhetoric was almost always about the sexualized danger of gay men against children,” said Tina Fetner, a professor of sociology at McMaster University who has studied how the religious right shaped LGBTQ activism. “That’s ‘grooming.’ They have a new term for it now, but it’s the same rhetoric.”

The argument resurfaced in 1992, when two ballot measures sought to ban similar anti-discrimination protections. One, in Colorado, passed but was struck down by the Supreme Court. The other — which would have forbidden Oregon to promote “homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism or masochism” and required “a standard for Oregon’s youth which recognizes that these behaviors are abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse” — did not pass.

These tactics have been used and reused because they can work politically. But history and current events suggest limits.

Bryant’s group stoked a backlash that temporarily blocked anti-discrimination laws, but did not stop society’s gradual movement toward accepting gay Americans. In fact, historians say, it galvanized LGBTQ people to organize more forcefully.

“There’s just incredible resilience and resistance that come out of these moments of hatred and vilification,” said Jen Manion, a professor of history and of sexuality, women’s and gender studies at Amherst College.

Republicans underperformed in this year’s midterms, and several candidates who focused on transgender issues did poorly. Tudor Dixon leaned hard on them but lost the Michigan governor’s race by double digits. The American Principles Project, a super PAC, spent about $15 million on related ads in contests that Republicans also largely lost. (Representatives for Dixon did not comment, and the super PAC did not respond to an interview request for its president.)

And after a year in which local officials removed books that discussed gender identity from libraries, states passed more than 15 bills targeting transgender people, and Texas opened abuse investigations against parents whose children received transition care, lawmakers are preparing more anti-LGBTQ bills for next year.

Many focus on transition care for minors; some would even restrict care for adults up to age 21. Others would restrict drag shows.

A pre-filed bill in Montana, titled “Prohibit minors from attending drag shows,” offers a glimpse of what these legislative debates may look like.

“To put forward a bill targeting drag shows right after a mass shooting at a club that hosts drag-queen story hours is to further stoke the hate that is going to get my community killed,” said Zooey Zephyr, a Democrat just elected as the first openly transgender legislator in Montana. She said that friends had killed themselves in the past two years, in which Montana lawmakers voted to restrict transgender sports participation and tried unsuccessfully to restrict transition care, and that others had left the state.

Zephyr said she had spoken with several Republicans who did not want to pass bills focused on transgender or gender-nonconforming people. One, state Rep. Mallerie Stromswold, said in an interview that she found her party’s focus on these issues “disheartening.”

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Braxton Mitchell, a Republican, responded to a request for comment by asking why it was “all of the sudden a critical requirement for someone in drag to be in every school,” but would not provide an example of any official calling for that. He described drag shows as adult entertainment; while some are, many are “story hours” where performers read books.

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