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The Christian nationalist plan to mainstream anti-LGBTQ hate
Republicans will pass their national "don't say gay" bill if they win the House. And they'll keep trying until they succeed in making it into law.
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It was heralded as a sign of progress on LGBTQ rights when 47 House Republicans this summer joined every House Democrat in passing the Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA), a bill that would mandate the federal government recognize same-sex marriage and interracial marriage by law.
The bill was inspired by the threat posed by Clarence Thomas in his blood-curdling concurring opinion in the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade. He wrote that the Obergefell marriage equality decision — and even the Lawrence decision throwing out sodomy bans in the states — should now be revisited by the high court.
Some of those GOPers who voted for RFMA in the House even included far-right extremists and insurrection enablers, like Pennsylvania’s Scott Perry. In the Senate, where RFMA was ultimately shelved until after the mid-term elections — and we’ll see if it resurfaces — even conservative GOP senators flirted with support.
But the effusive media narrative that Republicans were finally catching up with the rest of America in supporting LGBTQ rights — over 71% of Americans support marriage equality, for example — was illusory.
That became evident this month with the introduction of a federal “don’t say gay” bill, modeled on Florida’s heinous law that was pushed and passed by Governor Ron DeSantis. The federal bill was introduced by Republican Congressman Mike Johnson of Louisiana, and so far is co-sponsored by 32 other Republicans. It would withhold federal funds from schools that don’t comply with the law.
Like Florida’s law, the dubiously titled Stop the Sexualization of Children Act is so broadly written that it would inhibit speech and enforce the closet, keeping students and teachers from even identifying as LGBTQ — fearful of repercussions — and even forcing gay, lesbian and trans parents to tell their children to keep silent about them. And it equates sexual orientation and gender identity with pornography and “burlesque shows.”
Most interestingly, at least two Republicans who voted for RFMA — New York’s Nicole Malliotakis and Utah’s Burgess Owens — are co-sponsoring the federal “don’t say gay” bill. And you should expect many more, if not all of them, to follow suit (along with the vast majority of the GOP that didn’t support RFMA).
That may seem odd and like a massive contradiction, but it represents Christian nationalists’ achievement, after a few years of struggling, in once again finding a new way to attack LGBTQ rights and get support from politicians who want to appease them — and get their money and votes — but who also want to appear more moderate.
Marriage equality, which the Supreme Court recognized as the law of the land in 2015, represented a major impediment for the Christian nationalist agenda. White evangelical leaders’ initial and continuing legal strategies to fight marriage equality have focused on “religious liberty” and finding exemptions to recognizing same-sex marriage, such as allowing bakers and florists to turn away gay and lesbian couples. The goal is to turn same-sex marriage into second class marriage.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock in 2019, in which the court ruled that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are protected from employment discrimination under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, also hobbled Christian nationalists. Their legal strategy to fight it has been the same as fighting marriage equality: to seek religious exemptions. Those efforts will ultimately be successful with the current Supreme Court led by far-right religious extremists.
Still, on both marriage and employment there’s a larger cultural shift that Christian nationalists are up against. Not only do the vast majority of Americans support same-sex marriage and anti-discrimination laws protecting transgender and gay people in employment, but many if not most Republicans now have same-sex marriages and queer people in their own lives.
What likely had such a disparate group in the House GOP — from so-called moderates (many of whom are retiring) to MAGA loyalists like Perry and New York’s “ultraMAGA” Elise Stefanik — vote for RFMA is that they’ve probably attended same-sex weddings of relatives and friends, as hundreds of thousands of Americans have been gay-married in the past 15 years. That didn’t stop at least one vile Pennsylvania Republican from voting against the bill and then attending his gay son’s wedding that weekend. But for others, that kind of exposure might have been too much, particularly if it would cause strife with friends and family.
The “don’t say gay” laws in the states, however, just like the odious bans on trans teen girls playing on high school sports teams, focus on children, not adults. The Christian nationalists actually went back to an old playbook of the 1970s, in which they argued that gays are indoctrinating children. They repackaged it as an “LGBTQ agenda” pushed by liberal educators. Via Fox News, other right-wing news platforms and social media, they’re able to supercharge it with lies and disinformation, falsely claiming children are being pressured to question their gender identity and are being taught about sodomy and sexual acts.
The “don’t say gay” bill itself, as written, is a blueprint for that disinformation, equating gay and trans identity with sexual activity — which is not being taught to young children anywhere. Per The Guardian:
The bill would prohibit the use of federal funds to teach children about “sexually-oriented material” as well as “any topic involving gender identity, gender dysphoria, transgenderism, sexual orientation, or related subjects”. The effects of such a law, if enacted, would be far-reaching since a range of institutions – schools, libraries, among them – receive public money.
…The bill also gives parents the ability to sue in federal court if their child is exposed to the barred material that is funded “in whole or in part” by federal funds.
The false, biased narrative strikes an emotional chord with many parents who might not dig deeper, including even a few who might perceive themselves as accepting, because it’s about their children’s well-being. And it provides cover for GOP politicians like DeSantis who can court Christian nationalists and the unhinged, conspiracy-addled MAGA minions while also believing he can bring in some suburban voters and others, or at least not alienate them. As I’ve written before in discussing DeSantis’s attacks on drag queens and parents who attend drag queen story hours with their children:
That’s because DeSantis has astutely, and sinisterly, focused on issues involving LGBTQ people or culture only as they relate to children…
…DeSantis knows attacking same-sex marriage might alienate a lot of voters, as marriage equality is so broadly accepted now. But DeSantis also knows that people often follow emotion (and unconscious bias) rather than facts when it comes to their children, especially if parents are less educated about LGBTQ issues.
And that’s why two of the House members who voted for RFMA have signed on to the federal “don’t say gay” bill, and why more of them will sign on, along with the rest of the GOP caucus. Those who voted for RFMA will in fact use their having supported it to claim they can’t possibly be considered “anti-gay,” even as they back a bill that terrorizes LGBTQ teachers, children and school administrators — all in the name of parental rights in education.
The federal“don’t say gay” bill provides a way for GOP members of Congress to bow to the Christian nationalist groups, getting their donations and votes, and provides those groups with a way to mainstream their ideology of hate, sitting on talks shows promoting it and distorting what it’s about. Republicans, if they win the House, will vote on the “don’t say gay” measure over and over again to placate the extremists, just as they did for many years on the issue of abortion. And though it won’t pass without the GOP controlling the Senate and having a president who will sign it, they’ll just wait until they do have that control.
Each time the GOP votes on it, the Christian nationalists get an opportunity to push more hate into the culture, and to build further support, as they make it a litmus test in GOP political campaigns. Evangelical leaders are certainly now viewing the “don’t say gay” efforts as a stepping stone to attacking other rights for LGBTQ people, including employment, housing, public accommodations and marriage — complementing their efforts in the push for “religious liberty” exemptions.
That’s why, first and foremost, we have to do everything we can to keep the GOP from getting control of the House and/or the Senate this fall. But if they do get control of one or both chambers, none of us can dismiss their actions in passing this dangerous bill simply because they’ll not get the bill passed in the short term. (And the GOP will eventually get back into power even if Democrats keep the House and Senate in 2022; nobody should think they’ll stop running on a hate agenda any time soon.)
The LGBTQ movement must build a full-fledged campaign aggressively exposing these monsters and their lies. The good news is that we’ve done it many times in the past in fighting homophobia and transphobia, in ending “don’t ask, don’t tell,” diminishing “bathroom bills” and winning marriage equality. We’ve beaten back the hatemongers at the ballot box, and in the court of public opinion.
Christian nationalists believe they’ve found a new way to strip LGBTQ rights and the GOP is only too happy to accommodate them. It’s a battle that’s just beginning. We’ve got to be prepared and ready to strike back with everything we’ve got.