In late July, drag queen Patty Bourrée was reading a children’s book and playing the ukulele at a story hour event in Boston, Mass. when a group of masked neo-Nazis stormed the event. Bourrée is doing just fine, but she’s concerned about the children who had to walk among neo-Nazis chanting anti-transgender, anti-LGBTQ slurs and about the parents who brought their children to the small, regularly-held, and popular event.
So when Bourrée pulled up to her next event, planned for the first weekend of August, and saw the same neo-Nazis lurking outside, she knew she had to cancel. “I can’t put myself (and the kids!) in a potentially violent situation,” she said on Twitter. According to Bourrée, every drag queen story hour in the past few months has received some level of anti-LGBT attention. Local media has documented a sharp uptick in neo-Nazi activity in 2022, including from NSC-131, the group that targeted Bourrée.
Neo-Nazis in Boston. Proud Boys in California. Anti-trans rhetoric in the Buffalo shooter’s manifesto. Accusations about grooming. Panic over recruitment. A headline from The Daily Signal, the Heritage Foundation’s news outlet, warns that “‘A Drag Queen in Every School’ Is Modern Left’s ‘Chicken in Every Pot.’” Violent anti-LGBT (and specifically anti-transgender) rhetoric is increasing across the country and around the globe, explicitly stoked by the Christian Right and right-wing media with exclusionary and exterminationist language. Increasingly, this exterminationist rhetoric has been followed up with physical violence, and members of violent far-right groups are using the issue to recruit new followers.
This increase in violent rhetoric has led directly to legitimate security concerns for the LGBT community. Organized militia, interpersonal violence, and state violence have increased significantly in the past two years.
Radicalizing Against Transgender People
Anti-transgender rhetoric is one of the most successful modern radicalization techniques of the far right, from the Christian Right organizations calling for an end to trans-affirming care and nondiscrimination protections, to social media luminaries targeting children’s hospitals by drawing names from a hat. Trans people are always the villain.
The dog-whistles of anti-trans rhetoric are instantly recognizable: they’re taking our children, they’re making our spaces unsafe, they’re mutilating themselves, it’s a choice, it’s a sham. These messages smack of the messages of anti-migrant, anti-Black, and particularly antisemitic rhetoric. As I wrote with a colleague in 2021, “Despite cloaking their rhetoric under the guise of plausible deniability and finger-wagging at the supposed excesses of ‘wokeness,’ anti-trans activists are lifting their conspiracies from a familiar far-right arsenal, and are comfortably aligned with white nationalists in their choice of the ‘enemies’ they name.”
Anti-transgender rhetoric is increasing in all sectors of the Right.
Increases in Organized Militia, Interpersonal, and State Violence
Organized Militia Violence
In Los Angeles, in early summer 2021, right-wing anti-transgender misinformation directly led to an increase of interpersonal threats and violence against transgender people living in the city. A video of a woman claiming to have seen a naked transgender woman in the women’s changing area of coed Korean spa WiSpa in downtown Los Angeles went viral on right-wing media. The aftermath turned violent. Armed Proud Boys attacked protestors and the Los Angeles Police Department retaliated against both the Proud Boys and spa supporters. Precious Angel, a trans woman from Los Angeles who was briefly incorrectly identified as the alleged WiSpa flasher, told the Guardian US that “the hundreds of comments calling her ‘pedo’ and accusing her of being a pedophile were especially painful to her, because she is a survivor of child sexual abuse.”
Over the weekend of June 11-12, 2022, the Anti-Defamation League counted seven separate instances of organized extremist violence, most notably the arrest of 31 Patriot Front militia members in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The Patriot Front members had allegedly planned to riot with festival goers at Coeur d’Alene Pride on Saturday morning. That same weekend, alleged Proud Boys interrupted a Drag Queen Story Hour in San Lorenzo, Calif., members of local neo-Nazi organization NatSoc Florida demonstrated outside a restaurant in Jacksonville, and Proud Boys interrupted a Drag Queen Brunch in Arlington, Texas, along with several other small incidents.
As Kathryn Joyce reports in Salon, Texas also saw a surge of organized, far-right anti-LGBTQ activism over the summer, particularly in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Many of the 31 Patriot Front members arrested in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho were from Texas — the majority were in fact from out of state and none were from the Coeur d’Alene area. (Coeur d’Alene is no stranger to extremist activity. Odette Yousef reports for NPR that the small northern Idaho city was home to the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations group from the 1974 to 2000. The group harassed, harmed, and even killed locals. In 1998, the Southern Poverty Law Center teamed up with the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, which was created in the 80s to respond to the violent racism, to sue the group and finally brought it down in 2001. The Patriot Front’s plot for Pride reminded Coeur d’Aleniens of the Aryan Nation and of how northern Idaho rests at the heart of white supremacist, Christian Right country: “Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and parts of Washington and Oregon.”)
As the Southern Poverty Law Center reports, right-wing Twitter influencers with millions of followers tweeted about the Coeur d’Alene Pride event in the weeks prior to the festival.
Individual right-wing media personalities are remotely organizing violence against LGBTQ people. Chaya Raichik, the former real estate agent behind LibsOfTikTok, the Twitter account that drew paramilitary and militia attention to Coeur d’Alene has spent the remainder of the summer and early fall picking other targets for violent anti-trans neo-nazis and militias to aim their vitriol at. Boston Children’s Hospital had to close its doors to visitors due to a bomb threat and other harassment the hospital received after Raichik picked it as her campaign of the week. According to NPR, Raichik targeted hospitals in at least four major cities.
In October, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Children’s Hospital Association wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice, demanding that the it investigate the “increasing threats of violence against physicians, hospitals and families of children for providing and seeking evidence-based gender-affirming care.”
The increase in organized violence is motivating spontaneous interpersonal violence. In the few hours after the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, a successful anti-trans disinformation campaign sprouted from right-wing messaging boards. Photos from several trans women’s social media accounts were cobbled together to give the impression that the shooter was a transgender woman. The hoax went national, amplified by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green (R-GA).
The afternoon of the shooting at Robb Elementary, four men in El Paso attacked a young trans girl on the sidewalk, yelling slurs and accusations about the shooting. According to a press report, the girl “had no idea what [the attackers] meant, but she was scared.” It’s not a surprise that she felt that way. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) tracks fatal attacks on transgender people: this year alone, at least 31 people have been killed. In 2021, HRC recorded the violent deaths of 50 transgender people, the majority of whom were transgender women of color.
Violence ripples into impacted communities. The Trevor Project studies the mental health of LGBTQ youth. In 2021, 20 percent of surveyed transgender and nonbinary youth reported attempting suicide. Of these youth, a quarter reported experiencing discrimination on the basis of gender identity in the past year alone.
Finally, with the passage of multiple laws banning transgender children’s access to trans-affirming care or scholastic sports, state violence against trans people has multiplied. In their lawsuit against the state of Texas, the “Voe” family (a pseudonym for the litigation) alleges their child attempted suicide shortly after Governor Greg Abbot issued an order authorizing the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate the parents of transgender children the for child abuse. A state court later ordered the Department to cease enforcement of the Governor’s order.
Meanwhile, out of the 18 states which now ban girls from playing on teams that match their gender identity, Idaho, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah require girls challenged under the law to prove their “biological sex” through invasive physical examinations. In Kentucky, all students must undergo a yearly examination of their “biological sex” and provide an affidavit signed by a medical professional. And in Utah, the legislature has created a “School Activity Eligibility Commission” to whom transgender student athletes must apply in order to play sports, and who will assess multiple factors to determine eligibility including a student’s mental health.
Christian-Right advocacy organizations are behind these legislative pushes, and are using their agenda to push transgender people out of the public sphere and to attack public institutions like schools and hospitals. (The Heritage Foundation, the author of many a white paper and panel against justice and health care for trans lives, is also the author of many a white paper and panel against the teaching of Black history in public schools, and the parental rights movement in general.)
The Cost of Violence
The weight of this violence is crushing, and the impacts are not felt evenly throughout the transgender community. Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood, two Black transgender female track athletes, were the focus of a Connecticut lawsuit that launched the movement to ban transgender girls from scholastic athletics. While the lawsuit failed in Connecticut, and lawmakers in other states were unable to name a single transgender athlete in their own states, Miller and Yearwood are continually cited as the reason why these laws were so necessary. Anti-Blackness twines with transphobia to create a perfectly horrible concoction of hate.
The undercurrent of all this tumultuous violence, discrimination, and exclusion is a country that still fails to provide its residents with a living wage, affordable health care, affordable housing, or universal education. Transgender and nonbinary people are at higher risk for poverty, poor mental and physical health, and homelessness. Despite what the paper of record might say, the crisis of health care for trans youth is not a preponderance of care, but the opposite. Trans youth face intense obstacles to care, including months and years long waits.
Supporting Leaders, Organizations, and Networks of Safety
What response is called for in answer to this increase in violence? While law enforcement involvement might feel prudent, transgender and gender nonconforming people, particularly Black transgender women, have long been targeted by law enforcement for mistreatment and over-policing and over-incarceration. Likewise, the enforcement of hate-crimes legislation has been shown, anecdotally and empirically, to disproportionately impact Black people, while simultaneously failing to address the current rise in hate crimes. The meager, if any, benefit to the solving of these crimes (not to mention anything about law enforcement’s abject failure to prevent violence against LGBTQ people) is utterly outweighed by the violent impacts of law enforcement on the trans community. In fact, law enforcement’s treatment of transgender people, particularly Black transgender women, should itself be considered state violence.
Instead, any security-minded response to the violence facing LGBTQ communities must focus resources on the leaders and organizations building safe communities and networks of safety. The Trans Latin@ Coalition was founded in 2009 by and for trans Latina migrants living in the United States. Through resources, technical assistance, housing, and health care, the Coalition supports migrants fleeing state and interpersonal violence in their countries of origin, with a deep understanding that communities are made safer through interconnectedness, not policing.
Long-term solutions to anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ violence must also focus on the implementation and maintenance of universal systems, so that transgender people don’t need to continually illustrate our need for nondiscrimination protections. Universal health care, universal housing, universal kindergarten and college will help to bridge the significant wealth and health disparities faced by transgender people in the United States. Without strong federal systems in place, like robust funding for Medicaid and expanded HUD-subsidized and protected housing, backed by robust regulatory implementation, trans people’s vulnerability to security failures will be dependent on where they live and their access to organizations like the Trans Latin@ Coalition.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, advocacy for the safety and security of transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people must be as loud as the Christian Right and right-wing media are in their opposition. If small “c” conservatives believe that governments must conserve scarce resources and therefore make hard decisions about which public resources to invest in, advocates for the security of LGBTQ people must maintain two arguments: that there exists the wealth within our country to create safety, well-being, and security for all; and that community organizations like the Trans Latin@ Coalition are already working to create those conditions now.
Bamby Salcedo is the Executive Director of the Trans Latin@ Coalition. She wrote an op-ed in July 2021 after the Los Angeles police viciously retaliated against Proud Boys and WiSpa supporters in the wake of the viral video.
Proud Boys, Q-Anon and many other conservative groups are looking for a fight. We need to keep our community safe because we need all of us to change the narrative that they are trying to portray. We need to let all of those conservative groups and LAPD that we are better than them.
Anti-LGBT rhetoric is a motivating force for organized militia, interpersonal, and state violence; it is an effective recruitment technique for all sectors of the Right, and must be taken seriously for the serious threat to individual and community safety that is it. Anti-LGBT rhetoric is being deployed strategically by the Christian Right, amplified by right-wing media and translated into violence and terror by the armed militias, paramilitaries, and neo-nazis. If transgender people are the canary testing for authoritarianism in the coal mine of U.S. government, well, the canary is dead. So are its friends. Perhaps it’s time to put on our gas masks.