The Anti-LGBTQ Hysteria Is Showing America’s True Identity

The rise of anti-LGBTQ laws mirrors the Jim Crow era — and it’s a disturbing regression.
The Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles sings at the swearing-in of Supervisor-Elect Lindsey Horvath as the new Los Angeles County Supervisor for District 3 on Monday, Dec. 5, 2022.
The Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles sings at the swearing-in of Supervisor-Elect Lindsey Horvath as the new Los Angeles County Supervisor for District 3 on Monday, Dec. 5, 2022.
Jason Armond via Getty Images

A couple of months ago, I attended a rousing concert of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles at a theater in downtown Glendale. Glendale is a close suburb of Los Angeles that’s historically lacking in people of color, which made it deeply satisfying to see a chorus as wonderfully diverse as GMCLA.

There was something else. The concert’s celebration of spirited, dance-oriented R&B music as a guiding light of gay culture was musically thrilling, but it was also politically resonant in a way that felt new. Amid the applause and amens, there was almost palpable awareness in the theater that Black and LBGTQ people, because they are being similarly reviled by the right, are aligning not just politically but spiritually. Racism has found its equal.

Which isn’t to say that racism and LBGTQ-phobia are equally made. Racism is the bedrock inequality in America, the institution of slavery providing the stem cells for all other forms of systemic and legalized oppression that came after. By the time slavery was abolished, American tradition was set — the practice of separate-and-unequal picked right up where slavery had left off. The justice movements that emerged fully during the ’60s — a hundred years after slavery — gay rights, women’s rights, environmental justice — all used the Black civil rights struggle as a template, with good reason. No group had been as deliberately disenfranchised as Black folk had been, and no group had been fighting as intensely against that disenfranchisement for as long.

It’s a truth I feel sworn to protect, because America has always been so willing, often eager, to diminish or outright dismiss core truths about itself, especially the core truth about race. Generally, whenever I hear people trying to equate racism with other kinds of oppression, I interject. It’s not that immigrant-bashing or sexism aren’t deplorable or don’t share traits with racism. But the significance of anti-Blackness as a force in shaping our history and culture is enormous, and it needs to be made clear.

And yet, the swiftly escalating campaign against LGBTQ people, notably trans people, feels like racism in that a whole group of people is being openly degraded simply for being who they are. For those who are both Black and LGBTQ, this is hardly a new crisis. But for white LGBTQ people, it must come as an unpleasant shock.

While the gay rights movement was inspired by the civil rights movement, it comprised a whole lot of white, otherwise privileged people, who for a long time had little in common with average Black people and their freedom fight. A fight that wasn’t just economic or political or even cultural, but spiritual; it was total. Accepting Black folks as equals involved nothing less than looking into the depths of America’s soul and fearlessly confronting what was there, and then making a change. That multilayered, frankly demanding process is why attitudes about race are always a reliable Rorschach test of who we really are as a people, and especially of who white people are as a people.

Attitudes about the LBGTQ community are now posing a similar kind of existential test, as the longstanding antipathy toward gay and queer people morphs before our eyes into new laws and restrictions, mainly in but not limited to the South — well over 500 bills this year introduced in statehouses across the country ― that perfectly mirror the energy of Jim Crow.

“Like Blackness, gayness and 'trans-ness' are now seen by the right, especially the Christian right, as a fundamental threat to the American way of life.”

The legal movement has been dizzying, especially in Florida, where governor and presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis has made a battle cry of “Don’t Say Gay” and engaged in a protracted fight with Disney for its support of its LGBTQ consumers. There are also book bans, the public bathroom panic, the generalized yet very specific MAGA ire toward “groomers” and ongoing obsessions with “saving the children” from sexual degenerates (i.e., anyone who isn’t straight).

Like Blackness, gayness and “trans-ness” are now seen by the right, especially the Christian right, as a fundamental threat to the American way of life. That threat is the deepest reason why, for most of our history, the color line has been so fiercely policed, just as the gender line is being fiercely policed now. And like the segregation of the past, the policing is being carried out without apology; to the contrary, it’s viewed by the right as virtuous, inevitable. This is what we must do to save ourselves. Holding the line is nothing less than a spiritual endeavor — for the hard right, a freedom fight of the modern age.

But all this is not spiritual so much as mundanely psychological. Like Black people, trans people as a group disassemble a mythical American identity, a picture of itself that it holds dear — in this case, a straight (and white) couple, preferably churchgoing, with two kids and a house in the suburbs, or in a small town, or maybe a farm in the Midwest. Trans people upend this picture.

Gay people have always done that, of course, but they remain familiar as cisgender men and women — put another way, whatever you think about gayness, everybody has gay relatives, friends, acquaintances. Trans people throw that familiarity out of the window. Besides disturbing an American myth, their very existence argues that gender identity, which is supposed to be so anchoring, is just a social construction, nothing more.

It’s the same argument Black people have long made about race. At the same time, they acknowledge that racism is very real, and as long as people have different skin color and phenotypes, racial oppression remains easy to maintain. The fear on the right is that trans people, as long as they appear male or female, can disappear into “normal” society. The line will dissolve, and legitimately normal society will be infected, undermined.

The fear is similar to the ancient fear of “passing” — the phenomenon of light-skinned Black people posing as fully white and joining a club they have no right to join. Trans people joining that club — god forbid, integrating, becoming equal ― without wider consent violates a social hierarchy, built on anti-Blackness, that is part of our national origins. Another longstanding, ugly truth that’s becoming abundantly clear is that ultimately, the line of separation is not just between Black and white, straight and gay, cisgender and gender nonconforming. It’s between “real Americans” and everybody else.

The anti-trans hysteria is being fueled in part by the rising visibility of LGBTQ people in media — film, TV, memoir ― not as entertaining sideshows (drag queens, anyone?) but as people with complicated inner lives and needs whose stories are worth telling in detail. The fire on the fuel may be that many of these stories are also Black ― think the Oscar-winning “Moonlight,” the TV series “Pose,” even the recent real-life saga of Brittney Griner, the queer basketball star whom many Americans were loath to see as an American (even though she’s that most rarefied American, a celebrity) worth saving from legal captivity in Russia.

Black presence in media has always been outsized relative to the Black population — currently about 12% of the country — which is why Blackness has always loomed very large in white Americans’ fears of change. The same is true with gay and trans people; trans folks are an even smaller (but growing) numerical minority in the country that, for the right wing, suddenly seems to be everyone, everywhere at once.

The point is that for the right wing, Black, and now LGBTQ, people are not simply a demographic, they (and I mean “they” in the most woke sense of the word) are an incursion that good Americans need to guard against, now more than ever. Making music together was never, ever the goal.

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