When I was working on my doctorate at UT Austin back in the 1990s, one of the little things I liked about Texas was a road sign posted along the state’s major highways: Drive Friendly. Its quaint folksiness notwithstanding, this reminder to share the road with other drivers served a practical purpose. There’s a whole lot of outback in the state – a fact impressed on me from my window seat when I flew into Austin to find a place to live – with a whole lot of long straight roads. These conditions lend themselves to bad behavior by the state’s maverick citizens. The most striking evidence I saw of this were the many pock marks on the big green signs along stretches of I-35, which I learned were put there by the rifles of passing motorists.
Texas politics have had a prominent maverick strain in them from the get-go. Of late, however, this strain has become particularly virulent within the state’s GOP, which now occupies the governor’s mansion and holds large majorities in both houses of the state legislature (thanks in no small measure to gerrymandering). The Texas Tribune, for example, recently described some flare-ups of toxic masculinity in the legislature during the session ended in May, including an exchange of shoves between two GOP reps “during an argument about feral hog poison” and “a melee [that] nearly broke out on the House floor on the last day of the session.” This saloon-style atmosphere is reflected in much of the legislation the Texas GOP has recently pursued. One notable example made national headlines last year: the “campus carry” law that the ruling majority foisted on the state’s colleges and universities over vigorous opposition from educators (a former mentor of mine prominent among them). Judging from Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent “joke” at a gun range about shooting reporters, and the state’s expansion of its “open carry” law last month to include knives with blades longer than 5½” (though school campuses are exempt this time), the GOP leadership seems to have remained unphased by the pushback. A number of other bills introduced during the most recent legislative session also highlight the ruling majority’s commitment to an aggressive far-right agenda, notable among them attacks on abortion providers, sanctuary cities, air quality control, and inevitably the rights of the state’s LGBTQ citizens.
In having us in their crosshairs, the Texas GOP doesn’t differ from a lot of red state Republican parties. What sets them apart is the sheer volume and rabidity of their legislative assaults. Of 131 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in state legislatures across the country through mid-May this year, almost 20% were Texan. Like everything else, the bigotry is apparently bigger there as well. And the state again made national news with two of these bills. One, HB 3859, which the governor signed into law, recognizes the right of adoption agencies and child welfare providers to exercise their “religious liberty” and deny the applications of prospective parents who don’t meet their doctrinal smell test – a measure that, as the Human Rights Campaign notes, targets queer youth as well as same-sex parents. The second, SB 6, which is yet another stoopid “bathroom bill” patterned on North Carolina’s disastrous HB 2, has not yet been passed – and was initially refused a hearing in the house over concerns about the adverse impact it would have on the state’s economy – but is currently under consideration in a special legislative session (cuz, you know, where we pee is one of the most vital public safety issues of the day).
I’ve written a lot in the past year-plus about why red-state Republican lawmakers like Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and their good ol’ boy cronies in the Texas legislature are so hell-bent on going after trans folks in particular, and the LGBTQ community more generally, even when doing so goes against their states’ interests. Focusing on the political and historical dimensions of contemporary anti-LGBTQ animus, I’ve argued that targeting us has proven itself a strategically effective way for far right power brokers to shore up their base for a couple of reasons. The first is plain old bigotry, which requires that we be punished for existing. The second has to do with the bunker mentality that the current national climate has fostered within the base. As Amanda Marcotte characterizes it in a recent piece in Salon, white, Christian, cis, straight America “can see…that the nation is changing culturally,” and hoping to “reassert their cultural dominance,” they have as a voting bloc eschewed economic self-interest and come to “view politics through a culture-war lens,” and are “us[ing] the Republican Party as a cudgel to beat up the people that threaten them.” Our attempt to secure our civil rights is of course seen as part of the encroaching cultural change, and caricatured as the “gay agenda,” it serves as an apt lightning rod for right-wing fear and rage over that change.
As the example of Texas highlights with particular clarity, though, the intensity and intractability of the animus against us in state GOP politics not only go beyond any narrowly strategic needs, but even seem excessive in the context of symbolic scapegoating or old school attacks on “fags,” “dykes,” and “trannies.” Indeed, as with the unhinged response of so many GOP-controlled legislatures to the spike in catastrophic gun violence (An assault rifle in every pot!), the will to persecute us in states like Texas has in large measure become detached from policy considerations and morphed into a sort of perverse legislative game, like a red state race up the greased pole at a bigotry fair. I’d like to spend a little time here considering why this state of affairs has come about, and how we can best respond to it.
One thing that has clearly facilitated the rise of the current situation is what former right-wing talk radio host Charles Sykes referred to in a February 4 op-ed in the New York Times as the right’s “alternative-reality media.” The “cumulative effect” of years of “hammering the mainstream media for its bias and double standards,” Sykes observes, was not to “creat[e] a savvier, more skeptical audience,” but instead “to delegitimize those outlets and essentially destroy much of the right’s immunity to false information.” This lack of “immunity,” he continues, has given rise to a “media ecosystem” in which “any news deemed to be biased, annoying or negative” – like, say, reports about different sexual orientations being a function of natural variation, or the predatory trans woman being a zombie fiction – “can be labeled ‘fake news’” and dismissed.
Why this “media ecosystem” would foster a disproportional intensification of anti-LGBTQ sentiment has to do, I think, with its vulnerability to charismatic demagogues and grifters: people who secure a position of authority within the ecosystem by playing to its consumers’ hopes and/or fears. The delegitimizing of mainstream sources obviously narrows the range of “legitimate” sources, as well as lessening the likelihood that opposing views will be given a hearing – a situation ripe for exploitation by figures like Rush Limbaugh and the talking heads on Fox. C/w the dynamism of the news cycle, moreover, the gradual closing of the system creates an environment ever more conducive to competition among its resident “experts,” who must continue upping both the scope and volume of their particular brand of distortion in order to maintain their position. This atmosphere of competition also opens the door to heretofore fringe players like the Breitbart loonies and the shock jock of apocalyptic paranoia, Alex Jones. And in the race for the next bigger-harder-louder lie, a group of consumers is created that is willing to accept as gospel stories about Pizzagate and the deep state’s chemical feminization of frogs. We don’t need to call in the rocket scientists to see why as a voting bloc this group would be easy pickings for state and local players like Abbott and Patrick – and of course for our con man-POTUS.
Indeed, as for so many other horrible developments on the far right in the past two years, Trump is a key figure in the spike in anti-LGBTQ feeling among the Republican base. This is due not so much to the policies he has pushed – though he’s proven himself no friend of ours since occupying the White House – but more generally to the way he wields his authority. His ascent to the most powerful position in the country was accomplished thanks to his willingness not only to cudgel cosmopolitan elites and the D.C. establishment, but also to push the right’s alt-reality to its logical extreme by flouting a flagrantly situational, self-serving notion of “truth,” and doubling down with toxic masculine aplomb on whatever absurdity he feels will serve him in the given moment. Those who hate us have embraced his iconoclasm and war on meaning as a license not merely to dismiss any counterarguments we might raise against their views of us, but to do so with all due belligerence. Thus our continued insistence on rational discourse is met with ever more draconian measures targeting us. Thus our arguments about sexual orientation and natural variation, and refutations of the predatory trans woman bull dookie, are answered with Genesis 18-19, “privacy rights,” and a middle finger. With his ascendancy, Trump has revivified the old racist paternalist ideal of the Great White Father, and degraded it in his image to a punch-drunk, stump preaching shyster.
It’s an open question how long this unholy alliance can last. Both Trump’s brand of relativism, bordering in its extremity on solipsism, and the pathological narcissism that sustains it are antithetical to the professed beliefs of his evangelical base (or indeed anyone calling themselves “Christian”), and his ongoing assault on this nation’s core institutions runs very much counter to traditional Republican values. Given the bellicose and largely hermetic bunkerthink prevailing within the GOP base at present, though, our best opportunity for positive change is through legislative means, whether at the state and local level or through federal mandates like the Equality Act enforced by a once more proactive DOJ. This approach will of course require some political turnover, and thus the dismantling of the years of Republican gerrymandering. It’s true that the far right dismisses federal intervention as “overreach,” claiming that it trammels on both “states’ rights” and individuals’ “religious liberty.” This is not about imposing an alien set of values on local communities, however, except where locally dominant “values” (“religious” or otherwise) promote the blatant denial of rights to certain of the area’s citizens. Federal intervention on behalf of LGBTQ citizens is about razing the Jim Crow-style ghettos of intolerance that persist across the nation. It’s about creating a situation in which (as much as possible) the Declaration’s assertions about our fundamental equality and inalienable rights apply to everyone. It’s a mandate to drive friendly on the nation’s economic, social, and cultural highways.