GOP’s war on LGBTQ kids echoes 1930s Germany

by Will Bunch

I’ve been meaning to write a column on the growing threat — and reality — of violence to America’s LGBTQ community posed by right-wing rhetoric and politics, but it’s proved a difficult piece to write. Not because the “culture wars” around sexuality and gender are complicated — they can be, although the notion of loving all people for who they are is pretty simple — but because new, outrageous incidents keep topping the ones I planned to write about.

Literally as I hit the “send” button on a note to my editors about this column, it was reported that police in Baltimore were investigating multiple fires on a city street as a possible hate crime — which sent three people to the hospital — in which a Pride flag celebrating LGBTQ rights was reportedly set ablaze.

Officials there had good reason to be alarmed, after the widely reported incident just the weekend before in which 31 members of the white nationalist Patriot Front — the weird khaki-wearing extremists — were arrested in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, after piling into a rented U-Haul truck armed with riot gear, apparently with the goal of violently disrupting the annual Pride event underway there.

This occurred right after several members of another well-known violent extremist group, the Proud Boys — some of them wearing T-shirts with images of AK-47s — showed up at the San Lorenzo, Calif., public library to disrupt and shut down a “drag queen story time” children’s book event, shouting homophobic slurs. As the author and transgender advocate Parker Molloy wrote in a recent newsletter, both the Idaho and California events had been targeted by a social media feed called Libs of TikTok that has developed a huge following on the right — with some 1.2 million Twitter followers — and attracted much controversy.

Wrote Molloy: “Things are getting really bad for LGBTQ people out there, and I just don’t see how it’ll get any better, especially in the short term. Republicans and their allies in right-wing media are going on the attack. Their goal is to create reasonable-sounding arguments (“No, you see, I just really care about fairness in women’s sports!”), and then use that to wipe out LGBTQ people.”

I don’t think Molloy is unduly alarmist. To the contrary, it’s only getting worse by the day. We are now seeing a dangerous loop in which the most extreme voices on the far right — led, ironically, by so-called pastors — are making genocidal comments about our brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ community. In America’s statehouses, Republican lawmakers who claim to be worried about real-life problems like inflation are instead spending all of their time translating hate speech into proposed laws that would make societal pariahs out of transgender kids. In chat rooms and militia training sessions, the soldiers of extremism are on the brink of taking all of this to the next blood-drenched level.

The increasingly dangerous, violent rhetoric has been amplified to 11″ by the likes of Mark Burns, a prominent South Carolina televangelist and Donald Trump enthusiast who just ran for Congress (and lost, thankfully) and who said this month that LGBTQ-friendly schoolteachers are “a national security threat” guilty of treason, which should be punishable by execution. In Idaho, where that Pride parade violence was narrowly averted, Pastor Joe Jones of Shield of Faith Baptist Church in Boise kicked things up a notch by declaring in a video that subsequently went viral: “God told the nation that he ruled: Put them to death. Put all queers to death.”

In a healthy democracy truly committed to liberty and human rights, our elected leaders would be condemning these shocking calls for violence. Instead, Republican lawmakers are working overtime to figure out how to channel this alarming new far-right zeitgeist into the fake respectability of law — and not just in the blood-red states of the old Confederacy. It was jarring to see Pennsylvania’s GOP-led legislature — immediately after the mass shooting in Uvalde — squelch any meaningful debate on gun control while the state Senate was instead passing a blanket ban on transgender youth in school sports.

“We are in a day when good is called evil and evil is called good,” claimed one of the bill’s co-sponsors, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who happens to be the current Republican nominee for governor. If he wins — and a major new poll has Mastriano within the “margin of error” (such a fitting phrase) of defeating Democrat Josh Shapiro — he would surely sign this legislation into law in 2023.

This story is understandably shocking to many Americans. When the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage the law of the land with its

2015 Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, it felt to many like the final chapter in an American feel-good story of increasing tolerance that would only get better with the ascension of open-minded new generations. Instead, the epilogue has been a violent wrenching backward of the arc of a moral universe.

In focusing on laws like transgender sports bans — which affect a handful of kids, in a matter that can and should be handled by sports regulatory bodies, and not the stuff of state legislation — or Florida’s notoriously and now-copied “Don’t say gay” law, the Republican Party is sending a message that is both heartbreakingly cruel to the humans directly affected but also meant to intimidate all people it wants to keep on society’s margin. We have a word for when this type of inhumane bullying becomes the governing philosophy, and it’s time to start using it.

That word is fascism.

This American version of an authoritarian dystopia — wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross, as long predicted — is numbingly similar to the world’s past versions of autocracy, with brutal anti-LGBTQ discrimination so often on the cutting edge for movements also cloaked in white supremacy, patriarchy and other forms of repression.

The parallels between what happened in Germany in the 1920s — when the short-lived Weimar Republic saw a period of liberalizing and openness around human sexuality — and the 1930s, when the brutal repression of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party took root, should be alarming to Americans in the 2020s. In May 1933, right after Hitler took power, students in clean white shirts (shades of today’s Patriot Front) marched on Berlin’s Institute for Sexual Research — a bastion of Weimar liberalism — which was a prelude to its library being burned down and the arrest of its leader.

By the mid-1930s, Hitler’s Gestapo had formed a unit to arrest gay men under a previously not-enforced law, netting some 8,500 prisoners. As Europe devolved into the horrors of World War II, it’s known that thousands of men accused of homosexuality — perhaps as many as 15,000 — did not survive the Nazi death camps.

It can’t happen here? It’s already starting to happen right now, and it’s happening in conjunction with so many other warning signs of creeping fascism: daily, stunning revelations of a failed putsch that occurred not inside a beer hall but at the U.S. Capitol, the rise of a political class wedded to a Big Lie that could end democratic elections and the rise of a Christian nationalism that is converting “The Handmaid’s Tale” into a work of nonfiction. Every day’s headlines scream out for the truth, that this is Nazi-type stuff.

And it’s spiraling out of control in June, a month for remembering the courageous 1969 pioneers of Stonewall, but also the horrors of the backlash that erupted in a hail of gunfire at the Pulse nightclub in 2016. Some 53 years after Greenwich Village and just six years after Orlando, America is on the precipice. There is still — barely — time to grab the arc of the moral universe back from the men in crisp white shirts trying to break it.

Will Bunch is national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.