As Anti-LGBTQ Backlash Grows, Advocates Say There Is ‘Hope’ In Action

“We can't forget that democracy is not a spectator sport – it's the difference between maintaining progress in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights and losing them,” said Fairness Pennsylvania State Director Sarah Hammond.
Photo courtesy of GLAAD.

Backlash to LGBTQ+ progress has increased substantially in Pennsylvania and across the U.S. in recent years. From attacks on LGBTQ inclusion in public schools and threats against drag queen story hours to mounting anti-LGBTQ legislation, right-wing extremists have used disinformation and conspiracies to try to erode the rights and liberties and even safety of queer and trans Americans. 

Just this year, Pennsylvania lawmakers have introduced at least six anti-LGBTQ bills targeting education and health care, according to data from the ACLU. This is up from three bills the previous year. Schools districts like Pennridge and Central Bucks have also been engulfed in controversy over anti-LGBTQ policies and the treatment of LGBTQ students as a result of previous Republican-majority school boards recently voted out of power in November. 

All of this, however, has been bolstered by the work of extremist groups, which are continuing to grow in number. 

A new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center found that hate and extremist groups increased significantly in 2023, with anti-LGBTQ and white supremacist groups being chief among them. Pennsylvania was ranked among the top 10 states with the most hate and anti-government groups. One such group is Moms for Liberty, whose members have had a strong presence in what has been dubbed as the “school board wars” in Pennsylvania, especially in Bucks County. 

R.G. Cravens, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told the Bucks County Beacon that although Moms for Liberty is listed as an anti-government group, there is a lot of “overlap” between different categories of extremist groups. 

READ: Moms for Liberty Bucks County Leaders Think Public Schools Are Trying to Bring Pedophilia Into the Classrooms

“One of the tactics that they often engage in is targeting LGBTQ+ inclusion in public schools, and so I think that’s a really good example of the kinds of opportunities that hate and extremist groups will look for to exploit, trying to either gain membership or sow division,” Cravens said. White nationalist or white supremacist groups, on the other hand, engaged in “more overt intimidation tactics,” like the targeting of drag story hours at public libraries, with the Proud Boys being the group to most frequent these events. 

Meanwhile, other groups focus on generating conspiratorial memes and spreading anti-trans pseudoscience on social media, or even show up to testify at state legislatures and ambush school board meetings.

“That’s sort of how the environment of hate and extremism plays out is that each group may have a role to play, and they’re also reinforcing each other,” Cravens added.

According to Cravens, the main highlight of the report is that the far-right are “scared” of an inclusive society, which is why institutions that are meant for everyone and are fundamental to democracy are being targeted. 

READ: PFLAG Bucks County: Creating a Caring, Just and Affirming World for LGBTQ+ People and Those Who Love Them

“When those institutions are under threat, when you have to worry about the safety and security of your kids at a library, that really calls into question your ability to to actually engage and participate in your community. And that’s the point,” he said. 

Despite this, Craven says there are signs of hope. Amidst the hate and extremism, there are are countless LGBTQ activists and advocacy groups working to uplift the LGBTQ community and are mobilising to push back against anti-LGBTQ policies and school boards. Individuals are also becoming more politically engaged, which he says is “encouraging.” Bucks County had its own successes in November when Democrats worked to push Moms for Liberty/far-right school board majorities in both  Central Bucks and Pennridge school districts.

More of these victories are needed, however, on both a state and national level. Sarah Hammond, the state director of Fairness Pennsylvania, notes that “it will take all hands on deck to fight the rising levels anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination,” including grassroots activism and community education, as well as efforts to enact legal protections for LGBTQ people. 

READ: Pennsylvania Takes Important Step to Protect LGBTQ Youth By Repudiating ‘Conversion Therapy’

“Our state has still yet to codify basic civil rights protections that ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. It’s time we change that,” Hammond said, referring to the PA Fairness Act, which passed the state House last year and is still awaiting approval in the Senate. “We can’t forget that democracy is not a spectator sport – it’s the difference between maintaining progress in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights and losing them.”

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Catherine Caruso

Catherine Caruso is a Pennsylvania-based freelance writer with a focus on culture, politics, education, and LGBTQ rights.

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