Column: Christian nationalists are behind LGBTQ+ laws. California isn’t immune.
When more than 100 Walt Disney Co. workers walked out of their Burbank offices to protest the companies lackluster opposition to Florida’s unforgivable “don’t say gay,” law this week, it seemed like a heartening example of California rising to its reputation as a beacon of inclusivity and action.
And it was.
But “California is not all rainbows and sunshine, especially for marginalized people,” Judah Joslyn told me over coffee this week, as a homeless man outside the café door yelled about God’s wrath for those who don’t follow a particular interpretation of the Bible. That’s got to be a metaphor for something, though nothing good. Joslyn’s point is that hate isn’t a place, and doesn’t respect geographic boundaries.
Joslyn, who is transgender, is executive director of the Trans and Queer Youth Collective in Sacramento. Every day, Joslyn (who prefers not to use pronouns) helps run online groups where a mix of 95 nonbinary kids age 12-17 come for camaraderie and understanding — a lifeline because many of them have little of either in their offline realities. That some will try to “un-live” themselves, as Joslyn refers to suicide, is an ever-present danger too common in transgender communities. It has been intensified by years of pandemic isolation and now a national attack by far-right zealots who are pushing laws targeting LGBTQ+ people and their families across the country.
The kids’ fears — of violence, rejection, oppression and now even being separated from their parents — are real, whether they live here or elsewhere, as some of the group members do, because the attacks are genuine attempts to erase them, and strip away their civil rights. If you are not safe everywhere, are you safe anywhere?
If you or someone you know is exhibiting warning signs of suicide, seek help from a professional by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255). You can reach Trans Lifeline at (877) 565-8860 and the Trevor Project at (866) 488-7386.
Legal attacks on LGBTQ+ people aren’t going to happen in California, but your head would have to be deep in the sand to think they don’t matter here.
The far-right has a plan, and, as Rachel Laser of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State puts it, Florida and Texas are harbingers of worse to come. The two states are “the canary in the coal mine” of oppression and repression, she said. Targeting LGBTQ+ communities is a great test for those who believe the United States should be a patriarchal, Judeo-Christian nation. They hope — after four years of Trumpism — that the Land of the Free is ripe for a return to so-called “traditional” values that enshrine sexism, racism and a whole bunch of other ugly.
Like many who track extremism, especially of the religious variety, Laser sees the recent wave of anti-gay legislation as an attack on democracy. These punches from Texas and Florida aren’t about sexuality or gender. They are about the mainstreaming of Christian nationalism and its attempt to break down the separation between church and state. This is a well-organized segment of the far-right that is flush with cash.
Adding a religious exemption for bakers who don’t want to make a cake for a gay wedding was dessert before dinner for this intolerant flank. They’d rather see an outright ban on gay weddings. Or how about banning abortions? Making it harder for minorities to vote? Adding prayer to schools, or making it mandatory to display the “national motto” of “In God We Trust?”
All those are part of what Christian nationalists would like to accomplish, and what they have been peddling at the state and local level with organizations such as Project Blitz, which offer up ready-made legislation aimed at keeping white, Christian supremacy alive and well. If you think the recent events in Florida and Texas are unrelated, or anything but coordinated attacks, it’s time to wake up.
The Jan. 6 insurrection, an attempt to take over the federal government, energized these forays into state and local politics as a more realistic option to overturning the election. Along with an angry view of Christianity, its adherents are often rooted in bitter delusion — including the QAnon conspiracy of kids being tortured by Democrats in a D.C. pizza parlor basement. That has fed rhetoric about the need to “save the children,” along with grievances ranging from immigration to gender identity, as they cloak themselves in false virtuosity by using the language of freedom and family.
“What we see is the white Christian nationalist movement coming for all marginalized communities who have made strides in recent years,” Laser said when we talked. “No one is safe.”
Laser wants to be clear that Christian nationalism isn’t Christianity, but rather a “sullying” of that religion by extremists who seek to seize political power as changing demographics push them from the majority. She points out that the U.S. hasn’t had a white, Christian majority since 2014.
But two things in particular make it easy for Christian nationalists to target nonbinary communities as they try to turn their agenda into state law. First, society has long marginalized and discriminated against LGBTQ+ communities, making them targets that are both easy and expected. Another instance of cruelty and abuse, even an egregious one, doesn’t provoke the outrage it should.
That insidious use of stigma is furthered by the complexities of our ideas about gender and sexuality, and their evolution. Identities and ideas that only a few years ago were foreign to the mainstream now have currency, such as the growing acceptance that sexuality is a spectrum or the increasingly common practice of people choosing their pronouns. But those changes come with confusion, even for the well-meaning. And confusion is always fertile ground for those who seek to sow dissent and fear.
And so we see legislation across the country testing out our tolerance for bigotry and hate. It may not be within the borders of our state, but like the Disney workers, it’s on us to take a stand, because the effects don’t stop at our borders.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, who legalized gay marriage while mayor of San Francisco before it was federally sanctioned, tweeted at Disney a few days ago that its Florida workers were welcome back in California. Wednesday, when I asked his office if anything further was coming about recent events, said he agreed it was a “coordinated attack.”
“It’s a cynical, divisive ploy to hold on to power by demonizing vulnerable groups,” Newsom said. “For those of us who want to defend progress, not privilege, we need to collectively raise our voices and do more to defend our values.”
Joslyn thinks statements like that are mostly “virtue signaling,” and that’s of course got truth in it. Joslyn wants to see money and action. But it’s at least a declaration of righteousness in a time of increasing bleakness for democracy. I’d rather have a Newsom than an Abbott, or God save me, a DeSantis — men who in my book are stomping both on democracy and my personal values, and maybe yours.
My mom was a lesbian, at a time in the Midwest when that wasn’t acceptable. She spent her entire life coming to terms with it, not living her authentic self until she was in her sixties and then busted out with trips to Fire Island and WNBA season tickets.
Joslyn has three kids, one of whom just decided this week he is transgender. Joslyn, who is Black, would like to see the same energy that ignited us in 2020 around racial justice come to bear as LQBTQ+ people face these attacks — for future generations, if not the now. Whatever government says, real change, real help, Joslyn believes, comes from everyday, ordinary people, like those who walked out of Disney for their co-workers.
“We need genuine support from the broader population to keep us safe,” Joslyn said. “It’s not the government that makes it a sanctuary. It’s the communities, it’s the people.”
In California, I hope our government proves Joslyn a bit wrong. Christian nationalism has no place in our borders, as a state or country. And let’s not wait to see who they come for next. We should all take this personally, because keeping LGBTQ+ people safe is vital to keeping us all safe.
To keeping democracy safe.
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