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What We Can Learn from the Long, Dark History of the Anti-LGBTQ Movement

An expert traces the history of the anti-LGBTQ+ movement — and how the movement began to focus on kids.

An old protest featuring homophobic, anti-gay protesters holding signs
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For many, the recent attack on LGBTQ+ kids has come as a shock. But for parents, experts, and LGBTQ+ people on the ground, it’s been a long time coming. This year alone, conservative lawmakers have introduced more than 300 anti-LGBTQ bills. Many have been passed into law.

In 2021, the first major bill attacking trans kids was passed in Arkansas, making gender-affirming care for minors a felony, and Alabama has since passed a similar law. Texas has declared gender-affirming care for minors to be child abuse. And Florida issued a nonbinding guidance that advises against even social transitioning, or fully reversible changes like using new pronouns or changing the way you dress. At least 16 states have passed anti-trans sports bills. And Florida has passed its “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” bill that outlaws discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. These bills fly in the face of scientific evidence that supporting LGBTQ kids is what’s best for their health and well-being.

For families only recently delivered into the madness of these bills, how did this happen? For a historical perspective, Fatherly spoke to Alejandra Caraballo, a clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic and an expert on the history of legislation impacting the LGBTQ+ community. Here, she explains how we’ve gotten to this point and where she expects we will go next.

This anti-LGBTQ movement in U.S. history, where does it begin from a legal standpoint?

It’s hard to pinpoint. When homophobia is just so commonly understood and shared, it’s not like there’s a concerted anti-LGBTQ movement. Society is the anti-LGBTQ movement.

When homophobia is just so commonly understood and shared, it’s not like there’s a concerted anti-LGBTQ movement. Society is the anti-LGBTQ movement.

[But it goes back.] There’s a famous case of T. Hall, from the Jamestown colony in Virginia in 1629. T. Hall was likely intersex, but they were so indeterminate and they lived as both a man and a woman that the governor of Virginia had a court hearing to determine the gender of T. Hall. So this has always been an issue. Trans people and queer people and intersex people have always been around.

Up until the 20th century, there had been no concerted effort to reform any homophobia. Sodomy was considered a [federal crime in every state until 1962] — a felony [that] was a capital offense. [Editor’s note: Anti-sodomy laws were ruled unconstitutional only in 2003.] There are unconfirmed reports that some people had been sentenced to capital death because of sodomy and being queer.

It wasn’t until the 1950s in San Francisco that you had the Compton’s Cafeteria riots, and Stonewall in 1969 and the rise of Mattachine Society, the Gay Liberation Front, all of these organizations that spurred on this more formalized understanding of gay rights. With that, there was pushback.

In the 1970s, we saw the first concerted [anti-LGTBQ+] effort, with Anita Bryant in Florida and her Save the Children campaign. Miami passed protections for LGBTQ people into a city ordinance, and then there was a huge push to repeal it because [the religious right] was framing LGBTQ people as a danger to children. Sounds familiar!

Johns Hopkins had a gender clinic in the 1960s. There were actually nearly a hundred clinics, there were a lot of trans people at this time, but when Reagan got elected in 1982, they banned gender-affirming care by labeling it experimental. That didn’t get repealed until 2016.

It wasn’t until the 1990s, when there was a de facto genocide of gay men because of the indifference of the Reagan administration to the AIDS crisis, when you got the Family Research Council, the Heritage Foundation, and this institutionalized nonprofit structure. There was an understanding that the [right] was losing the culture wars. They were losing all of their views on sexuality, on sex, on gender, on marriage. So they co-opted the methods of more progressive nonprofits like the ACLU and NAACP and formed think tanks that were really well-funded.

Some of these organizations pushed the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in 2004. Their influence is lasting. You have the Alliance Defending Freedom, Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and the Heritage Foundation. It’s to roll back the clock and enshrine homophobia that was pervasive in society into policy and laws.

Through most of this history, it seems like these groups were targeting LGBTQ adults. Is there a history of targeting kids?

For a lot of trans folks, the attack on adults was not surprising. During HB 2 in North Carolina [Editor’s Note: The “bathroom bill” that would have required people to use the bathroom for the sex they were assigned at birth], there was such a massive backlash. In a year where Donald Trump won, the Republicans retained the Senate and Republicans retained the House, a Republican governor in North Carolina lost reelection, and it was largely credited to the HB 2 fiasco, which banned trans people from using the bathroom.

I think they realized that it’s much harder to attack trans adults. So what we saw was this focus on children, which is not a new tactic, right? This is the Anita Bryant stuff from the 1970s.

They focused on sports because sports are inherently zero sum. Somebody wins, somebody loses. If a trans person wins, a cis person is losing. [They] have to stop that, even if it means that the trans person can’t compete in sports at all. They honed in on “trans people are taking something from me.” That’s a much more powerful message for them to push.

There’s been a reactionary movement to gender-affirming care for minors. This whole ecosystem has sprung up to support pseudoscientific attacks on gender-affirming care. The religious right uses a handful of medical experts, and there are the intellectual dark web journalists who cover it who are pushing these arguments.

I submitted an academic paper dealing with the ethics of this, The Ouroboros of Anti-Trans Pseudoscience. They all build on each other’s pseudoscience and then cite each other. It’s a small echo chamber, because they cite each other, and it builds up an illusion of credibility. But it’s the same 15 people that are all pointing at each other. The religious right gets a lot of authority [from them] for their anti-trans pseudoscience and their anti-trans policy positions.

Is being anti-trans a gateway to pushing more anti-gay things, because being anti-trans is more socially acceptable?

Yeah. Trans people are viewed as the soft underbelly of LGBTQ people. They want to divide trans people from the rest of the community to isolate them and to strip them of their rights, and then go after the LGB folks. If they could do both at the same time, that’s even better for them.

But they’re not going to stop at LGBTQ people. The things that are animating these bills are the same things that are animating their anti-abortion views. They want to get rid of the right to contraception. What it’s really about is stripping away bodily autonomy.

But they’re not going to stop at LGBTQ people. The things that are animating these bills are the same things that are animating their anti-abortion views. They want to get rid of the right to contraception. What it’s really about is stripping away bodily autonomy.

In your opinion, what do you think is going to happen next?

I try to be optimistic, but I’ve seen this movie. I don’t think this is going to get much better. I do think we’ll hold off some of the worst attacks. But the Republicans are favored to take the House and the Senate, likely to win in 2024, or even if they don’t win, they’re likely to steal the election. They’re electing some batsh*t secretaries of state in various states that would have withheld certification in 2020. They’re going to have those people in place in 2024.

And if you get someone — either Trump or a DeSantis coming in and basically initiating a coup — I fully expect Viktor Orban-style repression [Editor’s Note: Viktor Orban is the authoritarian prime minister of Hungary who has banned discussion of LGBTQ topics in sex education classes, seized the ability to rule by decree and pass laws on his own indefinitely, and is currently blocking a European Union ban on imports of Russian oil]. The full levers of the federal government could turn against not just LGBTQ people, but women, religious minorities, anyone who doesn’t fit the mold of white cis-hetero-normativity. That means immediately banning abortion, immigration, erasing any mention or understanding of trans people from the federal government, and using the federal government as a lever to implement that on the states.

We could see the FDA weaponized to ban prescribing hormones for anyone who is trans. They [could] destroy IVF, because they do not look favorably upon assistive reproductive technology. They may ban hormones entirely, or schedule them even higher [placing them into a drug category that makes them more difficult to access]. Testosterone is already a Schedule III drug [a classification it shares with drugs like ketamine]. So I see an escalation into fully authoritarian, fascist tactics with no real meaningful pushback.

States like California and New York may be safe-havens, but that will only last for so long, as we saw in the Trump administration. The federal government will find ways to leverage states to do what they want by withholding funding. LGBTQ people will be seen as expendable political capital. Politicians will renege on protections if it means keeping the lights on. If it means choosing between getting highway funding or protecting trans people, they’re going to go with the highway funding.

That’s incredibly bleak.

We have to understand and identify the problem. Having an unreasonably optimistic view of the future is not going to help you, because if you don’t understand the ways that the state can be weaponized against you, you will not be prepared for when it does.

I hope I’m wrong. If I’m wrong, great, everything turned out peachy keen and we’re good. I’d rather be horribly, catastrophically wrong and have been overprepared than to have had an overly optimistic view of the future and be underprepared and stuck in a dystopia.

When it comes to the future, what do parents need to know? Is there anything they can do to prepare?

The idea of moving, even moving states, is not helpful, especially in the short term. People’s livelihoods, their jobs, their families, their support structures are all [where they are]. But if they don’t live in a state that’s actively pro-LGBTQ like California, New York, and Massachusetts, they should be making longer-term plans to relocate if they have a trans or queer child. But there’s always going to be new trans kids.

If you’re in Texas or Florida or Alabama, get in contact with the ACLU. Keep your safe file handy with all of your kiddo’s medical records.

And as much as the extent that you can, be visible. Because the biggest problem is there’s a lack of awareness. People just don’t know that this is happening.