Right-wing extremists target Pride events after GOP embraces 'groomer' rhetoric

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'Dangerous anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment and rhetoric fuels physical harm against our community,' one LGBTQ rights advocate said.

Over the past two weeks, right-wing extremists have been disrupting LGBTQ Pride Month events across the country. In some cases, Pride Month events have been canceled due to fear of violence from homophobic and transphobic individuals.

On Saturday, police in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, arrested 31 people identified by authorities as members of Patriot Front, a white nationalist group. The group's members, who had gathered inside a U-Haul, were allegedly planning to target an LGBTQ Pride event in the city. The event, Pride in the Park, included an LGBTQ-affirming prayer and a drag dance party. Coeur d'Alene Police Chief Lee White said the men planned to enter the park and confront people. Their planning documents showed that they would have used smoke grenades once "they met some level of resistance," the Washington Post reported.

The founder of Patriot Front, Thomas Ryan Rousseau, was among those arrested and charged with misdemeanor conspiracy to riot, according to CBS News. Patriot Front was founded following the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a counter-protester, Heather Heyer, was killed by a white supremacist, James Alex Fields, Jr.

Another group opposing the Pride festivities, called Panhandle Patriots Riding Club, organized at the park that day, where members showed people books they considered to be "grooming."

These developments follow a surge of Republicans using the word "groomer" to falsely describe LGBTQ people and people affirming LGBTQ rights in schools and public libraries as child predators.

The Rape Abuse Incest National Network defines grooming to sexually abuse kids as "manipulative behaviors that the abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught."

At least 14 transgender and gender-nonconforming people have been killed so far this year, and last year at least 57 transgender and gender-nonconforming people had violent deaths. Republican lawmakers across the country have passed anti-LGBTQ bills to prevent trans kids from playing on the sports team of their gender and from being able to access gender-affirming medical care. They've also enacted laws censoring classroom lessons on LGBTQ people.

Accusations of abusing kids have been connected to violent acts in the past as well as just last week. On June 9, Joe Louis Esquivel came to his workplace — Columbia Machine in Smithsburg, Maryland — and shot four coworkers, killing three people. The shooter claimed that his motivation for his actions was that his coworkers were "pedophiles" — a fixation shared by believers of right-wing conspiracy theories such as QAnon.

In 2016, Edgar Welch shot a gun inside the Washington, D.C., restaurant Comet Ping Pong, which he falsely claimed was part of a child sexual abuse ring, citing a discredited conspiracy theory he saw online that prominent right-wing figures spread. No one was hurt. Weeks before the incident, the restaurant had received hundreds of threats.

The latest string of incidents targeting Pride Month events also comes after state GOP lawmakers pushed a wave of anti-LGBTQ bills targeting trans people and trans youth in particular. As of May 19, at least 19 of these bills have been enacted so far this year.

In March, Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' press secretary, Christina Pushaw, described Florida's "Don't Say Gay or Trans" bill, which the governor has since signed into law, as an "anti-grooming bill."

In May, as Arizona state Rep. Jake Hoffman (R) complained that his bill focused on "sexually explicit material" in schools had stalled in the Legislature, he said that it "will end the sexual grooming of children in K-12 classrooms from kindergarten through 12th grade," according to the Tennessee Star.

Tori Cooper, director of community engagement of the Human Rights Campaign's Transgender Justice Initiative, told the American Independent Foundation that these bills are contributing to the overall hostile political climate LGBTQ people face today.

"Pride is a celebration of who we are, coming together, beautifully visible. But we can't forget that Pride is also a protest," Cooper said. "Right now, transgender people are under attack in the streets — with an epidemic of fatal violence against Black transgender women — and in statehouses, with radical politicians desperate to rile up their base by introducing bills that try to control how to raise and support our children."

In addition to the popularization of arguments that LGBTQ people are "grooming" kids, the social media account Libs of TikTok, which has influenced Fox News coverage of LGBTQ rights, has used its Twitter account to harass schools and school employees. One of the group's latest targets is a children's hospital in Nebraska that provides gender-affirming care.

Long before the use of "grooming" to describe any inclusion or affirmation of LGBTQ people in public life, extremism experts were concerned that anti-trans rhetoric would be used to fuel right-wing movements. In 2021, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College London published a report that said transphobia should be seen as a "security concern."

"Transphobia has long been one of the most major and ubiquitous narratives around which the far right mobilises. The way in which transphobia is utilised as a narrative within the far right must be afforded considerably more academic and policymaker consideration," the report explained.

This past weekend, men wearing Proud Boys gear entered the San Lorenzo Library in California during its Drag Queen Story Hour event. Drag Queen Story Hours are events where drag queens read books to kids in public libraries. According to an ABC affiliate, a drag queen named Panda Dulce said eight to 10 Proud Boys came in, barking anti-LGBTQ slurs and admonishing parents who brought their children to the event. The Alameda County Sheriff's Department said there is an active hate crime investigation into the Saturday incident.

On Sunday, the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition announced that it was indefinitely postponing a rally to support trans youth after a student organizer received a "credible death threat" targeting the event. 

"We intend to reschedule as soon as possible. We will not be deterred by hatred, because we know the goal of anti-trans extremists is to drive us to fear. Our priority remains the wellbeing of trans students in Georgia - we are grateful for everyone standing alongside us!" the group tweeted

Similarly, a Drag Queen Story Hour event scheduled for June 11 for the Apex Pride Festival in Apex, North Carolina, was canceled after several complaints and threats against people organizing the Pride festival, according to The Advocate.

"We have had many emails sent to us at Council complaining about the drag story hour event. Multiple members of Apex Pride have been sent nasty emails, messages, etc. over the past couple of weeks it has escalated to violent threats against multiple members of the Apex Festival Commission," Apex Mayor Pro Tem Audra Killingsworth said in a Facebook comment. "Because of those threats, the commission decided to pull the drag queen story hour from the kids zone."

In Texas, pastors and anti-LGBTQ protesters have been vocal in their opposition of LGBTQ rights. On June 4, anti-LGBTQ protesters came to protest in front of a Dallas bar, Mr. Misster, to oppose a drag show that benefited an LGBTQ youth organization, an ABC affiliate reported. The event was billed as a "family-friendly" drag show.

"We had a group of protestors outside yelling homophobic threats, transphobic remarks and vile accusations at these children and parents," a spokesperson for the bar told the local news station.

Before the events of the past weekend, Emerson Hodges, a research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, said increasing violence during Pride Month events is "unsurprising" given the rise in violent anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.

"This is unsurprising given the rampant use of 'groomer' rhetoric by the right-wing as of late. It's still too early to tell how common this might be this year, unfortunately," Hodges told the American Independent Foundation.

Cathyrn Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, said the weekend's events represent "a really unfortunate outcome of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric of dehumanization of LGBTQ people of talking about LGBTQ people as 'groomers' in order to get a bill passed."

LGBTQ advocates acknowledge how intense anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, particularly anti-trans rhetoric, has become, but say they remain determined to fight for a better future.

"Some people question why we still need Pride — this is why. Dangerous anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment and rhetoric fuels physical harm against our community," Cooper said. "We will not hide our pride and we will continue to stand with every member of our community to push back against anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.