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Republican opposition to LGBTQ rights erupts in backlash to Pride Month

In Congress, Republicans proposed banning Pride flags at government buildings. At the Republican National Committee, some members revolted over a new LGBTQ+ outreach effort, which is now dormant. And on the campaign trail, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis solicited donations by showing President Biden in front of a Pride flag. “When did we start accepting this as the norm?” one message asked.

During this year’s Pride Month, many prominent Republicans have expressed criticism of celebrations and in some cases resurfaced opposition to same-sex marriage. LGBTQ+ issues are shaping the presidential race, as some candidates have repeatedly sought to emphasize their resistance to transgender athletes competing in women’s sports, students learning about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, and drag shows.

Their tactics are part of a broader upheaval in which GOP-led state legislatures have moved to pass a record surge of restrictions on gay and transgender rights and stores such as Target and Walmart have faced criticism from some on the right over their merchandise.

The attacks also coincide with signs of a shift in public opinion, with opposition to LGBTQ+ rights rising again, especially among Republicans, polling shows. Many conservative strategists and activists attribute the openly critical postures during Pride Month to a perception that the LGBTQ+ rights movement has gone too far, particularly with programming for children and public displays of Pride symbols.

“Do I think there are elements of the conservative movement taking advantage and trying to claw things back? Yes,” said Charles Moran, national president of the Log Cabin Republicans, the nation’s oldest conservative LGBT organization. “A couple years ago this was pretty much settled, and the reason it’s being reopened is because of the far left.”

The latest Gallup survey found that acceptance of same-sex relations fell this year to 64 percent, from a high of 71 percent in 2022. The decline among Republicans was 15 points to 41 percent, the lowest share in Gallup’s polling since 2014. A Pew survey in the fall found 55 percent of Republicans viewed same-sex marriage being legal as bad for society. The change in attitudes and the comments from Republicans have prompted concern among LGBTQ+ advocates.

This month, the Human Rights Campaign, a national nonprofit that advocates LGBTQ+ rights, declared a first-ever “state of emergency” over a wave of Republican-led state legislation it opposes, and a joint report by the Anti-Defamation League and GLAAD identified more than 350 incidents of harassment, vandalism and assault beginning in June 2022. More than half the incidents including explicit references to “grooming” or “pedophilia,” the group said.

“There were some folks who felt when we got marriage, well, then the battles were kind of done,” said JoDee Winterhof, HRC’s senior vice president for policy and political affairs. “We face backlash. It continues.”

Acceptance of transgender Americans is lower than of people who are gay, lesbian or bisexual, but for all, there’s a wide gap between Republicans, independents and Democrats, public polling shows. Some on the right have pointed to the use of gender-affirming care for minors, such as puberty blockers, in explaining their opposition to Pride flags on government buildings such as the White House.

“We’ve seen the majority of voter sentiment related to LGBTQ issues move toward a belief that the movement has become too extreme, mostly due to recent advocacy of children transitioning from their biological sex,” said Mitch Brown, director of political strategy at the Republican polling firm Cygnal. “The White House’s display is just the latest incident validating that a plurality of voters believe the display of the Pride flag alongside the American flag is too inappropriate.”

Democrats countered that Republicans risked hurting themselves electorally with such views.

“To argue drag queens are the cause of any problem would be really funny if the consequences weren’t so dangerous,” Democratic consultant Tim Hogan said. “The problem with where they’re going is they cannot keep up with their own hate, and it will ultimately backfire.”

As the Republican presidential primary has collided with Pride Month, some of the candidates have vocally opposed the celebrations and emphasized their opposition to expressions of LGBTQ+ identity.

Some observers said that DeSantis, who is running a distant second to Donald Trump, has been at the leading edge of stoking this sentiment. He commended protesters at a Pride night event at Dodger Stadium who opposed a drag group that satirizes religious imagery, which he called a “anti-Catholic hate group.” DeSantis also defended the state law he signed that has led to the cancellation of some Pride Month festivities in Florida.

The Florida governor kicked off his presidential campaign last month from an Iowa church called Eternity where the pastor, who spoke at the event, preaches that homosexuality is a sin and has been a vocal critic of Pride. The pastor, Jesse Newman, recently referred to Pride flags as “rainbow sex cult flags” and suggested the legalization of same-sex marriage was a “grave mistake” that created a “slippery slope” for the United States.

DeSantis signed a law restricting classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity and frames his moves regarding school materials as efforts to prevent the “sexualization” of children. His position has fanned a conspiracy theory among some supporters that LGBTQ+ people and their allies are “grooming” children.

“Knowing that there are different types of families is not sexualization,” said Florida Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby (D), who identifies as queer. “Understanding that there are different kinds of people is not sexualization. It’s raising your children to be good humans.”

As a congressional candidate in 2012, DeSantis said he supported defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Three years later, when the Supreme Court recognized a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, DeSantis criticized the decision, saying the justices had “overstepped,” according to a recording obtained by The Washington Post. He said he opposed a bill last year to codify federal recognition of same-sex marriage. The DeSantis campaign declined to clarify his current position on same-sex marriage.

Trump has rarely talked about same-sex marriage, and advisers said he is not inclined to want to take it on during a presidential campaign. His advisers said he is not motivated to overturn the legality of same-sex marriage, though he understands his political supporters feel strongly about the issue. His 2020 campaign included an official “Trump Pride” coalition, and in December he hosted the Log Cabin Republicans’ gala at Mar-a-Lago, prompting blowback from some Christian conservatives.

During a private meeting with a group of pastors in early June in Des Moines, one asked Trump about “the issue of marriage between a man and a woman,” recalled pastor Michael Demastus, who helped organize the gathering. “He really kind of diverted his answer completely from that,” Demastus recalled.

At the same time, Trump routinely mocks transgender athletes and derides “left-wing gender insanity” and has told advisers he is surprised at how much applause he got when he read lines from a teleprompter in 2021 about “men in women’s sports,” according to one adviser, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

“I told people the other day, I’d love to be a basketball coach. I don’t like LeBron James. I would say, LeBron, have you ever thought about becoming a woman?” Trump said during a speech to top Republican National Committee donors earlier this year, according to audio obtained by The Washington Post. “If you did, I’d love to have you on my basketball team. We’d have the greatest team in history.”

Before entering politics, Trump repeatedly expressed support for including transgender women in his beauty pageant, CNN reported this month. Trump aides drew a distinction between adult contestants in a beauty pageant versus underage and college students competing in athletic competition and said Trump has been clear and consistent in his views.

Former vice president Mike Pence called it “deeply offensive” for the Dodgers to include the drag group he called “anti-Catholic bigots” in their Pride celebration. He has endorsed a ban on gender-affirming care for minors. On same-sex marriage, though, he signaled a begrudging acceptance during an April speech at the University of Virginia.

“I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, I believe in traditional marriage, and I believe marriage is ordained by God and instituted in the law, but we live in a pluralistic society,” he said. “And the way we go forward, and the way we come together as a country united, I believe, is when we respect your right to believe and my right to believe what we believe.”

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) called the Dodgers event “shameful and disgusting” and also criticized the White House for having children at its Pride celebration, during which a transgender activist appeared in a brief video dancing while covering her bare breasts with her hands. The White House denounced the behavior, and the activist later apologized.

“I’m livid and incensed by this White House, not only for the kids present at this event, but the message this sends to children across the country,” he told Fox News. Scott voted against last year’s federal same-sex marriage bill. His campaign did not respond to requests to clarify his position.

Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley suggested this month that being around transgender girls was contributing to suicidal thoughts among teenage girls, a claim lacking scientific support. Her campaign did not respond to a request to clarify her position on same-sex marriage.

A campaign spokesman for Chris Christie, who as New Jersey governor vetoed a same-sex marriage bill in 2012, said he now “respects same-sex marriage and considers it legally settled.” A spokeswoman for Republican candidate Vivek Ramaswamy said he thinks same-sex marriage is “settled precedent.”

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who marked Pride Month with a tweet in 2021 pledging to “continue to grow our big tent,” did not issue a similar post in 2022 or 2023. The shift followed a firestorm two years ago when the party hired its first outreach coordinator to the LGBTQ+ community and announced the “Pride Coalition.”

The goal, according to party officials, was to broaden the party’s support among LGBTQ+ voters. A campaign operative was hired to travel to events and recruit voters. Trump even attended an event at Mar-a-Lago for the Log Cabin Republicans, where McDaniel was honored.

RNC officials said they were not seeking to dive deeply into culture wars but believed that same-sex marriage was increasingly popular in the United States and saw a voting bloc that might be partially attainable.

But the RNC faced a backlash from some conservative members. Arkansas committee member Jonathan Barnett said he and others objected to the party’s hiring of an employee to reach out to LGBTQ+ voters. Some demanded the party affirm it was supportive of only traditional marriage. Barnett said about 30 to 40 percent of the committee’s 168 members disagreed with the outreach initiative, and McDaniel fielded a range of complaints.

An email group for members blew up. Some demanded the party renounce the coalition — which it did not do. There were calls for McDaniel to resign, which she did not do. Spending on LGBTQ+ outreach became a source of attacks on McDaniel leading up to her run for reelection in January, but she won overwhelmingly.

“There were several in the RNC that didn’t think it was appropriate because of the platform situation,” Barnett said, referring to the party’s 2016 platform, which opposed the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision. “There are some moral issues that will be heavily discussed in 2024,” Barnett said. “We have a lot of very conservative, very faith-based people in our party.”

The party is said to still have a Pride coalition, but the employee running it wasn’t renewed after the 2022 cycle. Party officials said other coalition directors weren’t renewed either. No one has since been hired, and the party has not issued any materials or announced any additional efforts designed to attract LGBTQ+ voters.

“Ronna did back off quite a bit,” Barnett said, after the backlash.

A spokeswoman for the RNC declined to comment.

Ralph Reed, who leads the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said he supported McDaniel in general and noted that his group’s position against same-sex marriage hadn’t changed and that faith leaders thought she mishandled the rollout. But Reed said he didn’t see same-sex marriage as a leading issue in the presidential race.

Many state Republican Party platforms still oppose same-sex marriage. Last June, the Texas GOP amended its platform to call homosexuality “an abnormal lifestyle choice” and oppose all legal protections for LGBTQ+ people.

“It’s time to #ReclaimTheRainbow! During the month of June, we celebrate God’s Promise over man’s pride. Children are under attack,” the Texas GOP tweeted this year on June 1.

Congressional Republicans have demanded the removal of rainbow-colored Pride flags from Department of Veterans Affairs facilities and called for blocking military spending on Pride commemorations. Pentagon officials canceled plans for a drag show at a Nevada Air Force base following a backlash from Republican lawmakers.

During a House Armed Services Committee markup of a military spending bill this month, Republicans approved amendments banning drag shows at military bases (with two Democrats joining) and requiring a study of the effect of the Biden administration’s review of nondiscrimination, which sponsor Jim Banks (R-Ind.) said was meant to protect female troops from transgender women using the same facilities.

“Can’t even believe we have to have this discussion, but we do,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said while introducing the drag show ban at the markup.

“Matt, I, too, cannot believe we are still having this conversation,” Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.) said next, speaking against the amendment. Earlier in the hearing, she had teamed up with Gaetz on an amendment to expand fertility care access, but now she accused his amendment of dehumanizing the transgender community.

“To me in that moment, I felt it was most important that people knew we were fighting and not letting this be okay,” Jacobs, who has a brother who is transgender and another sibling who is gender-nonconforming, said in an interview. “Pride has always been a protest, so it actually feels pretty fitting.”

Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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