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LGBTQ community celebrates Pride in the face of online and offline attacks

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By Christina Anagnostopoulos

(Reuters) – Millions of LGBTQ Americans are taking part in this year’s Pride celebrations against a backdrop of increasing attacks, both online and offline.

The rising demonstrations, legal efforts to restrict LGBTQ rights and political rhetoric inflaming national conversations around issues like drag shows and transgender healthcare may be fueling each other, two researchers told Reuters.

Jay Ulfelder, a political and data scientist at Harvard University, has been tracking anti-LGBTQ demonstrations since 2017. The data shows a clear increase in events beginning in 2022, about 30-fold compared to 2017. Right wing protests were almost four times as likely in the last year and half to include anti-LGBTQ narratives than when counting began.

Jen Kuhn of Kaleidoscope, a queer youth organization in Columbus, Ohio, said it felt “surreal” when neo-Nazis showed up at an April fundraiser waving swastikas and a sign reading, “there will be blood.” She said the subsequent support from the local community makes her even more committed to celebrating Pride, albeit with a heightened sense of caution and new security protocols.

LGBTQ advocacy organization GLAAD has already recorded eight instances of 2023 Pride events that had to modify their plans due to threats of violence by June 1, said spokesperson Angela Dallara. Half of them are in Florida, where event organizers have increased security this year.

At least three people were arrested on Tuesday when violence broke out outside a school district meeting discussing LGBTQ inclusivity in Glendale, California.

Asked about the threat level during Pride month, an FBI spokesperson said the agency urged people to be aware of their surroundings and report suspicious activity.

Legal moves to restrict LGBTQ rights are also on the rise. The ACLU has tracked 491 anti-LGBTQ bills in the 2023 state legislatures, a record high for the last century. There has been a Republican-led effort to limit drag in at least 15 states in recent months.

And in Florida this year, education officials extended Gov. Ron DeSantis’s 2022 initiative limiting LGBTQ discussion in school through the third grade, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, to now cover all public school grades. The 2024 presidential candidate has put culture war issues front and center, exemplified by this bill.

Proponents of the bill argue that only parents should decide when to discuss subjects like sexuality or gender identity with children, while critics say it will further marginalize, endanger and silence LGBTQ students.

Online, slurs like “groomer” – a trope that LGBTQ people are “child groomers” or pedophiles – have traveled from the fringe into mainstream discourse.

A report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) and Human Rights Campaign last year found a 406% surge in “grooming” tweets in the month after the “Don’t Say Gay” bill passed in March 2022. CCDH data covering May 2021 to May 2023 seen by Reuters shows the narrative was rare prior to the bill’s passage.

Ilan Meyer, a UCLA scholar who is a leading expert on LGBTQ mental health stressors, said it’s frightening to see a resurgence of old, false narratives, like gay people harming children. “If you tell people that a group is going to hurt your children, that gives them a license to be violent.”

Proving causality between the online and offline attacks is difficult, cautioned Joel Day, research director at a Princeton University initiative that tracks political violence nationally, but the online and offline do mutually reinforce each other. “An event, like the ‘Don’t Say Gay bill,’ can increase the online chatter. And the chatter can increase the likelihood of such bills.”

The harmful effects of online and offline assaults can’t be disentangled, said Kimberly Balsam, a psychology professor and LGBTQ-focused researcher at Palo Alto University.

Brigitte Bandit, a full-time drag performer in Austin, Texas, said she’s never experienced as much online hostility toward drag as in the last year.

Bandit says the clothing she uses at events for children is different to 21-and-over shows, but her social media feed is filled with accounts sharing risqué photos of her alongside claims that she’s dangerous to children.

“They’re struggling to find anything on me, so they manipulate my image to post about this and make it seem like I’m somebody I’m not,” said Bandit, who has tweeted photos of herself in age-appropriate clothing at family events in response to the posts targeting her.

For Bandit, the current atmosphere feels like “we’re getting down to ‘Pride at its roots,” noting that Pride began as a yearly commemoration of the Stonewall riots that broke out in New York City after police stormed a gay bar in June 1969.

“We need to realize we make Pride for ourselves,” Bandit said.

(Reporting by Christina Anagnostopoulos; editing by Claudia Parsons)

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