By Rebecca Gordon / TomDispatch
One day when I was about six, I was walking with my dad in New York City. We noticed that someone had stuck little folded squares of paper under the windshield wipers of the cars parked on the street beside us. My father picked one up and read it. I saw his face grow dark with anger.
“What is it, Papa?”
“It’s a message from people who think that all Jews should be killed.”
This would have been in the late 1950s, a time when the Nazi extermination of millions of Jews in Europe was still fresh in the American consciousness. Not, you might have thought, a good season for sowing murderous antisemitism in lower Manhattan. Already aware that, being the daughter of a Jewish father and gentile mother, I was myself a demi-semite, I was worried. I knew that these people wanted to kill my father, but with a typical child-centered focus, I really wanted to know whether the gentile half of my heredity would protect me in the event of a new Holocaust.
“Would they kill me, too?” I asked.
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Yes, he told me, they would if they could. But he then reassured me that such people would never actually have the power to do what they wanted to. It couldn’t happen here.
I must admit that I’m grateful my father died before Donald Trump became president, before tiki-torch-bearing Nazi wannabes seeking to “Unite the Right” marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, chanting “Jews will not replace us!” before one of them drove his car into a crowd of counterdemonstrators, killing Heather Heyer, and before President Trump responded to the whole event by declaring that “you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
Are Queer People the New Jews?
Maybe the grubby little group behind the tracts my father and I saw that day in New York would have let me live. Maybe not. In those days home-grown fascists were rare and so didn’t have that kind of power.
Now, however, there’s a new extermination campaign stalking this country that would definitely include me among its targets: the right-wing Republican crusade against “sexual predators” and “groomers,” by which they mean LGBTQI+ people. (I’m going to keep things simple here by just writing “LGBT” or “queer” to indicate this varied collection of Americans who are presently a prime target of the right wing in this country.)
You may think “extermination campaign” is an extreme way to describe the set of public pronouncements, laws, and regulations addressing the existence of queer people here. Sadly, I disagree. Ambitious would-be Republican presidential candidates across the country, from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to the less-known governor of North Dakota, Doug Burgum, are using anti-queer legislation to bolster their primary campaigns. For Florida, it started in July 2022 with DeSantis’s Parental Rights in Education act (better known as his “Don’t Say Gay” law), which mandated that, in the state’s public schools,
“Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”
In April 2023, DeSantis doubled down, signing a new law that extended the ban all the way up through high school. Florida teachers at every level now run the very real risk of losing their jobs and credentials if they violate the new law. And queer kids, who are already at elevated risk of depression and suicide, have been deprived of the kind of affirming space that, research shows, greatly reduces those possibilities.
Is Florida an outlier? Not really. Other states have followed its lead in restricting mentions of sexual orientation or gender identity in their public schools. By February of this year, 42 such bills had been introduced in a total of 22 states and are creating a wave of LGBT refugees.
But the attacks against queer people go well beyond banning any discussion of gayness in public schools. We’re also witnessing a national campaign against trans and non-binary people that, in effect, aims to eliminate such human beings altogether, whether by denying their very existence or denying them the medical care they need. This campaign began with a focus on trans youth but has since widened to include trans and non-binary people of all ages.
Misgendering: As of 2023, seven states have laws allowing (or requiring) public school teachers to refuse to use the preferred pronouns of students if they don’t match their official sex. This behavior is called “misgendering” and it’s more than a violation of common courtesy. It’s a denial of another person’s being, their actual existence, and can have a lethal effect. Such repudiation of trans and non-binary young people significantly increases their chances of committing suicide.
It also increases the chances that their non-queer peers will come to view them with the kind of disrespect and even contempt that could also prove lethal and certainly increases their chances of becoming targets of violence. In 2022, for example, CBS News reported that “the number of trans people who were murdered in the U.S. nearly doubled between 2017 and 2021.” It’s no accident that this increase correlates with an increase in high-profile political and legal attacks on trans people. Sadly, but not surprisingly, race hatred has also played a role in many of these deaths. While Blacks represent about 13% of trans and non-binary people, they accounted for almost three-quarters of those murder victims.
Medical care: Laws allowing or even requiring misgendering in classrooms are, however, only the beginning. Next up? Denying trans kids, and ultimately trans adults, medical care. As of June 1st of this year, according to the national LGBT rights organization Human Rights Campaign, 20 states already ban gender-affirmative medical care for trans youth up to age 18. Another seven states now have such bans under consideration.
What is “gender affirmative” medical care? According to the World Health Organization, it “can include any single or combination of a number of social, psychological, behavioral, or medical (including hormonal treatment or surgery) interventions designed to support and affirm an individual’s gender identity.” In other words, it’s the kind of attention needed by people whose gender identity does not align in some way with the sex they were assigned at birth.
What does it mean to deprive a trans person of such care? It can, in fact, prove to be a death sentence.
It may be difficult to imagine this if you yourself aren’t living with gender dysphoria (a constant disorienting and debilitating alienation from one’s own body). What studies show is that proper healthcare reduces suicidal thoughts and attempts, along with other kinds of psychological distress. Furthermore, people who begin to receive such care in adolescence are less likely to be depressed, suicidal, or involved in harmful drug use later in life. As Dr. Deanna Adkins, director of the Duke Child and Adolescent Gender Care Clinic at Duke University Hospital, notes, young people who receive the gender-affirming care they need “are happier, less depressed, and less anxious. Their schoolwork often improves, their safety often improves.” And, she says, “Saving their lives is a big deal.”
Denial of life-saving care may start with young people. But the real future right-wing agenda is to deny such health care to everyone who needs it, whatever their ages. In April 2023, the New York Times reported that Florida and six other states had already banned Medicaid coverage for gender-affirming care. Missouri has simply banned most such care outright, no matter who’s paying for it.
And the attacks on queer people just keep coming. In May 2023, the Human Rights Campaign listed anti-queer bills introduced and passed in this year alone:
“• Over 520 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in state legislatures, a record;
“• Over 220 bills specifically target transgender and non-binary people, also a record; and
“• A record 74 anti-LGBTQ laws have been enacted so far this year, including:
“• Laws banning gender affirming care for transgender youth: 16
“• Laws requiring or allowing misgendering of transgender students: 7
“• Laws targeting drag performances: 2
“• Laws creating a license to discriminate: 3
“• Laws censoring school curricula, including books: 13″
We’re not paranoid. They really do want us to disappear.
Anti-Gay Campaigns in Africa: Made in the USA
Though they’re starting to say the quiet part out loud, even in this country, they’ve been so much less careful in Africa for decades now.
It’s not all that uncommon today for right-wing Christians in the United States to publicly demand that LGBT people be put to death. As recently as Pride month (June) of last year, in a sermon that went viral on Tik-Tok, Pastor Joe Jones of Shield of Faith Baptist Church in Boise, Idaho, called for all gay people to be executed. Local NBC and CBS TV stations, along with some national affiliates, saw fit to amplify Jones’s demand to “put them to death. Put all queers to death” by interviewing him in prime time.
In keeping with right-wing propaganda that treats queer people as child predators, Jones sees killing gays as the key to preventing the sexual abuse of children. “When they die,” he said, “that stops the pedophilia. It’s a very, very simple process.” (The reality is that most sexual abuse of children involves male perpetrators and girl victims and happens inside families.)
Though American “Christians” like Jones may be years away, if ever, from instituting the death penalty for queer people here, they have already been far more successful in Africa. On May 29th, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni signed perhaps the world’s harshest anti-LGBT law, criminalizing all homosexual activity, providing the death penalty for “serial offenders,” and according to the Reuters news agency, for the “transmission of a terminal illness like HIV/AIDS through gay sex.” It also “decrees a 20-year sentence for ‘promoting’ homosexuality.”
While Uganda’s new anti-gay law may be the most extreme on the continent, more than 30 other African countries already outlaw homosexuality to varying degrees.
It’s a little-known fact that right-wing and Christian nationalist churches from the United States have played a major role in formulating and promoting such laws. Since at least the early 2000s, those churches have poured millions of dollars into anti-gay organizing in Africa. According to Open Democracy, more than 20 U.S. evangelical groups have been involved in efforts to criminalize homosexuality there:
“The Fellowship Foundation, a secretive U.S. religious group whose Ugandan associate, David Bahati, wrote Uganda’s infamous ‘Kill the Gays’ bill, is the biggest spender in Africa. Between 2008 and 2018, this group sent more than $20m to Uganda alone.”
Such groups often employ the language of anticolonialism to advance their cause, treating homosexuality as a “western” import to Africa. Despite such rhetoric, however, quite a few of them are actually motivated by racist as well as anti-gay beliefs. “Of the groups that are active in Africa,” says Open Democracy, “ten are members of the World Congress of Families (WCF), which has been linked to white supremacists in the U.S. and Europe.”
Is MAGA Really Fascism? And Does It Matter?
Back in the late 1980s, I published an article entitled “What Is Fascism — And Why Do Women Need to Know?” in Lesbian Contradiction, a paper I used to edit with three other women. It was at the height of the presidency of Ronald Reagan and I was already worried about dangerous currents in the Republican party, ones that today have swelled into a full-scale riptide to the right. There’s a lot that’s dated in the piece, but the definition I offered for that much-used (and misused) bit of political terminology still stands:
“The term itself was invented by Benito Mussolini, the premier of Italy from 1922 to 1945, and refers to the ‘fasces,’ the bundle of rods which symbolized the power of the Roman emperors. Today, I would define fascism as an ideology, movement, or government with several identifying characteristics:
“• Authoritarianism and a fanatical respect for leaders. Fascism is explicitly anti-democratic. It emerges in times of social flux or instability and of chaotic and worsening economic situations.
“• Subordination of the individual to the state or to the “race.” This subordination often has a spiritual implication: people are offered an opportunity to transcend their own sense of insignificance through participation in a powerful movement of the chosen.
“• Appeal to a mythical imperial glory of the past. That past may be quite ancient, as in Mussolini’s evocations of the Roman Empire. Or it might be as recent as the United States of the 1950s.
“• Biological determinism. Fascism involves a belief in absolute biological differences between the sexes and among different races.
“• Genuine popularity. The scariest thing to me about real fascism is that it has always been a truly popular movement. Even when it is a relatively minor force, fascism can be a mass movement without being a majority movement.”
“Having laid out these basic elements,” I added, one “real strength of fascism lies in its extraordinary ideological elasticity,” which allows it to embrace a wide variety of economic positions from libertarian to socialist and approaches to foreign policy that range from isolationism to imperialism. I think this, too, remains true today.
What I failed to emphasize then — perhaps because I thought it went without saying (but it certainly needs to be said today) — is that fascism is almost by definition deadly. It needs enemies on whom it can focus the steaming rage of its adherents and it is quite content for that rage to lead to literal extermination campaigns.
The creation of such enemies invariably involves a process of rhetorical dehumanization. In fascist propaganda, target groups cease to be actual people, becoming instead vermin, viruses, human garbage, communists, Marxists, terrorists, or in the case of the present attacks on LGBT people, pedophiles and groomers. As fascist movements develop, they bring underground streams of hatred into the light of “legitimate” political discourse.
All those decades ago, I suggested that the Christian fundamentalists represented an incipient fascist force. I think it’s fair to say that today’s Make America Great Again crew has inherited that mantle, successfully incorporating right-wing Christianity into a larger proto-fascist movement. All the elements of classic fascism now lurk there: adulation of the leader, subordination of the individual to the larger movement, an appeal to mythical past glories, a not-so-subtle embrace of white supremacy, and discomfort with anything or anyone threatening the “natural” order of men and women. You have only to watch a video of a Trump rally to see that his is a mass (even if not a majority) movement.
Why should it matter whether Donald Trump’s MAGA movement and the Republican Party he’s largely taken over represent a kind of fascism? The answer: because the logic of fascism leads so inexorably to the politics of extermination. Describing his MAGA movement as fascism makes it easier to recognize the existential threat it truly represents — not only to a democratic society but to specific groups of human beings within it.
I know it may sound alarmist, but I think it’s true: proto-fascist forces in this country have shown that they are increasingly willing to exterminate queer people, if that’s what it takes to gain and hold onto power. If I’m right, that means all Americans, queer or not, now face an existential threat.
For those who don’t happen to fall into one of MAGA’s target groups, let me close by paraphrasing Donald Trump: in the end, they’re coming after you. We’re just standing in the way.
Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of Mainstreaming Torture, American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes and is now at work on a new book on the history of torture in the United States.