Anti-LGBTQ backlash rattles US pride events
June 11, 2023 10:03 AM
A spike in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and threats has taken a heavy toll on pride celebrations in the United States this year, organizers say -- especially in states where politicians want to curtail rights.
This month's celebrations in Houston, the largest pride event in conservative Texas, have been scaled back due to rising insurance and security costs, as well as concerns over soaring temperatures and capacity.
"We made the decision to cancel the festival this year," said Kendra Walker, president of Pride Houston 365, downgrading the plans to a parade.
The change was first announced in January as Texas lawmakers prepared bills restricting gender-affirming health care and drag performances. Now, pride planners across the US and Canada say they are facing higher bills because of anti-LGBTQ disinformation and hate.
"It only takes a few (people) that can't decipher reality from fantasy, and that's when the danger comes in," Walker said, calling it "a formidable threat" and pointing to white supremacists who planned to riot at a pride event in Idaho last year.
- 'A real shake-up' -
Florida has become a hotspot, with Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican running for president, signing bills this spring banning youngsters from drag shows and restricting how they learn about the LGBTQ community.
"I didn't realize there was going to be that much of a real shake-up," said Carrie West, president of Tampa Pride, which in May canceled an outdoor festival after some sponsors said they were worried about running afoul of the new laws.
The legislation, replicated in several other US states, also comes amid a torrent of anti-LGBTQ disinformation online.
False claims linking the community to pedophilia and Satanism have amassed across social media platforms, boosted in part by conservative commentators and advocacy groups. Similar allegations and misinformation went viral in late May about Target's pride apparel collection.
"We don't live in a time where we can just kind of separate what happens online from what happens in the real world," said Ari Drennen, LGBTQ program director at Media Matters for America, a liberal media watchdog.
- 'Going back to the 1960s' -
Not all pride celebrations have been affected. Long-running events retain a certain resilience against the hate that has targeted the community for decades, even as equality laws have improved rights in recent years.
"There are broad threats, and it's definitely coming from the anti-woke crowd and their encouragement of their followers to disrupt events," said David Clarke, spokesperson for NYC Pride, the largest such group in North America. "(But) we have very robust security plans and we have for years. So it's kind of business as usual, I think."
However, in Republican-controlled states where laws limiting LGBTQ rights have already been passed, small-town activists are contending with hate speech.
In April, the advocacy group Equality Florida issued an advisory warning for LGBTQ people traveling to the state. Pride organizers in St. Cloud, outside Orlando, later canceled this year's event due to a "climate of fear."
Kristina Bozanich, a photographer who spearheads the celebration, told AFP the drag performers "didn't feel safe" after DeSantis signed the Protection of Children Act, which prohibits admitting children into "adult live performances."
Soon after the pride event in St. Cloud was cancelled, a 'Kill all gays' sign went up in the nearby city of Lake Nona, Bozanich said. "It was really shocking that what is known as a more progressive area had a hate sign like that," she said.
After news of the cancellation got out, the intimidation got worse.
"We received a lot of hate comments. I received hate mail," Bozanich said.
Further south in Port St. Lucie, where an annual pride parade was canceled in April over legal concerns, there has been blowback for others who promote events.
"I did post on one of the Port St. Lucie regular pages on Facebook about our pride party, and people just started making remarks about grooming kids," said PJ Ashley, president of the nonprofit Sanctuary of the Treasure Coast.
Pedophilia conspiracy theories have "a long history of being used against many marginalized groups to justify discrimination and violence," according to RG Cravens, senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy group.
Polls show acceptance has grown since the dawn of the LGBTQ rights movement, but Ashley said some older members within the community "feel like time just went back to that."
"They feel like they're afraid to come out now and say anything. So it's really like you're going back to the 1960s," Ashley said. "Everything that they fought for is kind of like what we're losing."