By Tina Fetner
Mary Bernstein’s 2015 address in the June 29 (3) issue of Gender & Society asks “what is next?” for the LGBT movement, now that the U.S. Supreme Court has legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States. As someone who has studied the anti-LGBT activism of the religious right (Fetner, 2008), I would put Bernstein’s question to this movement as well: what will the religious right do now that they have lost their 20-year battle against same-sex marriage in the United States? Indeed, they have already begun a new wave of activism to marginalize LGBT people and deny these groups equal rights, and it looks very similar to their activism of the past.
In 1977, Anita Bryant formed the first anti-gay organization to fight against equal rights for lesbians and gay men. She named her organization “Save Our Children,” and she claimed that gay men were sexual predators. The goal of gay activists, she argued, was to have access to children so that they could sexually abuse them and “recruit” them into the gay “lifestyle.” According to Bryant and other anti-gay activists of her era, LGBT anti-discrimination bills guaranteed access to children, mostly because they prevented schools from firing gay teachers. Bryant’s organization was on the forefront of anti-gay activism of the religious right, and from the start, this activism cultivated fear out of lies about sexual violence.
Now, since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, we see a new wave of activism that creates sexual predators out of thin air.
This time, religious right organizations like the NC Values Coalition claim that transgender people are sexual predators who make public restrooms unsafe for women and children. North Carolina’s HB2 bans transgender men and women from using the public restroom of their gender, while banning anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people in the state. It is only one of many similar bills across the country; the Human Rights Campaign reports that 44 anti-transgender bills have been introduced in 16 states in the last year.
As Laurel Westbrook and Kristen Schilt observe in their Gender & Society article, this is part of a coordinated wave of activism to legislatively enforce a biology-based, binary division of gender that positions trans-people as dangerous. Religious-right groups like the Family Research Council argue that allowing transgender people to use public restrooms that match their gender provides “the legitimized access that sexual predators tend to seek”. Schilt and Westbrook argue that these bills “conflate ‘sexual predators’ (imagined to be deviant men) and transgender women (imagined to be always male)” (here). They rely on a gendered lens that cultivates a “vulnerable subjecthood” for women, who are seen to be in need of protection by men. This is the same old fiction that the religious right has been writing for decades, arguing that LGBT rights put women and children in harm’s way.
Of course, the link between LGBT people and sexual violence was not true in 1977, and it is not true today. In 2016, the era of marriage equality, the religious right carries on as it has for decades, making up lies and stirring moral panics. But the question remains open as to whether legislatures will find their arguments convincing. Many bills similar to North Carolina’s have been defeated, but more are introduced every day.
Tina Fetner, a member of the editorial board of Gender & Society and Associate Professor of Sociology at McMaster University.