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The US Is Exporting Anti-LGBTQ Hate Online

Jun 26, 2023 7:00 AM

The US Is Exporting Anti-LGBTQ Hate Online

Conspiracy theories and misinformation with their roots in the American right are driving global anti-LGBTQ sentiment—and offline violence.

Silhouette of a person behind a pride flag during a pride parade

Photograph: Ying Tang/Getty Images

About once a fortnight, David Ermes gets an email from a journalist or fact checker along the lines of “Boys have to dress up as girls in queer week at school, is it true?”

“Of course I can say it’s not true—it isn’t even lawful, since we don’t have school uniforms,” says Ermes, who is head of communications at the ministry of education in Schlewig-Holstein, Germany’s northernmost state. Over the past year or so he has had to deal with a steady flow of misinformation spread on social media that misrepresents conversations about LGBTQ rights and attempts to “paint a picture of sexualized schools in Germany.” He has dispelled rumors circulating in Hungary of German children being forced into “crossdressing classes” and debunked a viral video in Serbia and Bosnia showing a woman claiming the education ministry demanded boys wear dresses to school or parents be fined. “Even though we want to have educated debate in the public field, it’s getting harder and harder,” he says. “While you would have time to discuss with high-quality information [and] reason, your time is occupied by defending notions of bullshit.”

Spurious claims that drag is being forced on kids are spreading globally, part of a broader trend of false information that misrepresents the LGBTQ community and comprehensive sex education in schools. Discussions of trans rights, and touch points like “drag queen story hours,” which are the nexus of immense cultural conflict in the US, have been imported into Europe. Pride month, which runs through June, has inevitably led to an acceleration of these misinformation campaigns, with far-right figures and conservative commentators circulating falsehoods, some of which have provoked offline attacks.

“Pride has become a time of obsessive focus by the right-wing media on LGBTQ people,” says Ari Drennan, LGBTQ program director for Media Matters for America, which monitors conservative misinformation. “LGBTQ people celebrate who we, are and that is intolerable to people within the right-wing media.”

“Drag queen story hour,” a children’s event started in 2015 in San Francisco but which is now an international network of events and organizations, features drag artists reading children's books and promoting gender inclusion in public libraries, schools, and bookshops. It quickly became controversial among conservative figures and weaponized in culture war narratives, ending up as a flashpoint for US public outrage about sex-positivity and transgender inclusion—reminiscent of previous moral panic around homosexuality. Anti-drag protests have become part and parcel of US cultural life, with more than 203 mobilizations in the past year, according to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an anti-extremism nonprofit, in a June 22, 2023, report on anti-drag efforts.

Drag-related initiatives are now relentlessly misrepresented on social media, particularly during Pride month. False and misleading claims are proliferating that parents are forcing shows on children against their will and that drag queens are giving children lap dances and indecently exposing themselves.

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Several US brands have also been caught in the crosshairs of the expanding disinformation efforts. Bud Light beer’s partnership with transgender TikToker Dylan Mulvaney sparked a right-wing onslaught, advancing false claims that the CEO of parent company Anheuser-Busch “apologized” for the collaboration and that the influencer was the “face” of tampon brand Tampax. Retail chain Target faced a particularly volatile backlash to its Pride merchandise, wrestling myriad falsehoods such as its “tuck-friendly” swimsuits for adults being for children. Despite having been offering Pride products during the month of June for over a decade, the chain announced in May that it would remove some items after threats against staff and in-store attacks on displays.

Target “suddenly became very controversial because conservative podcasters and radio hosts realized that this was something they could get their audience really incensed by,” Drennan says. Videos slamming Target’s “LGBTQ propaganda” by conservative pundit Ben Shapiro collectivelyrackedupover 1.5 million views on YouTube. A tweet by anti-trans group Gays Against Groomers parroting the swimsuit claims and encouraging a boycott was viewed 536,200 times.

US culture war narratives have infected other countries and influenced international movements. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue found a footprint of anti-drag pursuits treading the globe, including in Australia, Ireland, France, and elsewhere in Europe, with the UK forming the turf for 57 anti-drag incidents in the past year. There, falsehoods are racking up during Pride about LGBTQ people and drag queens alongside the internationalized narrative that children were forced to wear drag to school. Uproar about the term “cis-gender,” including the unevidenced claim that it was coined by a German sexologist, also flooded social media in the US and UK on June 21 and 22, as Elon Musk announced the words “cis” and “cisgender” would be considered “slurs” on Twitter.

By traversing social media with anti-drag and anti-trans rhetoric, influential figures from the US have encouraged outrage across borders and induced localized, copycat narratives from afar.

The online culture war comes alongside a global wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation and wider backlash against trans rights. Tennessee became the first US state to pass a drag ban in March, kickstarting a slew of anti-drag bills from Texas to Florida. A federal judge on June 2 deemed Tennessee's law to be too broad and unconstitutional, but at least 14 other states have introduced similar bans. Nineteen states have also in the past year invoked an array of laws restricting gender-affirming care. Meanwhile, Florida extended a ban on gender identity lessons, known as the Don't Say Gay bill, to all school grades in April. Politicians in Uganda and Kenya, where gay sex is illegal, have also recently advanced anti-homosexuality efforts, awakening disinformation and homophobia in the countries.

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“The weight of this moral panic is being put into legislation that is affecting people across the United States and the world,” says Drennan. “That’s really dangerous and worrying.”

Human-rights and anti-hate organizations say this proliferation of laws has driven increases in false LGBTQ narratives on social media. Perhaps the most prevalent and damaging of these is the “groomer” conspiracy theory, which baselessly proposes that LGBTQ people and their supporters prey on and exploit children by discussing issues relating to sexuality and gender. Fueling comparisons between the community, pedophilia, and satanism, it also intersects with far-right conspiracy theory QAnon’s Save the Children campaign in 2020.

Online anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is still not being adequately challenged by social media platforms, according to a new report on user safety by GLAAD, a US media advocacy organization. It found Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube failed at safeguarding the LGBTQ community from online hate, with the latter four showing marginal improvements but insufficiently enforcing rules. Since at least April, Twitter no longer enforces a 2018 policy protecting trans and nonbinary users against targeted misgendering and deadnaming.

“The platforms are just absolutely failing us, failing their users, and they are complicit in this hate,” says Jenni Olson, GLAAD’s senior director of social media safety.

Musk, who took over Twitter in late 2022, has personally posted content mocking trans people and the LGBTQ community, and interacted with far-right, anti-LGBTQ account Libs of TikTok. Twitter also profits directly from the “groomer” narrative, generating up to $6.4 million per year in ad revenue, according to the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a UK organization tracking online extremism. Meta has similarly profited from ads containing anti-LGBTQ slurs including “groomer,” earning at least $5.7 million from over 550 anti-trans ads from The Daily Wire, according to Media Matters for America.

“These platforms are profiting from anti-LGBT hate, and that’s why they’re not mitigating it,” says Olson. “And we should be very angry at these companies.”

Meta declined to comment. TikTok did not provide an attributable comment. Twitter did not respond to requests for comment. J​​en Jamie, director of communications and public affairs for the UK and Ireland at Google, which owns YouTube, said in a statement: "Our policies prohibit content that promotes violence or hatred against members of the LGBTQ+ community. Over the last few years, we’ve made significant progress in our ability to quickly remove this content from our platform and prominently surface authoritative sources in search results and recommendations. We remain committed to this important work, and we appreciate the thoughtful feedback from GLAAD."

Disinformation online translates to offline violence, Olson says. Physical attacks are plaguing Pride, including several vandalism incidents on the Stonewall National Monument, a 7.7-acre landmark dedicated to LGBTQ rights and history. Online extremists are also using hashtags encouraging followers to damage, steal, and attack Pride flags in at least five US states. In Europe, a spate of anti-LGBTQ attacks saw a woman shot in the head with a BB gun at an Equality March in Poland in May and an LGBTQ center in Ukraine broken into and vandalized on June 13.

According to Olson, many well-established anti-LGBTQ tropes, such as the “grooming” narrative, are inherently forms of disinformation. “It’s motivated by a culmination of political motives, to consolidate political power and to foment hate against LGBT people to retract our basic rights,” she says. “But the consequences are becoming really disastrous that people are believing these things and taking violent actions.”

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