October 2023 Church & State Magazine - October 2023

Fighting forward: LGBTQ+ young people are under attack. In addition to nasty politics, blame a resurgence of Christian Nationalism

  Isaac James

According to the Movement Advancement Project, in the first half of 2023, more than 650 bills aimed at restricting, censoring, and/or policing LGBTQ+ identities were introduced in 46 states. There were 315 of these bills still, a disturbing amount introduced in the entire year of 2022. 

LGBTQ+ rights: Despite growing support, they’re under attack (Getty Images)

This alarming rise is focused particularly on young people: More than 160 of the anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced in just the first two months of 2023 reach into public education systems to stifle queer and trans student identities.

The conservative obsession with intervening in education systems to police LGBTQ+ young people has a rich history in recent state legislative activity, especially in Southern states. At top of mind are bills like the 2015 anti-trans bathroom bill in North Carolina and the 2022 “Don’t Say Gay” law in Florida. 

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has built his nascent 2024 presidential campaign by leaning into a policy agenda that targets marginalized LGBTQ+ young people, while almost every other candidate for the 2024 Republican nomination has explicitly or implicitly endorsed a suite of bills that restrict gender-affirming health care for young people and censor curriculum related to LGBTQ+ identities.

This fear-based political maneuvering makes it easy to score political points in a nasty presidential primary. But there are forces at work beyond politics Christian Nationalism at the forefront. 

Dr. Sophie Bjork-James identifies a direct link between anti-LGBTQ+ policymaking and Christian Nationalism in a 2019 article in the Journal of Religion and Violence, which identifies how themes of morality and nationalism are utilized to justify structural violence against queer and trans communities.

Bjork-James argues that Christian Nationalism understands “LGBTQ movements as persecuting Christians, or persecuting children,” and therefore LGBTQ+ people are “seeking to harm children and attack Christian culture.” 

The 2024 Republican presidential primary has demonstrated this finding perfectly candidates like former Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) have gilded their homophobia and transphobia in their view that America was founded upon “Judeo-Christian values,” and that we are straying from the original core of our national identity.

But the Republicans running for president in 2024 are far behind the frontrunner who welcomed and promoted elements of Christian Nationalism during his first term.

The Trump administration ushered in a newly christened arrival of Christian Nationalism. In addition to the record hundreds of anti-LGBTQ+ bills that have been introduced by Trump-influenced state legislators, several Trump-appointed federal judges have already ruled in lockstep with Christian Nationalist priorities across the country. 

Look no further than 2020, when two Trump-appointed judges for the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a conversion therapy ban under the guise of “protecting free speech.” Conversion therapy seeks to “convert” an LGBTQ+ person from their sexual or transgender identity. The pseudoscience practice is a well-documented tool of Christian Nationalism with a demonstrated negative impact on the mental and physical well-being of LGBTQ+ young people.  

And in state legislatures this year, a terrifying handful of the 600+ bills introduced in 2023 have already passed through their respective state houses and been signed into law. In Utah, Gov. Spencer Cox (R) signed a law that effectively bans gender-affirming health care for transgender youth under 18. In Tennessee, the legislature passed a law that criminalizes drag performances under the guise of “adult cabaret performances.” 

These bills are grounded not in reality but in an echo chamber of fear-inducing rhetoric that vilifies increasing queer and trans representation in the United States. 

It’s critical to understand who is most affected by this meteoric rise in hateful rhetoric. Transgender young people, specifically those living in the South and in states that have considered and/or passed harmful bills into law, face the most negative consequences of state-sanctioned discrimination.

Trans people of color, specifically Black trans women, already have the highest rates of murder compared to any other demographic in the United States. These laws continue to put a target on the back of the most vulnerable communities. 

As a community, how do we find optimism in this pain? What can we do to remain resilient but protective of ourselves?

Personally, I find inspiration in my fellow young people, and in the belief that continuing to fight systems of oppression that manifest across our social and governmental institutions will yield progress if we remain vigilant and consistent in our organizing, messaging and activism.

Top of mind is my Youth Organizing Fellowship (YOF) cohort through Americans United, through which I have had the chance to meet inspiring young people who drive my belief in advocating for a better future for our community. 

My fellow YOF Dane Sherman has organized young people at University of Notre Dame against outdated university policies about gender-neutral restrooms, residential housing and reproductive freedoms. Kendall Kalustyan and I co-hosted a webinar to educate our communities about the dangerous legislation being considered in the Texas legislature. 

This type of community and fellowship is what drives my continued desire to engage in advocacy and activism. Finding optimism and hope in the young people around me is both personally affirming and professionally inspiring.

It is also important to recognize your own personal privilege in this fight against anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. As a white, cisgender gay man, I have unique privileges that are not afforded to most of the young people being affected by these laws. As such, it is important to think about what unique tools of activism we each have at our disposal and how you can most effectively enact change for all affected communities. 

One way to get involved in the important work of fighting Christian Nationalism, and anti-LGBTQ+ laws by association, is to join Americans United. AU has members throughout the United States, and joining AU is an easy way to find a platform to organize and speak up about the issues impacting marginalized Americans. 

Another way to get involved is to contact your local state legislators to urge decisive action against potential discriminatory legislation. Many groups, such as the Human Rights Campaign, have online tools that simplify the process. (AU has them as well!) Additionally, donating, volunteering and showing up to events hosted by your local LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations are easy ways to show support when and how you are able. CenterLink, a network of LGBTQ centers, can help you find local communities (www.lgbtqcenters.org/.)

Regardless of how you choose to get involved, we know that the issue of anti-LGBTQ+legislation is not dissipating soon. Fighting the deeper forces of Christian Nationalism will require disciplined action, effective coalitional advocacy and radical change from within and outside our government institutions. And, when you are able, lean into your own sources of optimism. 

Isaac James was a 2022-2023 Youth Organizing Fellow with Americans United. He is currently working on a master of studies in women’s, gender and sexuality studies and a master of public policy at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. 

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