Now that the religious right is reopening the culture war by solidifying its role in the Trump administration and the federal courts, it’s worth revisiting how anti-LGBTQ rhetoric has changed over the years.
As it turns out, it’s the same old wine–or, more accurately whine–in new bottles.
The animosity hasn’t changed, but the rhetoric has evolved to reflect the times. What may have been acceptable to most people as an argument 25 years would immediately be recognized today as the bigotry it is.
So the religious right has adapted to the changing landscape by using different arguments, even if many of the issues remain the same. Sometimes the language has changed, but a lot of times it has not.
Here’s a look at what the anti-LGBTQ right used to say about us on a range of topics and how they couch their hatred in different terms today.
It used to be the very existence of gay and lesbian people was a threat to families, according to Christian conservatives. Homosexuality is “a sexual behavior that is killing our young people and destroying families,” the American Family Association warned in 1997.
The new rhetoric is a bit tamer and targeted. Now we’re destroying the institution of marriage. Failed Senate candidate and disgraced judge Roy Moore echoed the sentiment of a lot of right-wing leaders when he said that “I think there’s an attempt to destroy the institution of marriage.” Of course, why stop there? Moore said that gay marriage will “lead to the destruction of our country” too.
During the height of the AIDS epidemic, the religious right liked to argue that one of the main arguments against being gay was that it was a death sentence. No less a figure than Billy Graham once asked an audience, “Is AIDS a judgment of God?” He then answered his own question: “I could not say for sure, but I think so.”
With HIV now largely controlled, you would think that the right would resort to different arguments. But the lies that homosexuality inevitably leads to a shortened lifespan, mental illness and a panoply of STDs are still being peddled as fact, despite being completely debunked. However, the right has expanded its argument to include transgender people now, branding gender identity issues as akin to suicide, as Family Research Council head Tony Perkins has suggested.
When Bill Clinton proposed lifting the ban on gays in the military when he entered the White House, the religious right rose up as one to stop him in his tracks. “Honestly,” asked D. James Kennedy in a fundraising letter for Coral Ridge Ministries, “would you want your son, daughter, or grandchild sharing a shower, foxhole, or blood with a homosexual?”
The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was a bitter defeat for the right, but they’ve bounced back with a new target: transgender military personnel. The ban was the brainchild of Vice President Mike Pence, the religious right’s man in the White House, and the ubiquitous Tony Perkins of FRC. The arguments now add questions of cost and “medical fitness” to the usual complaints about troop readiness and morale.
In the old days, bathrooms were the place where degenerate homosexuals gathered to defile the porcelain by having sex and recruit innocent young men. The predator argument now is being used with full force against transgender people, as the battle over North Carolina’s HB2 proved. Proponents of the measure there insisted that allowing trans people to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify would inevitably lead to sexual assaults.
But it’s worth noting that the Family Research Council says its concern is not that transgendered individuals are more likely to be sexual predators, but rather that sexual predators could exploit such laws by posing as transgendered in order to gain access to women and girls.” The argument is just as ludicrous as the old ones, but at least it doesn’t make LGBTQ the criminal.
Back in the day, the big bugaboo of the religious right was banning gay teachers. One of the first salvos in the culture war came 40 years ago when a ballot measure in California would have blocked any gay or lesbian person from being a teacher for fear gay teachers would “adversely affect students.” To his credit, Ronald Reagan actually opposed the measure, contributing to its defeat.
Now the religious right is at war with the entire public school system for “indoctrinating” students. Under the alias Activist Mommy, Elizabeth Johnston has built a career arguing that schools are teaching kids how to have anal sex. Religious right leaders are pushing measures to limit sex ed in schools by ensuring that they make no mention of LGBTQ issues.
It used to be that any non-discrimination protections were branded “special rights” by the religious right. Oregon, Colorado, and Idaho all saw statewide measures launched by the anti-gay right, which flourished until a Supreme Court decision written by Anthony Kennedy struck down the measures as discriminatory.
Of course, it’s the religious right that wants special rights now. The religious liberty argument is nothing less than the freedom to ignore laws that conservative Christians don’t like. Whether it’s businesses that don’t want to contribute to same-sex weddings or adoption agencies that don’t want to deal with gay or lesbian parents, anti-LGBTQ conservatives are looking for the government to grant them special dispensation for their beliefs, no matter how bigoted.