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Queer Hope in Red America
By Michael F. Roessler
The call for help went out less than twenty-four hours before the march.
C.L.E.V.E.R. (Creating Love & Equity through Voices Education & Reflection), an Iredell County non-profit committed to protecting and promoting the rights and dignity of LGBTQ young people, planned to mark International Transgender Visibility Day on March 31 with a rally in downtown Mooresville.
Word got out the day before that the local chapter of Moms for Liberty, the Christo-fascists who hector school boards, seek to ban books, and accuse queer adults and drag queens of grooming children, intended to harass the rally-goers.
Good reason existed to take their threat seriously.
In the wake of last week’s school shooting in Nashville, conservative political commentators and news outlets boosted their anti-trans rhetoric. (The hook for their transphobia is the uncertainty surrounding the gender identity of the shooter. If he was trans, which remains unclear, he was an exception to the rule that mass shooters are almost always heterosexual cis-gendered men.)
As reported by the Washington Post, Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News announced: “We are witnessing the rise of trans violence.” Right-wing Twitter launched the hashtag “trans terrorism.” Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican, suggested without evidence that hormone therapy played a part in the shooting. And, as reported by the New York Times, conservative activist Matt Walsh used his podcast to characterize “radical far-left trans activism” as a “hateful, violent movement.”
Homophobic rhetoric, including the slur that queer people and advocates for LGBTQ equality are pedophiles, has become increasingly normalized among conservatives and has blossomed into homophobic legislation — most notably in Florida and Tennessee — and rising rates of anti-gay violence.
More generally, violent rhetoric on the American right has inspired violent behavior — most notoriously in Charlottesville in August 2017 and in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021. (The most prominent form of terrorism in the United States comes from the political right.) It was the threat of such violence that recently prompted the cancellation of at least one other pro-trans rally.
Of course, no need existed to look outside Mooresville for the sort of anti-trans sentiment that can inspire violence: Some of the town’s people had already shown an eagerness to embrace anti-queer rhetoric and reject the idea that trans people are entitled to respect.
To mark International Transgender Visibility Day in 2021, the Mayor’s Diversity & Inclusion Task Force posted a recognition of the occasion on the town’s Facebook page. “Stand in solidarity with the Transgender Community,” it counseled.
While plenty of residents expressed support, many did not.
One likened being transgender to having an eating disorder. Another described it as a mental disease. Another reduced gender to simple genetics and declared by fiat that trans people do not exist. (A good rule of thumb: Someone who insists certain people don’t exist is likely to do whatever’s necessary to make sure they won’t exist.) Another said trans people are just confused. Another characterized trans people as trash. Another accused trans allies of harming children. Another alleged that trans women are sexual predators and rapists. Another said trans people will burn in hell. Another called trans people wicked and evil. (This anti-trans blowback must have spooked the town: There was no Facebook post this year marking the day.)
It was against this backdrop that Moms for Liberty planned to counter-protest: If advocates for illiberalism were going to make an appearance, the rally’s queer kids could use some help.
About fifty of us showed up to offer it. Many were from in or around Mooresville. Others came from Charlotte or Rock Hill. At least one person drove down from Virginia. Some were young and others old. Men and women and people who identify as non-binary. Trans kids and queer kids and straight kids; trans adults, queer adults, and straight adults.
The group gathered in a small grassy plaza on Main Street near the heart of downtown and then walked to town hall, waving rainbow flags and carrying pro-queer signs. People chanted — “Trans lives matter! Trans rights are human rights!” — while strolling the four or five blocks.
A few minutes into the march we spotted them: Five or six high school boys standing on the other side of the street. Two carried American flags. Another carried a sign: “Find your identity in Jesus Christ.” They yelled at us as we walked, and they ran to keep abreast of us. Moms for Liberty hadn’t shown up, but they had apparently sent their adolescent sons.
We mostly ignored the young men as the cops kept them on their side of the street and the occasional passer-by honked in support.
When we got to town hall and gathered on the lawn, about a half-dozen brave queer kids took the microphone and told their stories — even as the boys across the street continued heckling them.
One spoke about the challenges of growing up trans. Another about being non-binary. They talked about being bullied by peers and fearing rejection from their families. One described the higher rates of suicide and mental illness among queer kids and another the failure of political leadership and the dangers of political demagoguery. One after another these kids — teenagers, I think, and some barely that — candidly spoke their messy truths.
I swelled with pride, which was easy to understand, and allowed it to wash over me. But there was something else: jealousy. It took me more than forty years to choose to live my life honestly and authentically as a gay man. Fear and shame and guilt and cowardice conspired to induce duplicity. I lied to myself and my family and my friends and my colleagues about who I was and who I am and who I have always been. My dishonesty hurt them, and it hurt me, and it hurt us.
And here these kids — mere babes! — were standing in the public square of a ruby-red political community proudly proclaiming who they are. For them there would be no deception. There would be no dishonesty. There would be no dissembling. And while there certainly would be fear — there always is! — there would be no surrendering to it, at least not without a fight. There would be an honest, deliberate effort — a lifetime struggle marked by victories and losses — to achieve self-acceptance, self-love, and self-worth. These kids were earnestly starting that work now —while young and without sacrificing decades to denial and self-loathing. No doubt there will be times when they stumble — who doesn’t stumble? — but they seem unlikely to cower because they are brave and bold and ballsy.
I envied them while celebrating what they were doing and mourning what I had failed to do, dueling emotions that ultimately heightened my admiration and gratitude.
Then my thoughts turned back to those boys on the other side of the street: obnoxious, boastful, privileged in a way queer kids never feel in our world. They, no less than we who advocate for LGBTQ rights, argue for an identity politics — remember the sign imploring us to find our identity in Jesus Christ — but they seek to preserve yesterday’s regime, an identity politics dominated by people who are losing their long-standing grip on power and, like so many drowning men, now flail in desperation. Driven by a desperate sense of self-preservation, the counter-protesters sought to shout down our vision for what makes a good society, and using the kind of intimidation that has worked so well for them across the ages, they tried to silence people they perceive as a threat to their inherited social position.
As I reflected on their sad, sorry behavior — and compared it to the dignity of the young people with whom I marched — I saw in their words and deeds the last, anguished moments of a dying political order whose replacement is nigh. America’s reactionaries may yet do us harm — death throes can be dangerous — but so long as we continue to show up, speak up, and act up like the queer kids of Mooresville, we have every reason to hope that love and decency will ultimately prevail.
You can find other writing by Michael F. Roessler at his website here.