Lone Star hate: Right-wing activists in Texas drive a new wave of anti-LGBTQ bigotry

Sure, Texas is a red state. But the merger of MAGA and anti-LGBTQ activism has revealed a whole new level of ugly

By Kathryn Joyce

Investigative Reporter

Published June 22, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

The Proud Boys, an American far-right organization, is seen outside the NRA conference in Houston, Texas, United States on May 28, 2022, the days after a mass shooting at a Texas elementary school left 19 children and two adults dead. (Katie McTiernan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
The Proud Boys, an American far-right organization, is seen outside the NRA conference in Houston, Texas, United States on May 28, 2022, the days after a mass shooting at a Texas elementary school left 19 children and two adults dead. (Katie McTiernan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Last weekend in Houston, Texas Republicans got a taste of just how far right their party has become. At the state's biennial GOP convention, delegates officially declared Joe Biden an illegitimate president, proposed repealing the 1965 Voting Rights Act and voted for a platform calling on schools to teach that life begins at conception and to avoid all discussion of gender identity or sexuality. Additional planks attacked trans rights, cast gender-affirming medical care as actionable malpractice and declared homosexuality "an abnormal lifestyle choice." When one delegate pushed back on that last point — saying, "We are the Republican Party of Texas, not the Westboro Baptist Church" — he was greeted with boos, laughter and another delegate's tirade about "dildos and fisting." 

But perhaps the most explosive takeaway from the convention was a series of heated confrontations (inevitably turned into viral videos) in which a group of far-right activists and social media personalities, led by self-described comedian Alex Stein, followed Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, through the hallways of the convention hotel, chanting "eyepatch McCain." This ended in a violent scuffle between Stein and two Crenshaw staffers. Stein also targeted Sen. Ted Cruz in similar fashion, while a different protester shouted that Crenshaw should be hanged. After the hecklers were ejected from the convention, some were photographed standing amid a group of men wearing the black-and-gold shirts of the "Western Chauvinist" Proud Boys.

RELATED: Self-described "Christian fascist" movement is trying to sabotage LGBTQ Pride Month

Although Stein and his cadre's complaints on Saturday were mainly focused on gun laws and Ukraine aid rather than queer rights, his presence at the convention followed the national notoriety he'd gained just two weeks before, when he filmed himself trying to force his way into a Dallas gay bar that was hosting a family-friendly drag show. 

As Salon reported at the time, the protest, organized by a right-wing nonprofit called Protect Texas Children, attracted a broader coalition of far-right activists, including members of the white nationalist America First/groyper movement, which hosted a conference last February praising Vladimir Putin, Hitler and the hanging of political enemies. Also involved were a Catholic youth organization that openly endorses theocratic fascism and a network of anti-LGBTQ activists who have gained substantial social media followings through stunt provocations in the broader Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) area, often with the Proud Boys in tow. 

Kelly Neidert, the youthful founder of Protect Texas Children, was banned from Twitter for posting: "Let's start rounding up people who participate in Pride events."

At least two other people involved in the confrontation with Crenshaw hailed from that network: social media personality Cassady Campbell, a YouTube streamer with a following of 1.6 million people, and Alex Rosen, a self-styled "pedophile" hunter who makes videos of himself conducting vigilante sting operations against alleged child predators, sometimes enlisting actual minors as bait. Cheering them on from her official booth within the convention was Kelly Neidert, the founder of Protect Texas Children, who has appeared alongside Stein and Rosen in targeting LGBTQ people and events in the DFW Metroplex and who earned a permanent suspension from Twitter this weekend for tweeting, "Let's start rounding up people who participate in Pride events." 

The protest in Dallas earlier in June was just one among a wave of troubling attacks on LGBTQ people or events that have disrupted Pride Month. Many of these occurred after events or groups were targeted by high-profile right-wing social media accounts like Libs of TikTok, and many have involved far-right groups that in the past were mostly focused on white nationalist causes. 

A report from the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism last week tracked seven such events this month, finding "that anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric now serves as a central rallying issue for at least some white supremacists." On June 11 alone, the ADL's report noted three incidents. In San Lorenzo, California, a group of Proud Boys, one wearing a shirt that read "Kill your local pedophile," stormed a Drag Queen Story Hour at a public library, calling the performer a "pedophile" and "that thing" and the parents in attendance "godless whores." The same day in Jacksonville, members of the neo-Nazi organization NatSoc Florida protested outside a Hamburger Mary's restaurant in swastika shirts, carrying signs that read "Child groomers work here" and "Judaism allows child rape." (Before she was banned from Twitter, Neidert called on her followers to protest a Houston branch of Hamburger Mary's this July.) 

Most notoriously, on that same day 31 members of the white nationalist hate group Patriot Front — the rebranded version of a group that helped lead the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — were arrested in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, where they had arrived in a U-Haul truck with shields, metal poles, at least one smoke grenade and alleged plans to incite a riot at a local Pride event. Arrest records showed that eight of the men hailed from Texas, including seven from the greater DFW area, six of them from a tight cluster of suburbs north of Fort Worth, where the group's founder attended high school several years ago. 

In one sense, says Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow at People for the American Way, the wave of local far-right activity is an indication that both the mainstream and extremist wings of the conservative movement have effectively trained their followers' sights on local issues — "to start building influence for the long term by getting involved in local politics" and "take over the Republican Party from the ground up." It's the same strategy the Christian right followed in the 1990s, he noted, and it's what Steve Bannon has told MAGA activists to do much more recently. 

"The Proud Boys are part of that," Montgomery said. "And we know this year the right is making anti-LGBTQ local battles a huge part of their political strategy." 

But as the convention in Houston made clear, that influence goes both ways. 

*  *  *

On Tuesday, June 7, for the first time in its history, the city council of Frisco, Texas, a suburban community of some 220,000 people due north of Dallas, issued a proclamation recognizing June as Pride Month. After an opening invocation by a local minister, praying for open hearts and minds, around two dozen members of the local LGBTQ community came on stage, one sparking tearful cheers by declaring, "Progress is here." Across the majority of the auditorium, there was sustained applause, a standing ovation and the waving of rainbow flags. But from one corner, there were boos. 

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After the proclamation was read, most of the audience left, walking to a nearby burger joint for a planned reception hosted by the recently-formed group Pride Frisco. And so, when the meeting was opened for public comment, those who rose to respond to the proclamation came almost exclusively from the right, as one person after another got up to condemn the recognition of Pride Month and the LGBTQ community more broadly. 

One middle-aged woman called for the mayor to instead dedicate June to "traditional families with traditional Christian values." An older man pushing a walker with a Confederate flag affixed to one side complained about rainbow merchandise being sold in Walmart. But the rest of the speakers were young adults who seemed to have arrived as a block, sitting in one corner of the audience, live-streaming themselves and mocking the proceedings. A number of men in the group had covered their faces with hats, sunglasses and red neck gaiters bearing the buck-toothed grin of a cartoon beaver — the mascot of rest stop franchise Buc-ee's — which has become part of the unofficial uniform of local Proud Boys. 

Steph Gardella, a local candidate for justice of the peace, was seated in front of the group with her husband. She says she heard them call the LGBTQ community "disgusting" "pedophiles" and suggest that parents who brought their children to the event should be taken outside and beaten up. 

"It got so uncomfortable and aggressive that my husband and the person in front of me went up to the police officers [in attendance] to explain there was going to be a problem," said Gardella. The group seemed "very clear," she said, "that their job was to show up at these events all over the area to cause problems." Indeed, at least three people who rose to speak were recognizable from the protest outside the LGBTQ bar in downtown Dallas, Mr. Misster, earlier this month. 

One of those was the aforementioned Kelly Neidert, founder of Protect Texas Children and a recent graduate of the University of North Texas (UNT), where she became a ubiquitous anti-LGBTQ presence. Between this June's protest at Mr. Misster and the Frisco city council meeting, she also showed up at a Denton church hosting a children's Pride story hour, taking and posting photos without permission, and has called for additional protests since then, including one this Wednesday outside a medical center that treats trans patients in Dallas. At the Frisco meeting, Neidert said she was driven by concerns about children, saying that no matter how anodyne the proclamation was, "Pride Month is inherently sexual" and kids "have no business being around it." Rather than celebrating the LGBTQ community, she said, the council should get LGBTQ people "mental help." 

Kevin Whitt, a self-described former "transsexual and drag queen," filmed himself on Jan. 6, 2021 — not inside the Capitol, but yelling abuse at diners and staff in Comet Ping Pong, the "Pizzagate" restaurant.

Another speaker was Kevin Whitt, a self-described former "transsexual and drag queen" who has become a fixture at anti-LGBTQ events in the DFW area, including a May anti-trans event at UNT that sparked violent confrontations between student protesters and Proud Boys. Until 2021, Whitt was also a field organizer for the Republican Party of Texas, although he lost that position after filming himself in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. He told the Texas Tribune that he did not enter the Capitol that day. But he did film himself yelling at diners and staff in Comet Ping Pong, the pizzeria targeted in 2016 by believers in the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. (In a subsequent interview with the Dallas Observer, Whitt claimed the restaurant "put baby parts in their pizza sauce" and said he wanted to decipher what he described as "satanic and pedophilic" symbols in the artwork on its walls.) 

Andrew LaFuente, a leader with the far-right Catholic group New Columbia Movement — which led a Rosary protest outside Mr. Misster on June 4 — also spoke in Frisco, asking the council, "What does promoting sodomy and promoting an axe wound to your son's genitals and grooming do to help our people here in Frisco?" Declaring that June wasn't Pride Month but the observance of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, LaFuente began chanting "Christ Is King!" — a phrase that has become a rallying cry at America First/groyper events and was picked up by the right-wing protesters in Frisco, who kept chanting until a council member warned they'd be asked to leave. 

The last speaker was Cassady Campbell, the YouTuber who participated in heckling Dan Crenshaw last weekend. In Frisco, he launched into an angry, six-minute rant about the city celebrating "sodomites" and "sick predators" whose end goal was clearly to "normalize pedophilia." Slamming his fist repeatedly on the podium, Campbell loudly declared that the Bible calls homosexuality an "abomination." "It says abomination! Are you stupid, mayor?" he yelled. "Get it through your thick skull!" 

Meanwhile, at the nearby restaurant hosting the after-party for those celebrating the proclamation, several men wearing the same Buc-ee's masks, one also clad in a military-style tactical vest, walked into the back rooms where people had gathered, glaring at them until other diners grew alarmed enough to call the police. The men left without incident, flashing the "OK" hand gesture that's become associated with white supremacists. But as the reception wound down, organizers warned attendees to leave in pairs. 

"Bluster doesn't bother me. People being incredibly mouthy and saying hateful things doesn't bother me. But there was something about the energy of these guys that had the hackles on the back of my neck standing up," said Gardella. "What I saw in Frisco made me scared to open my door at home." 

*  *  *

While the men in Buc-ee's masks in Frisco struck attendees as likely being Proud Boys, other events in the DFW area have left no doubt. As local progressive activists and UNT students have documented in numerous videos and photographs, anti-LGBTQ events and protests hosted by Neidert and her allies have drawn Proud Boys on multiple occasions. On June 12, Neidert, Whitt and local far-right media activist Tayler Hansen — who is best known for filming inside the Capitol on Jan. 6 when Ashli Babbitt was shot, but now specializes in surreptitious videos shot inside drag shows — showed up in Arlington, Texas, to protest an adults-only drag queen brunch. In videos later shared on Twitter, a line of masked Proud Boys arrived at the protest, shaking hands with Neidert and her group before blocking counter-protesters on the sidewalk and threatening one with "citizen's arrest" for being "a pedophile." (In 2020, the Tribune reported, Whitt defended the Proud Boys on social media as being "an 'amazing' group of men.")

"These people are all connected, they all know each other, they coordinate with each other and show up to events as groups," said Steven Monacelli, an investigative reporter in the DFW area who wrote about Neidert's UNT antics for the Daily Beast this spring. As Monacelli and coauthor Jack Wheatley reported, Neidert hosted a Texas legislature candidate who is campaigning on banning gender-affirming care for minors after losing custody of his own trans child, and Neidert has received public offers of legal assistance from former Proud Boys lawyer Jason Lee Van Dyke, who now represents a Patriot Front member arrested in Idaho. 

"There's a whole category of social media personality that has emerged across the country," Monacelli said: online influencers who leverage local confrontations into viral content, that content into conservative stardom, and that stardom into institutional backing. "But in Dallas, we've got this critical mass of them." 

"There's a whole category of social media personality" who leverage local confrontations into viral content and right-wing stardom. "But in Dallas, we've got this critical mass of them."

"They post all these events online and these people show up," said Jess Ferricher, a member of the local LGBTQ community who was present at the city council meeting and after-party in Frisco earlier this month. After Frisco elected two new right-wing school board members this May, Ferricher noted, one of them was promptly invited onto Steve Bannon's podcast War Room, where Bannon praised her as a "representative of something much, much larger." "I suspected at the time," Ferricher said, "and still do, that the national groups were testing areas like Frisco as a sort of barometer or focus group for talking points to see what is successful for the November midterms." That's part of what "has made the atmosphere feel 'off' here for a while," she continued, noting that the DFW suburbs are "starting to feel unsafe" and her family is considering moving. 

After the revelation that seven of the Patriot Front members arrested in Idaho hailed from the greater DFW area, Dallas business owner Brandon Friedman, a former member of Barack Obama's administration and a current member of Dallas' police oversight board, posted a viral Twitter thread illustrating how an arc sweeping across the western and northern suburbs of the DFW Metroplex has become a hotbed of right-wing activity. To the west of Frisco is Southlake, which became a nationally-recognized center of anti-critical race theory activism last year, electing a new slate of right-wing school board members who had campaigned against a district diversity council they believed was spreading "Marxist" "leftist-indoctrination." (Southlake subsequently made more headlines when a district official instructed teachers to offer "opposing" views of the Holocaust.) 

In nearby Colleyville, a Black principal who'd already been asked by district administrators to take down a Facebook photo of him kissing his white wife was later pushed to resign over allegations that he'd promoted CRT through a letter he wrote to the community after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. And in the same DFW suburb where several of the arrested Patriot Front members live, a local fundamentalist church preaches that "all homosexuals are pedophiles" who should be "shot in the back of the head." 

The area has also become a hive of activity around book bans. State Rep. Matt Krause of Fort Worth made a list of 850 books he considers suspect — most written by women, LGBTQ people or people of color — and asked school districts across Texas to check for those titles and to identify any other books about sexuality or topics that might make students feel bad about their sex or race. (Krause was also the legislator who asked Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to determine whether gender-affirming medical treatment for trans youth should be considered child abuse, prompting Gov. Greg Abbott to issue an order this February calling on child welfare authorities to investigate parents who get their children such care.) 

To the east of Frisco, in McKinney, a local couple has sparked a months-long battle after calling for the district's schools to remove nearly 300 books included on Krause's list. In Denton County, home to UNT, state Rep. Jared Patterson has attacked book vendors that support the American Library Association's position that minors have a right to privacy in their library records, and asked school districts to blacklist vendors who "supplied pornographic materials to schools." Meanwhile in Granbury, southwest of Fort Worth and home to Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, a local constable who urged other law enforcement officials to join the militia group recently launched a criminal investigation involving certain library books. 

Not least, the DFW suburbs — a region that has grown significantly in population and racial diversity over the last two decades, as a number of corporations have relocated to Dallas — are also overrepresented when it comes to residents charged in connection with the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. As the Washington Post reported soon after the insurrection, that fact seems tied to experts' assessment that many Jan. 6 rioters were motivated by anxiety over changing demographics in their own communities — anxieties expressed in one local contest in Plano, where a conservative candidate vowed to "keep Plano suburban." Frisco, by the way, is also home to real estate agent Jenna Ryan, who infamously chartered a private plane to Washington ahead of Jan. 6. 

In 2015, Northeastern University historian Edward Miller (most recently the author of the first biography of John Birch Society founder Robert Welch), wrote a book about the region in the 1950s and '60s, "Nut Country: Right-Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy." Miller's title was borrowed from the assessment of the city made by John F. Kennedy on the eve of his assassination, while his subtitle summarizes his argument that Dallas Republicans in the 1950s pioneered the playbook of using racial tensions "to get white Democrats to vote for Republicans," more than a decade before Richard Nixon deployed the strategy nationwide. In time, Miller says, other messages besides the bedrock promise of opposing civil rights were added to the strategy, tying anti-feminist and homophobic messaging to race-baiting in attempts to expand the Republican electorate. 

Today, says Friedman, conditions have changed: The city of Dallas is now strongly Democratic, "and Fort Worth just went blue for Biden in 2020." So the most intense right-wing activity "has been pushed out into the northwestern suburbs." As a veteran, he added, "I tend to think in military analogies. It's like whatever was in Dallas 50, 60, 70 years ago has been pushed north and west. It almost looks like a front line in the culture war, where Blue Dallas is meeting rural Texas and that's where all the conflict is." 

*  *  *

It's not just DFW, said Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas, which in response to the escalation of threats to Pride events this year has sent safety kits to LGBTQ organizations across the state. "The fear-mongering about the rise of trans and LGB people has fueled bias and discrimination that has had serious consequences for a lot of people across Texas," Martinez said. "But it's also not surprising, given that last year there were 76 anti-trans bills filed and we spent the majority of the year debating the humanity of LGBTQ people."

None of this, of course, is taking place in a vacuum. 

"There's a straight line," said Peter Montgomery, "between the sort of rhetoric coming out of the [Ron] DeSantis camp, when his press secretary smeared anybody who's an advocate for LGBTQ equality as a 'groomer'" and the pattern of intimidation and threats we have seen this June. 

"Texas is a bellwether for anti-LGBTQ and anti-trans legislation, and now we've seen it spread across the country." Greg Abbott and his advisers have said "this is a topic they think they can win on."

In Texas in 2021, said Shelly Skeen, a senior attorney at the LGBTQ legal advocacy firm Lambda Legal Dallas, state legislators proposed more anti-LGBTQ legislation in one year than any other state ever had, with more than half of those focused on restricting trans rights. "I think Texas is a bellwether for anti-LGBTQ and anti-trans legislation, and now we've seen it spread across the country in 2022," said Skeen, noting that more than 325 pieces of anti-LGBTQ state legislation were introduced nationwide in just the first quarter of this year. 

"Gov. Abbott and his political people will admit to you that this is a topic they think they can win on," Skeen added. Indeed, a senior campaign adviser to Abbott told reporters this year that he saw targeting trans youth and their families as a "75, 80% winner" for the governor's reelection campaign. 

"It's so important to see these not as isolated incidents, but as the inevitable result of bold lies and misinformation streaming constantly on networks like Fox News, alt-right news sites and on unchecked social media accounts dedicated to harassing and targeting LGBTQ people," said Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of the LGBTQ media organization GLAAD. "The anti-LGBTQ rhetoric we see during these incidents comes straight from lawmakers like DeSantis and Abbott and their co-conspirators on Fox News, who are leading the charge to misrepresent, demonize and target our community." 

That atmosphere has led to an almost inevitable sense of oneupmanship: Fearful of being labeled RINOs, Republican politicians keep ramping up the eliminationist rhetoric. Consider South Carolina pastor and congressional candidate Mark Burns, who recently promised to revive the House Un-American Activities Committee to hold public hearings, and then public executions, of parents of trans children and LGBTQ-sympathetic teachers.

In a media environment where conservative Americans are "being told 24/7" that "LGBTQ people are dangerous 'groomers' harming kids," added GLAAD rapid response manager Mary Emily O'Hara on Twitter, it shouldn't be a surprise to see a corresponding rise in violence. Without excusing those who harass and threaten LGBTQ people, wrote O'Hara, "what's clear to me is those people are just foot soldiers. The people who need to be held accountable most are the ones feeding them lies and misinformation." 

At the same time, the influence seems to be running up the food chain as well: Mobilized local extremists are now helping shape Republican priorities at both the state and national level.

In the aftermath of the protest at the Mr. Misster drag show earlier this month, lawmakers in both Texas and Florida vowed to introduce legislation banning the presence of minors at drag events and, in Florida, terminating the parental rights of any adult who allows a child to attend. At the federal level, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia announced last week that she was introducing similar legislation, and dedicated an hour-long episode of her livestream show to clips of Pride events from around the country, declaring trans rights "a complete attack on God's creation." 

In another episode of "MTG Live" last week, Greene hosted DFW right-wing media activist Tayler Hansen for a nearly hour long interview, and last Friday, she followed in the footsteps of activists like Neidert or Libs of TikTok in posting details to her Facebook page of an upcoming Drag Queen Story Hour in her hometown of Rome, Georgia. "It is not a hate crime to protest and force these things and these people to stop targeting our children," Greene urged her supporters. "It's immoral and irresponsible not to." 

At the Texas GOP convention, Log Cabin Republicans were barred from any official presence. Neidert got a booth to display LGBTQ books she hopes to ban.

At the Texas GOP convention over the weekend, while the Log Cabin Republicans were once again barred from any official presence, Neidert's Protect Texas Children was granted a booth, where she displayed images of LGBTQ-friendly youth and children's books she hopes to see banned. YouTube stuntman Alex Stein was photographed posing with former Texas gubernatorial candidate Don Huffines as well as state GOP chair Matt Rinaldi. 

Ultimately, suggested Martinez, positions like theirs are not substantively different from the Texas GOP's declaration that LGBTQ people are "abnormal." If Neidert's views weren't permissible in the Republican Party, Martinez said, "she wouldn't have gotten that table."

What it amounts to, says Steven Monacelli, is a "bi-directional outrage machine" that is neither top-down nor bottom-up, but a reflexive relationship between the right's foot soldiers and its elite. There are still right-wing leaders and organizations laying out playbooks and talking points, he said, but also "a sort of Frankenstein's monster situation" in which "elements of conservative politics that have been fostered and encouraged from the top down come roaring into life, and are out of their control. They've unleashed something that you can't really rein back in, because of how much hatred is involved." 

Some may say that the people who show up to harass Pride events, or even to GOP conventions, are activists who don't represent the broader party. "But if they keep controlling the pipeline of candidates and policy planks and implementation," said Monacelli, "I don't know what the difference is."

Read more from Kathryn Joyce on the rise of the far right:

By Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce was an investigative reporter at Salon, and the author of two books: "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption" and "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

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Anti-lgbtq Big Lie Far-right Fascism Investigation Pride Proud Boys Religion Republicans Texas Theocracy