The GOP is becoming more unhinged about LGBTQ people — which will only make them more unpopular

New research shows most Americans side with RuPaul and Kevin Bacon against Christian nationalists

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published March 24, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

A pro-LGBTQ rights protester holds anti-far-right placards during the demonstration. (Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A pro-LGBTQ rights protester holds anti-far-right placards during the demonstration. (Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

"A harmless drag show? Not possible."

That was the response of Walter Wendler, the president of West Texas A&M University, in defense of his unilateral decision to cancel a drag show students had scheduled as a fundraiser for the anti-suicide group the Trevor Project. Wendler claimed his purpose was to stop speech that would "denigrate and demean women," comparing drag to "blackface." Students, however, argued, "Drag is not an insult," but instead "a celebration of queerness, of gender, of femininity."

In 2019, Wendler provoked a similar controversy by arguing that sex should only occur between married heterosexuals who do not use contraception. He was let go from his previous position as chancellor of Southern Illinois University Carbondale after he resisted allowing employees in same-sex relationships to have equal access to health care benefits. Student groups argue that Wendler broke a university policy barring the university from taking action against students "on the basis of a political, religious, philosophical, ideological, or academic viewpoint." 

The GOP is turning up the anti-queer rhetoric right when most Americans are more supportive of LGBTQ rights than ever. 

Wendler's actions come in the middle of a growing crescendo of bombastic conservative attacks against LGBTQ people. Across the country, there's a mounting series of legislative and rhetorical efforts by Republicans to curtail the rights of LGBTQ to get medical care, enjoy equal access to public spaces, and to express themselves freely. Many Republicans have turned to the anti-LGBTQ movement as a way to rally support in the post-Donald Trump era.

On Tuesday, there was an on-campus protest that drew a healthy crowd for a tiny, conservative school in Canyon, TX, a small town near Amarillo. The robust response isn't too surprising, however. GOP attacks on LGBTQ people are widely perceived as using hate to gain power. New data shows it's also likely to backfire for Republicans. The GOP is turning up the anti-queer rhetoric right when most Americans are more supportive of LGBTQ rights than ever. 

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Initially, the post-Trump era of anti-LGBTQ activism began under the pretext of "protecting children." Groups like the Proud Boys would organize protests of family-friendly drag events, baselessly arguing that people in silly costumes chastely reading children's books somehow "sexualizes" children. In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and his allies defended the "don't say gay" bill censoring discussion of LGBTQ identities in school, by claiming it only impacted lower grades, even as legal experts said it had a chilling effect across schools. Attacks on gender-affirming health care for trans people were packaged as efforts to "protect" minors from "rushing" into transition. 

This fig leaf of concern for "children" has been collapsing recently, however. DeSantis is now trying to expand his "don't say gay" law into high schools. He's also trying to get liquor licenses stripped from bars that host drag shows. At the most recent Conservative Political Action Conference, a speaker demanded: "transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely." As the New York Times reported in January, Republicans in state legislatures are introducing bills banning trans health care for adults and even banning trans people from public places. Trump, as part of his 2024 campaign, has promised to block all federal programs that affirm trans identities for adults. Tennessee's recent drag ban is so broad, critics suspect it will be used to criminalize previously uncontroversial behaviors like drag queens marching in Pride parades. 

Republicans may think this is a way to regain public support after underperforming in every election since Trump's first midterm. A new study from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) shows they are sorely mistaken, however. The group found that "Americans are growing more supportive of LGBTQ rights than ever before." And while support for LGBTQ rights was higher among Democrats and independents, even a majority of Republican voters believe the law should protect LGBTQ people from discrimination.

"The data tell us that there is a mismatch between public opinion broadly on support for LGBT nondiscrimination protections and legislative activity in many states that seek to restrict the rights of transgender Americans," PRRI CEO Melissa Deckman told Salon. "We find that 80 percent of Americans support such protections, even in red states where such legislative activity is occuring. In Tennessee, for instance, which is the first state to ban public drag performances, 71 percent of residents support nondiscrimination protections."

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Digging even further into the data, there's even more indication that opposition to LGBTQ rights will only serve to alienate the GOP from the American mainstream. Antipathy to queer people was concentrated mainly with the minority of Americans PRRI classifies as either adherents of or sympathetic to Christian nationalism, a right-wing ideology that rejects the constitutional tradition of freedom of religion. 

Christian nationalism isn't just a threat to longstanding religious freedom protections, as previous PRRI research has found. The belief system is heavily linked to white supremacist views and anti-Black racism, anti-semitism, opposition to immigration, and a belief in male dominance over women. (Which cuts against the claims that anti-drag protesters wish to "protect" women.) They also take a dim view of democracy and are more likely to turn to violence against those who disagree with their political views. As Kathryn Joyce documented for Salon, Christian nationalism was a major motivating factor for the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. 

While the mainstream media tends to focus heavily on Trump's cult of personality, there are strong indications that it's not just Trump, but the unpopularity of the larger Christian nationalist movement that is turning voters against the GOP. This was shown in the 2022 midterm elections, where polls showed that Democrats over-performed expectations due to voter anger over the overturn of Roe v. Wade. Abortion bans provoked a larger outpouring of concern from the majority of Americans about how Republicans are allowing Christian nationalism to threaten health care access, religious freedom, the right to vote, and the ability of Americans to live free from terrorist attacks like the January 6 insurrection. 

Last week, "RuPaul's Drag Race," which is in its 15th season of drag queens competing to show off talents and fashion sense, addressed the mushrooming efforts to harass drag performers out of existence. They did it, unsurprisingly, with the campy humor that defines their art form: A comic musical called "Wigloose," based on the 80s film "Footloose," except with fundamentalists banning drag instead of dancing. The tribute drew praise from Kevin Bacon, the star of the original "Footloose," who wrote, "Drag is an art and drag is a right." He also shared a video from the host, RuPaul, saying, "Register to vote so we can get these stunt queens out of office and put some smart people with real solutions into government."

No doubt these reactions increase anger from Republicans, who will view it as evidence they're oppressed by "woke" culture. But it underscores how politically unwise it is for the GOP to put so much of its energies into attacks on LGBTQ people. Voters are punishing Republicans at the polls for bans on abortion, and there's good reason to think voters will take a similarly dim view of attacks on LGBTQ rights. It's difficult for Republicans to claim they are "pro-freedom" when they are passing laws restricting what people can read, wear, or say. The Christian right are the villains in "Footloose" and American attitudes towards the prudery caucus haven't grown any warmer since then. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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