Unlikely crusade: Are Muslim immigrants joining the anti-LGBTQ right? Yes and no

Conservatives exult in a new culture-war coalition — but how long can right-wing Christians and Muslims coexist?

By Kathryn Joyce

Investigative Reporter

Published June 18, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Armenian parents and their supporters protesting a Pride assembly are met by LGBTQ+ advocates at Saticoy Elementary School in North Hollywood on Friday, June 2, 2023. Tensions were heightened last week when a Pride flag was burned at the school. (Sarah Reingewirtz/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)
Armenian parents and their supporters protesting a Pride assembly are met by LGBTQ+ advocates at Saticoy Elementary School in North Hollywood on Friday, June 2, 2023. Tensions were heightened last week when a Pride flag was burned at the school. (Sarah Reingewirtz/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)

Last Tuesday afternoon, in the Canadian capital city of Ottawa, several hundred people gathered outside the headquarters of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board for the second time in several days. They were there to protest against what they called "gender ideology" in public schools. After the last several years of culture-war battles in every conceivable educational space, that might seem unremarkable. But both this demonstration and another the previous Friday were notable for who was foregrounded in the protests and social media coverage that followed: Muslim-Canadians standing alongside right-wing white activists, mixing chants of "Leave our kids alone" with charges that Canadian schools were "targeting" Islam, and pledging to form a united front against the left. 

Over the last two weeks, a series of contentious and even violent LGBTQ Pride month protests, from Southern California to suburban Maryland to Ottawa to Calgary, have given rise to a new hope on the right: Has the push for LGBTQ rights and representation so badly alienated immigrant and Muslim communities that these generally liberal or left-leaning constituencies are switching sides? Across social and right-wing media, conservative pundits and activists have trumpeted that claim. "The Arab community is sending a message to the woke that they are not accepting this!" "Selling immigrants on hating liberals would be the easiest thing in the world." "The Crusade nobody saw coming. Muslims, Christians, and Atheists vs. Pro-Child Mutilation groomers." 

Memes followed: a Muslim-coded Gimli, from  "Lord of the Rings," reflecting that he never thought he'd die "fighting side by side with a Christian"; a medieval Muslim warrior standing beside a Templar Knight against a horde of feminists, rainbow flags, BLM activists and other liberal foes.

This all appeared to start in Southern California, where two raucous protests in early June turned violent. The first was June 2, outside Saticoy Elementary School in North Hollywood, where a small Pride flag stuck in a planter on school grounds had been burned a few days earlier, and the transgender teacher who placed it there was doxxed

As the school prepared to hold a Pride assembly that would include a reading from "The Great Big Book of Families," anti-LGBTQ activists gathered outside to protest. When counter-protesters formed a human chain in front of the school, the protesters tried to push through. Some threw punches and homophobic slurs; one reportedly shouted that he wanted "to zip tie the principal." A homeless man attending the pro-LGBTQ counter-demonstration was knocked to the ground and badly beaten, in an attack caught on video. 

The following Tuesday, June 6, many of the same protesters gathered in another Los Angeles suburb, outside the headquarters of the Glendale Unified School District. Inside the building, the school board was voting to recognize June as Pride month, as it had done for the last five years. But outside, some 500 protesters and counter-protesters squared off, many drawn there after a conservative group, GUSD Parents Voices, called for people to "Join the fight against indoctrination in our schools." 

As in North Hollywood, many of the protesters wore matching white T-shirts reading "Leave Our Kids Alone." Later, as numerous videos on social media would show, there was an all-out brawl in which people were punched, kicked, dragged and pepper-sprayed, including at least one pro-LGBTQ clergy member. Police repeatedly shouted "Do not fight" through megaphones before declaring an unlawful assembly and ordering the school board meeting attendees to "shelter in place." 

The melee made national news, adding to what was already a uniquely tense start to the month. In 2022, Pride celebrations around the country were marred by nearly 200 right-wing protests and intimidation efforts, from ugly demonstrations outside gay bars to Proud Boys storming library story hours to the U-haul of Patriot Front activists arrested in Idaho. This year, as Insider reported last month, the far right was determined to top those spectacles, vowing to "come at the normies full force and with something new, each day." 

So far, that threat does not seem empty. 

Pride flags have been burned or vandalized in numerous states, from California schools to New York's Stonewall Inn — site of the 1969 LGBTQ uprising that Pride month commemorates. Some of the attacks have been laughable, like Arizona anti-LGBTQ activist Ethan Schmidt — who posts videos of himself trying to pick fights in retail stores over Pride merchandise — burning a rainbow flag to audio clips from "The Purge," while wearing a get-up worthy of the Village People. But most of it isn't funny at all. On social media, prominent anti-LGBTQ accounts like Libs of TikTok have attracted reader comments that the proper response to school Pride displays include "mass shooting," a "woodchipper" or more violence like that in Glendale. 

Following recent anti-LGBTQ boycotts against the Target retail chain, this week flyers were left on cars outside one store in Redding, California, reading "Child groomers get the rope," with the "o" represented by a noose. The potential for escalation seems so evident that far-right activists have claimed to identify what they call "Operation Drag Floyd": a supposed plot by Pride activists to incite conservatives to acts of violence, in order to create "another J/6… another George Floyd." The LGBTQ equality group Human Rights Campaign has declared a state of emergency nationwide. 

Amid all this, the Southern California suburbs — generations ago, the heartland of the New Right — is emerging as a hotspot. The same day as the Glendale protest, Orange County voted to ban Pride flags on all county buildings, and the cities of Carlsbad and Huntington Beach and the school district of Chino Valley have done the same. The mayor pro tem of Huntington Beach signaled her intent to restrict access to LGBTQ books not just in schools but in city libraries as well, while Chino Valley's school board — which previously invited an anti-trans activist to lead the Pledge of Allegiance — is considering a policy to compel schools to out trans students to their parents. 

A conservative-dominated school board in Temecula justified banning a social studies textbook on the grounds that it included a section on murdered civil rights leader Harvey Milk, California's first openly gay elected official, whom two members of the new conservative majority baselessly called a pedophile. Last Tuesday, more flyers, reading "Every single aspect of the LGBTQ+ movement is Jewish," featuring the Star of David stamped across photos of roughly 20 prominent LGBTQ figures, were found outside homes in Huntington Beach and San Bernardino County.

These protests have fueled jubilant claims on the right that liberal extremism on social issues was driving some of the Democrats' most stalwart supporters to make common cause with Christian conservatives.

As the protests hit North Hollywood and Glendale, local activists and independent media identified a number of their leaders as familiar faces from far-right organizing in the region, including affiliates of the Proud Boys, Jan. 6 participants, anti-vaccination activists and more. Ahead of the Glendale protest, noted the progressive public education parents' group GUSD Parents for Public Schools, flyers advertising the demonstration had been shared "on known violent, racist and anti-lgbtq pages & telegram channels throughout the region." And after police cleared the area, Proud Boys stickers were found stuck to barricades outside GUSD headquarters. 

"In covering the far-right in LA and Southern California," tweeted local photographer and journalist Joey Scott, "[i]t is always the same people who have been fixtures since even before 2020." Others noted that many of the concerned "conservative parents" cited in media reports didn't seem to "even know which school district they are protesting." 

"From Los Angeles to Glendale, it is clear that organized white-supremacist, fascist forces such as the Proud Boys, the Patriot Front and potentially others are specifically targeting LGBTQ+ students, families and educators," wrote the labor union United Teachers Los Angeles in a statement. "They have put our schools on the front line of their hate; preying on existing fears and prejudices in our communities. We expect the tactics at Saticoy and Glendale to be replicated." 

Indeed, the day after the Glendale brawl, a right-wing social media account from Temecula shared a tweet about the protest clashes, writing, "Get ready Temecula." 

*  *  *

On the right, however, these protests became instant fodder for jubilant claims that liberal extremism on social issues was driving some of the Democrats' most stalwart supporters to make common cause with Christian conservatives. Right-wing provocateur Andy Ngo, who has frequently made false or misleading claims about left-wing activists, celebrated the fact that the Glendale and Saticoy protesters included members of  the area's large Armenian-American community, as well as Latinos. In a tweet, Ngo claimed that Armenian-American men "want to fight #Antifa outside the school board meeting" because "immigrant families oppose pride celebrations in schools." 

In another tweet, Ngo claimed that Armenian Americans, who are mostly Orthodox Christians, were specifically outraged by an Instagram picture of a Pride collage on one Saticoy classroom door, which Ngo described as combining "Armenian colors/symbols mixed with LGBTQI+, pup play pride in the shape of a Christian cross." Ngo's specious claim that the elementary school was promoting "pup play"— a niche form of BDSM role-playing — was apparently based on the fact that the classroom door bore a stenciled image of a paw print. Locals on Twitter quickly pointed out that the school's mascot is a bear, and the paw print logo is featured elsewhere in the school. That didn't prevent the false claim that an elementary school had decorated its classrooms with "fetish" imagery from spreading widely on right-wing websites and social media. 

Christina Pushaw, the flame-throwing spokesperson for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, now an announced presidential candidate, breathlessly shared the "pup play" charge as well, among nearly a dozen tweets about the Glendale and Saticoy protests. "I know this community well," she wrote in one, noting that she grew up in the area. "[T]he leftists made a big mistake trying to indoctrinate these kids behind their parents' backs." In another tweet, she continued, "Armenians in Glendale will never tolerate the alphabet indoctrination of their kids." 

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This emerging narrative was soon reinforced by additional protests elsewhere. Also on June 6, in Rockville, Maryland, a group of roughly 50 people — many of them Muslims, but also familiar right-wing factions like Moms for Liberty — demonstrated against a recent decision by the Montgomery County school district to stop sending parental notifications for every school reading that makes reference to LGBTQ issues. Maryland law requires districts to allow parents who don't want their children to attend sex-ed classes to opt out, but in March the district declared it would no longer offer that opt-out choice for other classroom discussions of LGBTQ issues. In response, the right-wing legal advocacy network Becket Law has filed a lawsuit on behalf of an interfaith group of parents. Two activist groups,  Family Rights for Religious Freedom and Coalition of Virtue, began holding rallies outside the school district offices. 

At one such demonstration on June 6, author and activist Asra Nomani (who wrote for Salon in the early 2000s) was on hand to record the protests for Twitter and present them as evidence of a coming tectonic political shift: "The hard-left came after the kids and Muslim parents aren't having it." Touting the thesis of her recent book, Nomani went on to argue that a longstanding "Red-Green Alliance" between "Marxist" liberals and "establishment" Muslims was coming apart. 

"Muslim parents are waking up to the fact that that unholy alliance now means that their children are in the crosshairs of the WOKE ARMY," she wrote. "And they aren't having any of it, just like parents in other communities, from Armenian immigrants to Asian Americans." 

After the protest in Montgomery County, Maryland, Richard Hanania, a right-wing academic provocateur who recently suggested that the U.S. needs "more policing, incarceration, and surveillance of black people," tweeted that this offered a golden opportunity for Republicans. "Selling immigrants on hating liberals would be the easiest thing in the world if conservatives had a real interest in winning," he wrote, sharing a video of a Muslim girl in Maryland talking about religious liberty in ways that, he said, "could've been written by Moms for Liberty." 

Daily Wire podcast host Ben Shapiro likewise declared, "Essentially what you have is a cadre of upper-class white liberals who have a particular set of morals that do not match the morals of particular ethnic minorities in the United States, and the backlash is going to be very, very strong." 

In videos from the Ottawa protest, Muslim women in hijab can be seen chanting "Leave our kids alone" and encouraging their children to stomp on a string of mini-Pride flags.

On June 9, these claims got another boost by the first Ottawa protest, which  had been planned weeks in advance by Canadian anti-trans activist Chris Elston, better known as "Billboard Chris" for his campaign of wearing sandwich-board signs with anti-trans slogans around the U.S. and Canada. It gained additional steam after the school district recommended that staff use gender-neutral pronouns for students until they clarified which pronouns they prefer, and a recent controversy elsewhere in Canada after a teacher admonished Muslim students who'd skipped school to avoid Pride celebrations. 

In videos from the protest (including one video viewed nearly 31 million times), a number of Muslim women in hijab can be seen chanting "Leave our kids alone" and encouraging their children to stomp on a string of mini Pride flags. Conservative Canadian columnist Rupa Subramanya tweeted that "Chants of Allahu Akbar and Christ is King" had come from the same side of the demonstration. The protest also devolved into scattered violence, including contested claims about whether a provincial legislator had been punched. 

In another photo shared widely online, a white woman in a pink polo shirt and a Muslim woman wearing a multi-colored hijab held up opposite ends of a peculiar flag: black with a white slash running across it. It was the flag of the "Diagolon" movement, which emerged during the 2022 "trucker convoy" protests in Canada as a mock-serious call for a new right-wing country, stretching diagonally across North America from Alaska to Florida, comprising states and provinces that rejected mask mandates, Marxism, globalism and "moral degeneracy." 

The subtext to that image, however, reveals why the notion of a "Diagolon Muslim Ottawa chapter #LMAO," as Subramanya tweeted — or of an alliance between Muslim immigrants and the far right more broadly — is problematic. The white woman in pink on one side of the flag, it turned out, was Stephanie McEvoy, a Canadian far-right activist with a long track record of supporting vehemently anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim groups and positions (including an unintentionally hilarious online complaint about encountering a Muslim cashier at a Victoria's Secret). 

As for the Diagolon movement, frequently described by conservatives as nothing more than an amusing meme, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network (CAHN) has called it a far-right separatist movement "with militant accelerationist overtones" that endorses "the formation of an illiberal republic, a halt to 'mass immigration,' and the maintenance of Euro-centric societies." According to CAHN, movement "founder" Jeremy McKenzie and his followers have shared content from far-right influencers, including white nationalist "groyper" leader Nick Fuentes, and has promoted the white supremacist book "The Day of the Rope," which depicts "a guerrilla war against a ruling class or pedophilic elite." 

In an editorial about the two protests, CAHN's Evan Balgord noted that Canada's 2022 "trucker convoy" movement, which drew together many threads of the far right and has since shifted its focus from COVID-19 to LGBTQ rights, originated with "anti-Muslim organizing that took the the streets to protest M-103, a motion broadly condemning Islamophobia, in early 2017."

Nonetheless, after the Ottawa protest, McKenzie responded to a pro-LGBTQ Muslim woman counter-protester by declaring on a podcast, "I am more Muslim than you," claiming that his right-wing values were more aligned with Islam than were hers. (Adopting an ambiguously "foreign" accent, McKenzie continued, "Women no talk-y in Islam; women shutty-uppy.") 

*  *  *

In California, Sophia Armen, co-director of the Armenian-American Action Network, a civil and immigrants rights group, was dismayed by what had happened in Glendale and North Hollywood, and also at how the clashes were being covered in the media, which in many cases has uncritically repeated claims that the anti-LGBTQ protesters represented the dominant community view. 

"At the last meeting," Armen told Salon, "the majority of all public comments at Glendale Unified School District were Armenians in favor of LGBTQ+ rights and standing with GUSD and queer Armenian kids." But that reality, she said, "is being continually drowned out by coverage of outside agitators and opportunists looking to further divide us." That particularly means by "extremist social media influencers," she said, who are seeking "to use this moment to build their platforms and make money off clickbait headlines that rely on old racist tropes of our community, Orientalist attitudes, and worsen the safety risks of LGBTQ+ Armenians in our community." 

Armen's organization, as well as the GALAS LGBTQ+ Armenian Society and the Southern California Armenian Democrats, released a statement last week "to correct the record" on what had happened in Glendale. It read, in part: "The monolithic perception of Armenians vs. LGBTQ+ people is a false, inaccurate account of the events at the GUSD Board meeting and further systems of oppression that erase LGBTQ+ Armenian people and voices, and enables discrimination." While the statement cautioned that "opportunistic social media influencers" were exploiting the conflict, it also acknowledged their concern "that protesting parents and community members are acting from a place of misinformed fear." 

Ani Zonneveld, founder and president of the nonprofit Muslims for Progressive Values, described a similar tension. Overall, she said, polling suggests that Muslim support for LGBTQ rights has grown significantly: from 27% in 2007 to 52% in 2017, and higher still among Muslim youth. "In the future, that's not going to be a problem within our Muslim community," Zonneveld said. However, she said, "very orthodox" U.S. and Canadian Muslim institutions were "still pushing the homophobic agenda." 

"The Christian right and the Muslim right have been strategizing around LGBT issues and women's reproductive rights, as well as opposing Black Lives Matter, because they share the same values."

In May, Zonneveld noted, more than 130 U.S. and Canadian imams had signed onto an anti-LGBTQ statement, which roiled the progressive Muslim community but was little noticed by the non-Muslim world. Last fall in Dearborn, Michigan, members of the city's large Muslim community joined a heated school board protest, calling to ban LGBTQ books, with support from prominent Michigan Republicans as well as Moms for Liberty. The state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations was present at the meeting, she said, distributing flyers about religious freedom and parental rights. 

"I can attest to the fact that the Christian right and the Muslim right have been strategizing around LGBT issues and women's reproductive rights, as well as opposing Black Lives Matter, because they share the same values," Zonneveld said. Conservative Muslims, she continued, "see a brotherhood" with the Christian right, "and are collaborating with these folks. And I've seen them be successful: filing amicus briefs in partnership with those organizations in regards to LGBT and women's reproductive rights. So I do think this is a monster in the making." 

This past Monday, right-wing pundits were thrilled again when California Assemblyman Bill Essayli, the first Muslim-American elected to the state legislature, walked out of the state capitol in protest of a celebration of Pride honorees, which this year included a member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a drag performance-activist collective whose nun-inspired costumes have been condemned by many conservatives as anti-Catholic bigotry. A picture of Essayli holding a sign reading "Religious bigotry is bigotry" went viral. (On Friday night, right-wing Catholic media outlets and organizations held a protest march against the Los Angeles Dodgers, who honored the Sisters during a Pride celebration at that night's game. Also on Friday, more than 1,500 miles north, yet another Canadian anti-LGBTQ protest, this time in Calgary, drew a large crowd of Muslims and other immigrants.)

In a subsequent interview with the right-wing Daily Caller, Essayli said he was giving voice "to a lot of conservative Muslims" who would now feel more "comfortable speaking out to this radical leftist ideology." Declaring that the U.S. was in a "weird and perilous time" where all forms of religious faith were under attack, Essayli continued, "we cannot afford to have division among the different faiths between Christianity and Islam. I think it's time for us to unite and take on this existential fight that faces all of us together." 

The next day was June 13, when an interfaith group of several hundred protesters gathered for the second Ottawa protest. In a speech live-streamed on social media, a Muslim man stood in the center of the protest and spoke into a megaphone, telling the crowd that while the media tried to drive Christians and Muslims apart, "Today, ladies and gentlemen, you are proof that we are one nation under God." Then he led the crowd in a familiar chant: "The people united will never be defeated." 

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 Christian Right Culture War Education Far-right Investigation Muslims Pride Month Reporting