In the wake of last year’s loss on same-sex marriage, the Christian Right has begun to act tactically, attacking what it perceives to be the LGBT equality movement’s weakest links. And yet amazingly, this strategy is backfiring. Not only is the right failing to make their easiest cases, they are hardening opposition in those very cases, losing key battles in the areas of transgender rights and religious freedom.
Consider the strategy in North Carolina. North Carolina’s Republican legislature and governor used what they thought would be their best tactic to repeal anti-discrimination ordinances, one that that worked in Houston and elsewhere: that pro-LGBT laws would let men use women’s restrooms.
This is a lie on many levels: Restrooms are only one possible application of non-discrimination ordinances, which are actually about jobs and schools; transgender women are not “men”; there are no recorded instances of sexual predators exploiting such laws in order to attack women. But it’s a lie that works. Boys and girls showering together sounds like the latest in P.C. craziness, and people don’t like it.
And yet, the only way North Carolina could pass the law was in a bizarre special session, passing a bill that no one seems to have read. The bill was so overbroad, it was like putting out a match with a fire hose. And it was passed like a midnight massacre, suddenly and taking everyone by surprise.
This may seem like a victory, but in the long run, it will go down as a loss. The reaction has been swift, from Fortune 500 companies to religious leaders to celebrities. (Among others, PayPal just canceled plans to expand in the state.) The law has been widely condemned, and Gov. Pat McCrory is on the defensive. What he presumably hoped would help shore up his base now threatens to alienate the moderate voters he needs to win reelection this year.
And notice what North Carolina didn’t do. They didn’t mount a frontal attack on Charlotte’s anti-discrimination law. They didn’t argue that gay people shouldn’t get “special rights.” They sneaked in under the cover of a lie, and still lost, first in the court of public opinion and next, probably, in courts of law.
But their defeat goes even further: Even within their own false context, they’re losing. This is not the way trans advocates wanted to have a public conversation about gender identity, but here the conversation is, and, not unlike same-sex marriage, trans people are persuading people simply by telling the truth.
There are little transgender girls out there, kids like Coy Mathis who were born biologically male but who have dressed like girls, played with “girl toys,” and understood themselves to be girls since as long as they could talk. And there are butch transgender men like the bearded, country-boy-looking James Sheffield, whose Twitter post to Gov. McCrory—“It’s now the law for me to share a restroom with your wife”—has gone viral.
Thanks to North Carolina’s odious, ignorant law, these folks are now able to tell their stories to wider audiences. And when they connect, on a human level, with reasonable people willing to listen, they are their own best advocates.
The second tactic of the Right has been to talk about religion.
Fine, the argument goes, you’ve won on same-sex marriage. But don’t force churches to host gay weddings, don’t force religious bakers to bake gay cakes. Because, religion!
This, too, is partly a lie. Under clear First Amendment precedent, no church could ever be compelled to host any wedding of any sort. The government can’t make an Orthodox synagogue host an interfaith wedding, and it can’t make a Catholic church host a gay wedding. This is how it is, how it should be, and how it’s going to stay.
But the Right’s attempt to move out from there to include for-profit businesses (bakers and otherwise) has run into trouble, most recently in Georgia, where the Republican governor, Nathan Deal, vetoed a “religious freedom” bill that would have enabled businesses to discriminate for religious reasons, under heavy pressure from dozens of large corporations including the National Football League.
Unlike North Carolina, the Georgia fight has been brewing for a while. A similar bill failed last year, after conservatives including Mike Bowers (the former attorney general named in Bowers v. Hardwick, a 1986 Supreme Court decision upholding a sodomy ban) said it undermined the rule of law. By the time it came around this year, a similar coalition of businesses, celebrities, advocates, and religious leaders was ready.
Once again, the religious baker and the pious florist should be the easiest cases for the Right. They’re businesses, yes, but they’re often small businesses run by individuals who sincerely don’t want any part of a gay wedding. The real stakes are much higher, though: corporations wanting to be able to fire LGBT people, hospital systems seeking to refuse them treatment, insurance companies not wanting to pay for transgender health care, and so on. The baker is just a Right’s poster child, the sympathetic face of a nasty corporate movement.
And yet even the baker is losing. People don’t think it’s fair that some folks don’t have to obey the same laws as everyone. Businesses are worried about being perceived as anti-gay by association, or about falling behind when it comes to recruiting the best employees, 5 percent of whom are likely to be LGBT. And in vetoing the bill, Gov. Deal was able to sound some pretty mainstream themes: “Georgia is a welcoming state filled with warm, friendly, and loving people.” Hardly “smash the church, smash the state.”
As with North Carolina Republicans’ anti-trans gambit, Georgia Republicans’ religious ploy has backfired. Even their best poster children couldn’t compete with big business on the one hand and common sense on the other. They tried to sneak massive discriminatory legislation inside a baker’s hat, but they even lost the baker.
Of course, it’s far too early for LGBT activists to claim victory.
First, there are always places like Mississippi, which just passed an even worse anti-LGBT bill than North Carolina’s or Georgia’s, which doesn’t have the same kind of big business presence to fight it. Second, there is so much money behind this movement from billionaire foundations (like the Bradleys, DeVoses, Coorses, and Greens) that it’s not going to go away anytime soon. Third, the Republican Party has no moderates left to alienate, e.g., witness Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
Finally, it’s risky to fight these battles on the right’s turf. Five years ago, most Americans didn’t know what “transgender” even meant, and even today, I’m sure there are many women who would feel uncomfortable peeing next to Caitlyn Jenner. We can call that transphobia if we like, but the fear is understandable; this can all seem quite sudden, new, and threatening. Indeed, that’s exactly why the Right is trying to exploit the fears that are out there.
Ultimately, though, what the left has that the right doesn’t have is truth. I’m not naïve enough to think that’s enough to win every battle but it certainly does help. Just as gay men are not getting married in order to more effectively recruit youngsters to homosexuality, trans women are not transitioning in order to spy on the ladies room. There are actually facts of the matter, and they’re almost all on one side.
That, I think, is why these tactics are backfiring. For an ostensibly religious movement, they’re awfully cynical maneuvers. And sometimes, lying to folks is a bad idea.