2016 could be the year of the LGBT rights backlash

image of a lgbt flag

Guillaume Paumier / Flickr (CC by 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman

Conservative groups are closing the online gap in the LGBT rights movement.

For decades, LGBT rights activists have viewed digital media as a boon to the movement for equality.

Back in 2012, the Atlantic’s Nancy Scola credited the rise of social networks like Facebook and Twitter as an engine for same-sex marriage victories in Washington, Maryland, Minnesota, and in Maine where just three years earlier, voters rejected a bill that would have allowed marriage equality statewide through a “people’s veto.” The about-face was a startling reversal of fortune. The difference was that by 2012, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy groups had successfully leveraged Facebook as a tool to get out the vote.

When it comes to utilizing social media to mobilize grassroots networks of voters, conservatives have long been light years behind, but there’s evidence that they’re closing the engagement gap. This year, a record number of bills threaten to roll back progress for LGBT Americans, buoyed by a wave of conservative blowback from recent gains and a newly energized digital base. If the Internet giveth to gay rights in 2015, this might be the year it taketh away.

The proposed legislation includes bills limiting bathroom access for transgenders in Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, South Dakota, as well as a law in Tennessee that would overrule the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality last June.

The backlash across the conservative Internet was instantaneous after the historic decision.

On Twitter, former Arkansas governor and current Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee wrote:

Meanwhile, Tea Party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, tweeted:

Cruz later promised to “[propose] an amendment to the United States Constitution that would subject the justices of the Supreme Court to periodic judicial-retention elections.”

Those opinions might appear to be sour grapes, but they are at the center of an increasingly powerful force for action—one that galvanizes not just reactionary anger from social media followers but profoundly dangerous legislative appeals. If anti-gay groups have been a staple for the conservative Internet for the greater part of a decade, their goals may find renewed zeal in the current climate. After all, if an Ohio bill to restrict LGBT protections from hate crime laws and a new religious freedom bill in Georgia are any indication, these tweets are anything but a drop in the bucket.

If the Internet giveth to gay rights in 2015, this might be the year it taketh away. 

In an essay for the Huffington Post, Pam Spaulding argued that gay rights groups were “early adopters” of the Internet. However, organizations like the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) and the Family Research Council (FRC)—which have both been classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as hate groups—have long used the Internet to spread a message of bigotry and intolerance.

NOM is the infamous group behind the famous “Gathering Storm” video. In the minute-long clip—which was broadcast in support of Proposition 8, which in 2008 sought to overturn the California Supreme Court’s ruling to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples—the organization warns of the potential impact of allowing gay couples to wed. “They want to bring the issue into my life,” a goateed man in a gray suit says. “My freedom will be taken away,” a somber woman warns. Others assert that marriage equality means the issue will be brought into our schools, churches, and even doctor’s offices.

The fact that they were all paid actors—listed in fine print at the bottom of the video—made it a target for mockery on The Colbert Report and other talk shows, but the segment was an early sign of how effective these campaigns can be. NOM was joined by other anti-gay rights groups like Focus on the Family and the American Family Association in supporting the measure—which proved popular. Prop 8 was approved with 52.1 percent of the vote.

These politics are hardly a blast from the past. Last year, the opposition to Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance successfully leveraged their online platform to kill the city’s non-discrimination ordinance. A series of videos and ads specifically attacked a provision that would allow transgender Houstoners to use the bathroom of their choice. On the group’s site, the campaign advertised nebulous idea that the city’s trans residents are fraudulent men in dresses out to harm cisgender people:

“Campaign for Houston is made up of parents and family members who do not want their daughters, sisters or mothers forced to share restrooms in public facilities with gender-confused men, who—under this ordinance—can call themselves ‘women’ on a whim and use women’s restrooms whenever they wish. This ‘bathroom ordinance’ therefore is an attempt to restructure society to fit a societal vision we simply do not share or can support.”

This improved digital literacy is particularly dangerous at a time when politics have an increasingly large microphone in a contentious presidential election. 

Following the failure of that bill, the National Organization for Marriage recently raised $140,000 in online donations to defend the “truth of marriage as the union of one man and one woman.” In addition to championing Alabama’s decision to stonewall SCOTUS’s ruling, the group continues to hold its yearly #MarchForMarriage, which will be held on April 25 in Washington, D.C. Those who cannot attend can participate in a “virtual march” through the event’s website.

The increasing tech savviness of groups like NOM—which also showcases photos from the march, as well as videos of attendees carrying homemade signs on its Flickr accounts—is not an accident. After Mitt Romney failed to attract millennial voters during the 2012 campaign, the GOP has worked to fill the digital gap in its message. Four years later, the new face of conservatism is represented by folks like Vincent Harris, the 26-year-old tech savvy political strategist credited as “the man who invented the Republican Internet.” He’s taught politicians like Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., how to create an online brand that appeals to today’s voters—one as “hip” as a 73-year-old from Sheffield, Alabama can be.

NOM’s Facebook presence may be modest (77,802 followers), but anti-gay groups like American Family Association (184,517) and Family Research Council (158,251) have likewise come a long way by embracing the social media era, rather than relying on clunky emails and typo-ridden HTML webpages to spread their messages. What their platforms lack in social justice acumen they make up in polish.

This improved digital literacy is particularly dangerous at a time when politics have an increasingly large microphone in a contentious presidential election. NOM has officially endorsed Ted Cruz for president, a politician who has 1.8 million followers on Facebook. That might be slightly less than his Democratic counterparts—Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (2.4 million) and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (2.2 million)—but this year, it’s the conservative candidates that are winning Facebook. Donald Trump (5.4 million) and Ben Carson (5.05 million) have nearly twice the reach of Sanders and Clinton. Each of these three GOP candidates have spoken out against equal protections for LGBT Americans.

In a recent piece for the Daily Beast, Samantha Allen suggested that the fight for equality has become complacent following last year’s marriage victory, but as the numbers show, the battle may be more difficult than ever. Even if not a single one of these GOP candidates win the 2016 election, they represent an opposition that’s becoming louder and more active on the Internet than ever before. Trump’s conservative followers might want to make “America great again,” but if the loss in Houston is any indication, that growing campaign will be at the continued expense of LGBT people. 

Nico Lang is a Meryl Streep enthusiast, critic, and essayist. You can read his work on Salon, Rolling Stone, and the Guardian. He’s also the author of “The Young People Who Traverse Dimensions” and the co-editor of the bestsellingBOYSanthology series. Follow him on Twitter @Nico_Lang

Image via Guillaume Paumier / Flickr (CC by 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman 

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