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Hate Baiters

Republicans’ Anti-LGBTQ Conspiracy Theories Are Fueling Far-Right Threats to Pride Celebrations

Their anti-LGBTQ legal crusade and “grooming” language have been adopted by extremist groups.

Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News/Getty Images
A Pride flag-raising ceremony on the steps of city hall in San Fernando, California, on June 1

In the last month, two very different videos, both threatening to confront Pride celebrations with armed protest or “hunting” LGBTQ people and allies, have raised fears of how Republicans in state legislatures have enabled an environment for anti-LGBTQ violence and emboldened far-right extremists.

At the end of April, Republican Idaho state Representative Heather Scott held an event billed as a talk on removing “inappropriate materials” from libraries and schools. She warned of an ongoing “war of perversion against our children” propagated by the LGBTQ community, then invited two members of the Panhandle Patriots Riding Club, or PPRC, to the stage. Each wore a black leather vest with the group’s insignia: a Punisher skull with the American flag forming one half of its face and an AR-15-style rifle making up the other half. One of the men, with a name patch that read “DeadDog,” said that the Panhandle Patriots were organizing a protest against a Pride celebration scheduled for June 11 in Coeur d’Alene, a town of about 50,000 in northwest Idaho. He said they planned “to go head-to-head with these people,” because, echoing state representative Scott’s words, “they are trying to take your children.”

The man with the DeadDog patch, who also wore a Three Percenters badge—a militia movement—said that Scott had mentioned “repercussions” earlier that night. “We say, ‘Damn the repercussions.’ Stand up, take it to the head. Go to the fight.” On Facebook, the PPRC advertised the event with the quote, “If they want to have a war, let it begin here,” and encouraged people coming to carry firearms. The event was to be called “Gun d’Alene”—an annual observance when the PPRC honors itself for the time it prevented a nonexistent antifa invasion of Coeur d’Alene in 2020.

The combination of casual threats of violence, the group’s iconography, and the fact that it was invited to speak by a state lawmaker led to pushback online and locally. “This could be a big problem, and I don’t think anyone realizes,” said a Coeur D’Alene resident whose son is part of the North Idaho Pride Alliance, which planned the Pride event. “People are concerned, ‘Should I bring my kids? What if something happens?’” A statement from North Idaho Pride Alliance said that law enforcement was aware of such statements and that the group “will not be intimidated or deterred from organizing community events.” The reaction to the Panhandle Patriots video spurred the PPRC to slightly reframe the event, changing the name to “North Idaho Day of Prayer.” But the rebranding didn’t soften the tone or remove the threat of bringing guns. The PPRC’s announcement likened the backlash to its event to responses following the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville and the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, which the group claimed were “completely controlled by the Media and their allies in the Federal government and used against good, God-fearing conservatives.” Most ominously, the PPRC warned that “our community needs to take a stand against this LGBT grooming agenda because that is not who we are as Idahoans.”

The Panhandle Patriots likely never intended to be part of a somewhat viral video, but that’s exactly the point for Ethan Schmidt. He’s an anti-mask content creator on Telegram whose videos seem just like an excuse to harass and threaten LGBTQ people in Arizona and—through his audience—beyond. He films himself trying to enter LGBTQ-friendly churches, accusing them of “destroying the world,” and then getting kicked out, yelling at the security guys that “they’re trying to make kids transsexual, man.” He said in a post on Telegram that he wanted to get into these LGBTQ-affirming churches so that he “could interrupt during the service with [everyone] in it,” that he was “going to go to all these evil churches and expose them.” His mission or his need for content has since expanded into claims that he will be “hunting LGBTQ supporters across Arizona,” singling out Target for “satanic Pride shrines for children.” Last year he recorded himself trying to take down Pride displays at a Target; more recently, he joined in with a white nationalist contingent to counterprotest an abortion rights demonstration.

How should we understand seemingly small or isolated actors like these? Glaringly, the answer is in Republican-controlled state legislatures, where lawmakers have spent the last two years introducing hundreds of bills meant to roll back the rights of LGBTQ people—most often hinged on the idea that by doing so they are protecting children. It’s not new rhetoric, but it has been seized upon by those already organized around the “critical race theory” moral panic, a pivot from anti-Black to anti-LGBTQ rhetoric supported by those like Christopher Rufo, architect of the CRT panic. This legislative push has also fed a steady list of outrages to an energized far right, which now includes many of those state lawmakers themselves.

Earlier in May, as an extremist emissary of sorts, Republican Arizona state Senator Wendy Rogers flew hundreds of miles to Idaho to campaign for Idaho Republican Lieutenant Governor Janice McGeachin’s gubernatorial run. Both have espoused conspiracy theory–laced views on abortion and LGBTQ rights—with McGeachin claiming that “radical leftists and satanists” who oppose abortion bans “unapologetically characterize killing babies as a ‘religious abortion ritual’” and Rogers repeatedly linking support for LGBTQ youth to “grooming.”

“We can never give up. This is our country, and we’re going to take it back!” said Rogers in her campaign speech for McGeachin, adding later, making her targets clear, “The Left destroys everything it touches.” In March, Rogers and McGeachin made national political news together, concerning their participation in a white nationalist event, the America First Political Action Conference. Both Rogers and McGeachin had delivered remote speeches: “We need to build more gallows,” said Rogers, with an Arizona state flag behind her, to “make an example of these traitors who have betrayed our country.” Afterward, both refused to answer for their role in mainstreaming racist beliefs spread at the conference, like the “great replacement” conspiracy theory.

These are simply two higher-profile faces of a growing network of Republican state legislators who are linked to far-right groups, whose rhetoric is shifting the mainstream of the Republican Party closer to what can no longer accurately be called the fringe. Rogers is one of the 875 state legislators serving in 2021–22 who were members of far-right Facebook groups, as identified by the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. That’s nearly one in four members of the Idaho state legislature and around 13 percent of Arizona’s state legislature. This goes beyond online group affiliation. Heather Scott, the Idaho state representative who held the event where the Panhandle Patriots promoted going “head to head” with a Pride event, is a member of the Oath Keepers, another far-right militia group. Rogers says she’s a “charter member” of the Oath Keepers, while McGeachin has been associated with the Three Percenters.

There is a feedback loop in play. Rogers, who this year introduced legislation criminalizing gender-affirming care for minors, uses “groomer” rhetoric to attack LGBTQ people. Schmidt, who just ahead of Pride announced that he was going to “hunt” LGBTQ people allegedly (and they aren’t) grooming children, has made at least one video with Rogers, who gives a “big shoutout” to his “anti-maskers club, because that’s what we are!” Rogers can carry the same message that Schmidt pushes into her lawmaking, and in turn Schmidt can amplify it back to his audience. Together, they can get in front of the kinds of people who show up to violently confront people for either being LGBTQ or supporting LGBTQ rights.

Right now in Kiel, Wisconsin, a single middle school has had six bomb threats since mid-May—four in one week—after a right-wing group called Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty sent a letter to the school district demanding it drop a Title IX investigation against three boys they say they are representing. At issue: Allegedly the boys used the wrong pronoun for a nonbinary classmate. The threats began after right-wing media, including Fox News, covered the story. The district schools are now closed for the rest of the school year. The bomb threats have reached beyond the school itself to the library, employees’ homes, utility companies, and the town’s Memorial Day parade.  

This, frighteningly, is likely not the last of these threats. What we are seeing now is Republican legislators openly feeding targets to people who might be willing to take such action. “When did school counselors start doing counseling to counsel children to change their sex and hide it from their parents?” asked Scott at her May event alongside the Panhandle Patriots. Rogers is blending “grooming” rhetoric with her ongoing Stop the Steal campaign. “When they aren’t mules stealing elections,” Rogers said on Twitter in May, “they are burning down cities dressed as Antifa and BLM or grooming our kids as ‘teachers’ or sitting on corporate boards turning our companies woke.” When they court smalltime-seeming far-right groups and figures, whose threats may only get a few moments of video fame, they know what they are doing. They have said so clearly. They are at war.