Brian Stone, an LGBTQ activist in Dearborn, Michigan, put an emergency contact card in his wallet, wrote a will, and told his partner he loved him—then set off for a local school board meeting last week. He was prepared to receive death threats, just as hundreds of school board officials and librarians have across the country, or even to be assaulted—a reasonable fear given that anti-LGBTQ hate crimes have steadily increased for years, with 2021 being the deadliest on record for targeted murders of gay and trans Americans. Stone feared for his life because he’s a vocal opponent of a well-organized campaign of book banning, censorship, and hatred in his hometown.
It wasn’t too long ago that there was nothing as boring as a school board meeting. In an America of rising fascism, however, even a mundane gathering to discuss curricula in a small conference room becomes a potential crime scene. And so hundreds of reactionaries have flooded Dearborn school board meetings in recent months to demand the removal of books on the gay rights movement and novels with transgender protagonists. The school board has cooperated, depriving students in desperate need of affirmation and sexual education from checking out titles like This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson and George M. Johnson’s memoir, All Boys Aren’t Blue. Because the school district cannot regulate the availability of books in the online catalog, it has resorted to the collective punishment of denying students access to the entire digital system.
Dearborn is hardly alone. The American Library Association reports that in 2022, public and school libraries have received a record-breaking 1,650 calls for elimination of books, with over a third of the targets featuring LGBTQ content. What makes the Dearborn story different, and especially disturbing, is that it foreshadows the formation of a powerful and dangerous new right-wing coalition.
The rabble at the most recent school board meeting on October 13 was not only the predictable cohort of white, Christian evangelicals wearing crosses and red caps. Standing at their side, screaming anti-gay remarks and waving their fists in the air, were hundreds of conservative Muslims. Dearborn’s population is 47 percent Arab American, and in the years following the September 11 attacks the midsize city was slandered by right-wing bigots who equated Islam with terrorism. In 2015, a viral fake news story alleged that Dearborn Muslims had marched through the streets to proclaim allegiance to ISIS, when in fact it was an anti-ISIS demonstration.
The forces who supported a president who called for a Muslim immigration ban are now, through a shared hostility toward gay and trans people, uniting with local Muslims and even representatives of the Council of American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, to demand the imposition of ignorance by way of book banning in Dearborn’s public schools. Meshawn Maddock, co-chair of the Michigan Republican Party, recently articulated the hope that the new, more ecumenical religious right would sentence the state Democratic Party to political damnation, tweeting, “Democrats have a BIG problem. Over 800 Muslim and Christian parents showed up to protest the sexualization of their kids in Dearborn Public Schools! Guess what they said when asked, ‘how will you vote?’ Republican!”
One of the organizations leading the philistine charge is Moms for Liberty, a well-funded group using the stalking horse of “parental rights” to advocate for book banning, the elimination of Black history programs, and state-sanctioned homophobia throughout the country. Eric Trump, Senator Rand Paul, Megyn Kelly, and many other leading right-wing figures have made appearances at Moms for Liberty fundraisers. Its flagship chapter is in Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis is a working partner and where the group has won the support of another unexpected ally in the fight against LGBTQ content in schools: Latino evangelicals.
Many pundits offer the tortured and narrow analysis that Latino votes for Donald Trump correlate with “economic anxiety,” but reactionary sexual politics and religiosity are usually missing from media commentary on this political shift. The Public Religion Research Institute finds that Protestant affiliation correlated more with Latino support for Trump than any other factor. As greater numbers of Latinos are leaving Catholicism for right-wing megachurches, Republican organizers are hoping that they can repeat the political triumph they engineered in the late 1970s with white evangelicals—a group that, according to many measures, was the most loyal constituency for Trump in the 2020 election.
Now Moms for Liberty, the Republican Party, and various onward Christian soldiers are fighting to inch closer to political victory in an important swing state by clasping hands with a putative former enemy, Islam. The menace of sexual prejudice and conspiracy theory will prove difficult to overcome for liberal Muslims like Arab American News publisher Osama Siblani, who has denounced the anti-LGBTQ bigotry and book banning in Dearborn. Christian and Muslim activists liken literature that they probably have not read to “pornography,” while insisting that any teacher or librarian who makes LGBTQ-friendly material available is part of a global pedophilia ring—an accusation with origins in QAnon, a violent conspiracy movement that Trump has embraced.
The developments in Dearborn are a sign that the madness is spreading to new constituencies whom Democrats have long considered allies. Predicated on “protecting our kids” from the “scourge” of sexual progressivism, the anti-democratic right is forming a powerful religious alliance against secular liberalism. Those who believe in eternal torture for heathens are joining forces to establish hell on earth for LGBTQ people, public officials, and anyone who cares about American democracy.