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Call Attacks on Pride What They Are: Political Violence

Threats and anti-LGBTQ+ harassment at Pride events are increasingly inseparable from other political developments.

Someone holds a sign "drag away the hate" in a crowd of people.
Erik McGregor/LightRocket/Getty Images
A participant holds a sign at the Reclaim Pride Coalition’s fifth annual Queer Liberation March, where no police, politicians, or corporations were allowed to participate.

For as long as Pride has been observed across the United States, anti-LGBTQ activists have targeted the celebrations. But in recent years, threats to Pride events have become more common, and anti-LGBTQ harassment at these events has become more violent. Tracking and preparing for those threats has now become part of Pride season.

This year, the incidents come in the context of waves of anti-LGBTQ legislation and the resulting legal challenges. They are amplified by Republican Party officials and lawmakers, couched in the rhetoric of “protecting children” and Christian nationalism. And that presents certain challenges when we’re talking about anti-Pride threats. Because while the incidents that have already taken place this year may seem to be the work of individuals—people who might not be immediately linked to a well-known group—these attacks on queer and trans community are not isolated. This is political violence, not individual resentment, and it’s critical to identify it as such.

In at least 10 states since June 1, LGBTQ+ magazine Them has identified anti-LGBTQ+ vandalism and threats of violence, including more than a dozen vandalized Pride flags or banners. They have also documented bomb threats in three states. These almost certainly won’t be the last threats targeting Pride. Both in 2023 and 2022, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project reported spikes in anti-LGBTQ protests and violence in June. Pride month, ACLED reported, saw “the highest number of anti-LGBTQ+ demonstrations in ACLED’s US data, as well as the highest single-month levels of far-right activity in 2023.” They have since forecast that “the increase in anti-LGTBQ+ sentiment is likely to continue throughout the 2024 election cycle as politicians, such as Trump, continue to use anti-LGBTQ+ language to rally conservative Christian supporters.”

That link between anti-LGBTQ harassment and Trump’s quest to return to power needs to be emphasized. “The Proud Boys are back,” Reuters recently reported. After they played a leading role in the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Trump’s behalf in 2021, “all but one of the eight cases” of Proud Boys–related political violence in 2023 “involved clashes between Proud Boys and left-wing activists at demonstrations supporting LGBTQ+ rights.” Now “some Proud Boys say they are preparing to emerge once again as a physical force for Trump,” attending pro-Trump events. Though such events may be distinct from far-right harassment of Pride events, clearly the same groups are present at both, and the political goals overlap.

Attacks on or threats to Pride events vary, and the perpetrators are not always identified. In a recent report on LGBTQ+ safe spaces released by the Anti-Violence Project, just over 62 percent of organizations surveyed had experienced some type of harassment or violence in 2022. Nearly 24 percent reported threats involving hate mail or suspicious packages, 18 percent got threats or harassment outside their space, and 17.5 percent faced vandalism or property damage. For those who had protests or threats outside their space, they were much more likely to know who had threatened them.

Earlier this month, when an Austin brewery got a bomb threat specifically citing the drag brunch the brewery hosts, they made the decision to shut down for the day. The threat came via email to the Brewtorium Brewery & Kitchen on the day of their Legendary Drag Brunch and Market, claiming a pipe bomb had been placed in the restaurant office. The email reportedly also said, “fuck drag queen scum.” A few days later, Pride and Black Lives Matter signs were stolen from an Austin church. The associate pastor said it seemed like someone had run over the signs with their car. Texas has faced far-right and Christian-nationalist harassment of drag and Pride events in the state over the past several years, which at time has featured people invoking Christ as they taunted drag brunch attendees as “groomers.” The Texas state legislature also attempted to effectively ban drag in 2023, a ban that was ruled unconstitutional.

When police came to investigate the threat at the Brewtorium in Austin, they found no bomb. “After a day full of back and forth with the Austin Police Department and an FBI liaison, it has been determined that we were most likely a victim of a hoax that has affected institutions in several major cities throughout the U.S. recently,” the Brewtorium’s owner said in a statement to Eater Austin. (In May, the FBI issued an advisory about possible threats to Pride, but it focused only on “foreign terrorist organizations.”) While no one was injured, the hoax bomb accomplished what such threats are meant to: shutting down events. Others may also consider whether Pride events are safe to host in the future.

Attacks targeting Pride events this year are not limited to states or communities with anti-LGBTQ legislation, or where Trump has a conspicuous base. This June, one week after Beverly Unitarian Church in Chicago held its first Pride event in its history, a Pride flag flying at the church was torn down and burned on the church lawn. In response to the attack, the congregation has added more Pride colors to the outside of the church, and they’ve scheduled a second Pride event later this month. “We are not going away. Our beliefs are not going away. Our trust in people is going away,” Beth O’Grady, chair of the church board of trustees, told the local CBS News outlet.

The local news outlet The Beverly Review noted the vandalism at Beverly Unitarian Church came just days after the Colorado Republican Party had called for the burning of Pride flags in a party email, including a video of an anti-LGBTQ+ sermon from a Scottsdale, Arizona, evangelical pastor, promoted as “God Hates Flags.”

Other targets this June included the First Congregational Church on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, where a Pride flag was torn down. A security camera showed the suspect looking straight into the camera. Elsewhere in Massachusetts, more than 200 small Pride flags were stolen from a rotary in the town of Carlisle (which were quickly replaced by community members). And in New York, Pride flags were stolen and burned at the Stonewall National Monument—a historical marker outside the bar commemorating the rebellion that Pride itself commemorates.

It may seem petty or excessive to target a rainbow flag, perhaps the lowest-effort gesture at allyship or belonging that any institution can make. But this fixation reveals the deeper conflict motivating anti-Pride attacks: Somehow, what began as a symbol of belonging has been reinvented by the Christian right as the symbol of a political rebellion, one that must be crushed. “You know what I want? I want a Sacred Heart of Jesus flag, because I have to look across the lagoon at the Pride flag for the next month,” complained Martha-Ann Alito, the spouse of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, caught in a secret audio recording made by a documentary filmmaker. “I made a flag in my head,” Martha-Ann went on. “This is how I satisfy myself.” What motivates Alito’s disgust at the Pride flag is not so different from what may drive someone to set the same flag on fire. They certainly lay claim to the same power: to exclude and erase a vast, diverse group of people, down to the smallest symbol.