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Anti-LGBTQ attack ads ramp up ahead of Election Day

A Texas ad criticizes a candidate for being “‘married’ to same-sex man” and a Colorado robocall claims a trans incumbent backs a "radical sexual agenda."
Illustration of couple hugging while surrounded by hateful ads.
LGBTQ advocates say there has been an increase in homophobic and transphobic political ads this year.Claire Merchlinsky / for NBC News

Omar Leos, a school board candidate in San Antonio, has been happily married to his husband since 2013, but he did not expect his relationship to be an issue in the campaign.

However, Texas Family Action, a political action committee affiliated with the conservative San Antonio Family Association, sent a mailer to voters in Leos’ district describing him as being “‘married’ to same-sex man” and noting he has “no children” in the school district. In contrast, the mailer described Leos’ opponent, Ione McGinty, as a “wife and mother of 6.”

Omar Leos
Omar Leos, a candidate for the North East Independent School District in San Antonio.Courtesy of Omar Leos

“I was not surprised by it coming from that organization,” Leos said. “I was disappointed. This type of rhetoric has no place in our society.”

Michael Knuffke, a Texas Family Action representative, defended the mailer, telling NBC News it represents the “facts” and that Leos’ family life should be on the ballot.

“A person running for office should be willing to have their life exposed, because they are asking for others to choose them to represent them. Anything is up for criticism, especially something as integral to their life as who they choose to live their life with,” Knuffke said in an email. “The fact is that homosexuality is unhealthy for individuals and harms the community and cannot lead to long term prosperity.”

Leos, who was appointed to fill a vacant spot on the board last November, is running to serve the remainder of the term.

McGinty did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment but did post a photo of the mailer on her Facebook account. She told The San Antonio Express News that anyone opposed to the ad is “heterophobic.”

Leos called her response a “cop-out.”

“There is no way that people are afraid of straight people; there are obviously more straight people than LGBT,” he said. “Straight people have generally not been an oppressed and marginalized group of people.”

Texas Family Action’s ad is among what LGBTQ advocates say is an increasing number of anti-LGBTQ attack ads this year, and these ads have ramped up as Election Day nears. Their efficacy, however, is unclear, as many candidates targeted by them have reported increases in financial contributions and support from volunteers.

'Transphobic garbage'

A number of attack ads this election cycle have targeted transgender candidates and candidates that support policies that advance transgender rights.

Colorado state Rep. Brianna Titone, who made history in 2018 when she became the first transgender lawmaker in the state, has faced a series of attacks on her gender identity as she runs for a second term.

Brianna Titone,Brittany Pettersen,Brianne Titone
Colorado Rep. Brianna Titone in the State Capitol in Denver on Jan. 10, 2019.David Zalubowski / AP file

In the most recent attack, Republican state Rep. Stephen Humphrey voiced a robocall paid for by the Colorado Family Values Victory Fund attacking Titone’s gender identity. The call claimed Titone is “dangerous” and sponsored a “radical sexual agenda” that would “force your wives and daughters” to “share bathrooms with biological males” and advocated for “taxpayer-funded sex change treatments for children.”

Fifty Democratic lawmakers and candidates in the state released a letter condemning the attack.

“This robocall is nothing more than transphobic garbage that propagates debunked and dangerous myths and creates more hatred and animosity toward those just trying to live their authentic lives,” the letter states.

Humphrey did not respond to a request for comment.

Titone said it was “particularly disheartening that the attack came from my colleague and focused on my gender identity, which is irrelevant to how I perform my job.”

“These kinds of attacks only serve to embroil people who have bought into the myths and tropes around trans people,” she told NBC News. “I've seen an increase in transphobic comments and slurs since the attack was sent out.”

Prior to the robocall, Titone was the target of an ad released by Take Back Colorado that misgendered her and referred to her by her “deadname,” the name she used before her transition. The ad claimed Titone has “always supported violence” and sexualizes children.

Take Back Colorado is registered to Joe Neville, the brother of Patrick Neville, the Republican state House minority leader. When questioned by The Denver Post, Patrick Neville denied the ad was transphobic, saying it simply showed “the facts.”

Image: Joe Biden
Joe Biden speaks at a rally, also attended by former President Barack Obama, at Northwestern High School in Flint, Mich., on Oct. 31, 2020.Andrew Harnik / AP

It’s not just transgender candidates, like Titone, who are target of anti-trans attack ads. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who has voiced his support for policies advancing transgender rights, is among the targets of such ads.

The American Principles Project, a conservative think tank and PAC, sent texts to voters in Pennsylvania, a swing state, accusing Biden of supporting “sex changes for kids.” A related Facebook post contains an inaccurate quotation attributed to Biden. Both the text and the Facebook post stem from remarks Biden made at an Oct. 15 town hall, but they either fabricate specific statements or take his remarks out of context.

These ads follow an earlier campaign from the PAC that claimed Biden and Sen. Gary Peters, a Democrat from the swing state of Michigan, support “policies which would allow biological males to compete in women’s sports and push children into dangerous, life-altering sex-change” procedures.

“The concerted effort to fabricate and disseminate false quotes to voters is irresponsible and shameful,” Sarah Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, a national LGBTQ advocacy group, said. “The video and the transcript clearly show what was said, and what voters in Pennsylvania value: truth, respect and dignity for all people. These inaccurate and misleading texts and made-up quotes misrepresent a candidate’s words and fail to support transgender children and people, a community that needs our empathy and protection.”

Terry Schilling, executive director of the American Principles Project, said he stands by the Biden ad “because it tells the truth.” He also accused his organization's opponents of name-calling instead of engaging “substantively.”

According to Biden’s campaign page, the candidate will “support LGBTQ youth” if he is elected, including expanding "access to mental health resources by doubling the number of psychologists, counselors, nurses, social workers and other health professionals” in schools.

'Lies and dog whistles'

Gina Ortiz Jones, who is in a tight race for Texas’ 23rd Congressional District against Republican Tony Gonzales, has been the subject of attack ads funded by the National Republican Campaign Committee.

The latest ad claims that Jones, a U.S. Air Force veteran, will “radicalize” the United States by diverting military spending from bases to “transgender reassignment surgeries.” In October, the committee ran an ad implying that Jones would put military “patriots out of work” to fund such surgeries.

Gina Ortiz Jones
Gina Ortiz Jones, the Democratic nominee for a House seat in West Texas in San Antonio, Texas, on Aug. 10, 2018.Eric Gay / AP file

When asked to comment on the ads, Chris Pack, a spokesperson for the NRCC, said: “Your willingness to be spoon-fed Victory Fund’s talking points while refusing to reach out to any conservative groups like Log Cabin Republicans is yet another example of your liberal bias and why the American people no longer trust the media.”

Pack was referring to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a group that trains, supports and advocates for LGBTQ political candidates, most of them Democrats. The Log Cabin Republicans is a gay conservative group.

In New Hampshire, Democrat Chris Pappas — who in 2018 became the first openly gay man to represent the state in Congress — is in a tight race with Republican challenger Matt Mowers.

During a debate on Oct, 21, Mowers brought up Pappas’ alleged relationship with a lobbyist and accused the candidate of impropriety.

“Congressman Pappas wants to do it the D.C. way. You have been dating a corporate lobbyist on behalf of Amazon at a time when you cast 10 votes on Amazon’s behalf,” Mowers said during the debate, though he did not mention the gender of the person Pappas was allegedly dating.

Pappas fired back, saying: “That is not true. How dare you? You are the one who gets paid by pharmaceutical companies and D.C. special interests and the Trump administration.”

Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., speaks during a news conference on Sept. 27, 2019.
Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., speaks during a news conference on Sept. 27, 2019.Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call via AP

In a statement after the debate, Pappas said that Mowers’ behavior was “despicable” and that he had “crossed a line.”

“This should have been a debate focused on the issues that matter to the people of New Hampshire because that is what Granite Staters expect and deserve,” he stated. “Members of the LGBTQ+ community have always been held to a different standard when running for office, and Mr. Mowers’s baseless attacks perpetuate those same harmful lines of attack.”

Mowers’ campaign manager, John Corbett, called the homophobia claims “untruthful accusations.”

“In the final days of the campaign, Chris Pappas is desperate to make this race about anything else other than his record of abandoning law enforcement, supporting tax hikes, and failing to disclose his relationship with a corporate lobbyist to the people of New Hampshire,” Corbett said in an email.

The New Hampshire Log Cabin Republicans, which filed an ethics complaint against Pappas on Oct. 26, alleging that he had lied about his relationship with a corporate lobbyist, said Mowers was not wrong to raise the issue during the debate.

“Congressman Pappas should not attempt to accuse anyone asking these questions of being homophobic. Log Cabin Republicans feel the use of identity politics against his opponent only strengthens our assertions that the Congressman wishes to hide the nature of his relationship,” the complaint states. “New Hampshire deserves transparency in these cases and a Congressman that works for New Hampshire and not special interests.”

LGBTQ advocates, however, criticized Mowers for employing a “Trumpian tactic” by mentioning Pappas’ alleged relationship.

“Matt Mowers proudly accepted Donald Trump’s endorsement and now he is proudly following the Trump political playbook as well — using lies and dog whistles to distract voters from the issues that matter,” Annise Parker, president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, said. “Matt knew he wanted voters to focus on Chris’ sexual orientation, and his absurd accusation during the debate was a desperate attempt to do just that. With all the issues and challenges facing New Hampshire and our country — Matt is using the final days of the campaign to talk about and tweet about the dating life of his out gay opponent.”

A miscalculation?

Homophobic and transphobic attacks may backfire. Both Gina Ortiz Jones and Brianna Titone reported substantial increases in donations to their campaign after ads targeting them ran.

Leos said his campaign has not been hurt by the mailer — just the opposite.

“I’ve been getting messages from people I don’t even know stating their support of me,” he said, adding that financial contributions to his campaign have increased 25 to 30 percent.

He also said campaign volunteers have been re-energized.

“I think that the campaign feels more empowered now, since the mailer went out,” he explained. “More people are reaching out to lend a hand. More people are saying, ‘Let me canvass for you on Election Day.’”

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