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Anti-LGBTQ hate groups on the rise in U.S., report warns

In its annual report, the Southern Poverty Law Center largely attributes this 43 percent increase to the policies and rhetoric of the Trump administration.
Image: A man holds up a pride flag towards members of the Westboro Baptist Church as they protest at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 2016.
A man holds up a pride flag towards members of the Westboro Baptist Church as they protest at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 2016.Adrees Latif / Reuters file

The number of anti-LGBTQ hate groups soared 43 percent last year, rising from 49 groups in 2018 to 70 in 2019, according to a recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Groups that vilify the LGBTQ community, in fact, represented the fastest-growing sector among hate groups in 2019,” the report states. The SPLC found the surge in anti-LGBTQ groups occurred amid an overall decrease in hate groups last year, which dropped to 940 from an all-time high of 1,020 in 2018.

The report said the surge was “possibly fueled by continued anti-LGBTQ sentiment and policy emanating from government officials,” largely attributing it to the Trump administration.

“Anti-LGBTQ groups have become intertwined with the Trump administration, and — after years of civil rights progress and growing acceptance among the broader American public — anti-LGBTQ sentiment within the Republican Party is rising,” the report states. “Though Trump promised during his campaign to be a ‘real friend’ to the LGBTQ community, he has fully embraced anti-LGBTQ hate groups and their agenda of dismantling federal protections and resources for LGBTQ people.”

Image: Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds a rainbow flag
Then Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds a rainbow flag given to him by a supporter during a campaign rally at the University of Northern Colorado on Oct. 30, 2016 in Greeley, Colo.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

In a statement sent to NBC News, White House spokesman Judd Deere called SPLC a “far-left smear organization” and said its “comments are disgusting.” He also pointed to the president’s track record on LGBTQ issues, saying Trump has “fought for inclusion and repeatedly condemned hate and violence.”

“While the radical left has pushed false accusations that LGBTQ Americans are threatened, the president has hired and promoted LGBTQ Americans to the highest levels of government, including positions at the White House, Cabinet agencies and ambassadorships,” Deere said. “He launched a global campaign to decriminalize homosexuality. … And the president has made the bold declaration that we are committed to ending HIV transmissions in the United States within 10 years.”

Who are these ‘hate groups’?

The Southern Poverty Law Center defines a hate group as “an organization that — based on its official statements or principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities — has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”

Most of the growth in new anti-LGBTQ hate groups, SPLC’s report found, comes from grassroots churches.

One example is the expansion in the network of churches run by Steven Anderson. Anderson runs Faithful World Baptist Church, in Tempe, Arizona, which has been listed as a hate group by the SPLC for some time. The church, according to its website, believes “homosexuality is a sin and an abomination which God punishes with the death penalty.”

Faithful World Baptist Church did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment.

Many of the 70 “anti-LGBTQ hate groups” in SPLC’s report are well established.

Image: Donald Trump,Tony Perkins
President Donald Trump shakes hands with Family Research Council president Tony Perkins at the 2017 Value Voters Summit on Oct. 13, 2017 in Washington.Evan Vucci / AP file

One of the best known is the Family Research Council, which was founded in 1983 and hosts the annual Value Voters Summit for conservative politicians and thousands of participants each year. At last year's summit, President Donald Trump repeated his opposition to the Equality Act, a bill passed by the House that would extend federal nondiscrimination protections to LGBTQ people.

Lecia Brooks, an SPLC spokesperson, told NBC News that the council’s long-time president, Tony Perkins, has been granted “unfettered access” to the Trump administration. Notably, Perkins was appointed to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Following Perkins’ appointment to the independent, bipartisan commission, the national LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD compiled a list of more than 30 examples of Perkins’ and FRC’s opposition to the rights of LGBTQ people in the U.S. and abroad. Among those examples are a comparison of same-sex marriage to a marriage between “a man and his horse”; calling the “It Gets Better” project, an initiative designed to help LGBTQ young people cope with bullying and marginalization, “disgusting” and a “concerted effort” to recruit kids into the gay “lifestyle”; and claiming that the “blood” of “young Marines” would be on the hands of lawmakers who voted to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

The Family Research Council did not respond to a request for comment.

Another “anti-LGBTQ hate group” named in the report is the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal group with attorneys across the country and a long track record of litigating against LGBTQ rights.

In a lawsuit that made national headlines last year, ADF represented Jack Phillips, a Christian baker who refused to make a cake for a gay wedding, in a narrow victory at the Supreme Court. ADF is also involved in another Supreme Court case dealing with LGBTQ workers rights, representing a Detroit funeral home that fired an employee after she informed the home that she was undergoing a gender transition. Among its non-Supreme Court cases, ADF is currently representing three athletes in a suit against the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, which adopted a policy allowing transgender girls to compete in interscholastic sports with cisgender high school girls.

The Trump administration has backed ADF in all three cases, issuing briefs in support of the Christian baker, the funeral home owner and the three cisgender high school athletes.

Jeremy Tedesco, ADF’s senior counsel and vice president of U.S. advocacy, slammed the Southern Poverty Law Center and the timing of its new report, which was released March 18.

“It is appalling that the Southern Poverty Law Center would choose this time of national emergency to launch their divisive and false ‘hate report,’” Tedesco told NBC News. “We call on SPLC to retract the report, stop sowing division and join the rest of America against our common foe: COVID-19.”

Brooks dismissed criticisms of SPLC releasing its annual report during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Fighting hate is something we have to keep at the forefront of our minds,” she said. “They don’t take a break, and we don’t take a break either.”

Westboro Baptist Church, known for its public protests that consistently feature signs with homophobic messages like “God Hates Fags,” also appears on the SPLC’s list. In 2019, the group picketed Morehouse College and Spelman College after the two historically black, single-sex institutions changed their admissions policy to include transgender students.

Jonathan Phelps, a spokesperson for the church, told NBC News that the SPLC is “not being honest” in their characterization of the Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group.

“We don’t discriminate. Whatever your favorite sin is, if you ask us about it we are going to articulate in the plainest language possible what the Lord Jesus Christ has said about it,” he said. Regarding homosexuality, “it is an abomination,” Phelps added.

Brooks said SPLC stands by its “hate group” designations and dismissed criticisms that the organization disproportionately focuses on religious groups.

“We are not against Christian groups,” Brooks said. “For us, it’s more about the way they go out of their way to demonize LGBTQ folks.”

Brooks also lamented the lack of public pushback against many of these groups.

“Sadly, there is not enough public outcry against anti-LGBTQ groups because we have just let it go saying, ‘That's just their religion,’” she said.

History of ‘anti-LGBTQ hate’

The SPLC has been tracking the number of hate groups in the United States since 1990, but the anti-LGBTQ movement emerged decades before.

According to Tina Fetner, a sociology professor at Canada’s McMaster University, anti-LGBTQ activists began organization “not too long after Stonewall,” the 1969 uprising at the Stonewall Inn, a New York City gay bar.

“Along the same lines that you see today, they put forward stereotypes and vilify, especially gay men, as predators and predators of children, and use that to justify the tactics of taking rights way from LGBTQ people,” Fetner explained.

Fetner cited as an early example the activism of Anita Bryant in Florida. The singer-turned-anti-gay-activist was behind the “Save Our Children” campaign, which in 1977 helped overturn a newly passed local ordinance in Miami-Dade County that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing and public services.

“It caught on with socially conservative evangelical communities, and sort of blossomed and became the lead issue of the Religious Right,” Fetner said.

The late 1970s also saw the emergence of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, a political action group that wielded significant influence in the Republican Party. Fetner said Falwell realized early on that raising issues of sexuality was both “titillating and scandalous” enough to prompt followers to make sizable donations to his organization.

“The Religious Right really inserted itself into the Republican Party in the ‘80s and ‘90s and has had an influence in American politics ever since,” she added. However, Fetner said the movement began to decline in the 1990s.

“Young evangelicals weren’t as interested in anti-gay activism as the older folks,” she said. At the same time, acceptance of homosexuality was on the rise in the U.S., across all segments of the population. “People were actually changing their minds.”

By the early 2000s, the U.S. reached a tipping point for acceptance of homosexuality, according to a Pew study, and by 2016, LGBTQ advocates had solidified many civil rights gains, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Why are we seeing a surge?

So, what changed?

“Trump’s embrace of these groups, their leaders and their policy agenda fuels this growth,” Brooks said of the rise in “anti-LGBTQ hate groups.”

The report points to significant staffing and policy choices by the Trump administration that reflect the position of organizations on the SPLC’s growing anti-LGBTQ list.

Since taking office, the Trump administration has rolled back several protections for LGBTQ people through executive orders, including nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ workers employed by federal contractors.

“The administration has consistently claimed that laws and regulations that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex do not apply to LGBTQ people and has worked to install religious exemptions to civil rights laws,” the report states.

In addition, nearly one third of the administration’s judicial nominees boast anti-LGBTQ track records, according to a report by Lambda Legal.

“Religious conservatives have taken this as an opportunity to push back on any civil rights gains LGBTQ folks have made,” Brooks said. “They couch it in ‘religious freedom,’” she added.

Fetner sees the surge in anti-LGBTQ groups as part of a broader increase of right-wing extremism across Europe and North America.

“I think that anti-gay activism is swept up as part of this new social embrace of intolerance and right-wing attitudes of all kinds,” Fetner said.

“People are disgruntled, going online, getting misinformation and getting radicalized,” she added. “Some portion of these people are joining new organizations or new churches.”

Fetner sees the Trump administration is both the outcome of this broader phenomenon, and a catalyst for increased anti-LGBTQ activism.

“Trump’s win was a signal to these larger social forces that this is their moment,” she said.

What’s the impact?

Anti-LGBTQ groups have a significant impact on policy outcomes, social violence and the priorities of LGBTQ advocacy organizations, according to civil rights advocates and scholars.

“Extremist ideas long believed outside of the realm of legitimate politics are penetrating deeply into the mainstream, spawning public policies that target immigrants, LGBTQ people and Muslims,” the report states.

These policies, according to advocates, include the reinstatement of the transgender military ban, the elimination of nondiscrimination protections for trans people in homeless shelters and, the deletion of "sexual orientation" from the Interior Department’s anti-discrimination guidelines.

Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said this “pattern of escalating attacks has put the LGBT movement on the defensive” and caused advocacy groups to invest a “tremendous amount of resources to deal with these attacks.”

Minter pointed to the work being done at the state level to block what he called an “unprecedented blizzard of state laws” targeted at transgender people. These include efforts to prohibit transgender health care for minors, prevent trans students from participating in girls sports and barring trans people from changing the gender markers on their identification documents.

Fetner said most LGBTQ advocacy groups are funded at “a fraction of the Religious Right groups that were proposing these initiatives.” She said that means they’re “sucked into these battles where their very right to exist is on the table again,” and they’re “putting out fires that have been started by better resourced organizations.”

The SPLC report and LGBTQ advocates also connect the surge in “anti-LGBTQ hate groups” to violence against LGBTQ people.

The FBI’s most recent Hate Crime Statistics report, released in November, found nearly 20 percent of all reported hate crimes in 2018 were motivated by anti-LGBTQ bias. While reported anti-LGBTQ hate crimes grew from 2017 to 2018, the most growth was seen in reports of anti-trans violence, which increased 34 percent year-over-year.

“I don’t think the anti-LGBTQ movement will win, but the damage they can do along the way is substantial,” Fetner said. Despite this, she remains optimistic, saying, “The LGBTQ movement will carry on and will come out of it stronger.”

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