Rainbow Pride flags have become as common on storefronts in some metropolitan areas as “help wanted” signs as LGBTQ people increasingly gain visibility and acceptance in American society.
The prevalence of the decades-old symbol of unity and equality is arguably part of the reason Friday’s fatal shooting of a California business owner, allegedly for displaying a Pride flag at her shop, was met with overwhelming shock, as well as an outpouring of grief from LGBTQ advocates, politicians and celebrities from across the country.
But in parallel to the Pride flag’s having become commonplace, the symbol — which was introduced at the 1978 Gay Freedom Day march in San Francisco — has been increasingly smeared by conservative media and right-wing online personalities.
The far right has repeatedly linked the flag to the decades-old trope that links gay and transgender people to child abusers who want to “groom” or sexualize children, a trope that has recently had a resurgence.
“The pride flag does not deserve our respect or deference,” right-wing provocateur Matt Walsh declared in March to his 2.4 million followers on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Nearly all of the most depraved attacks on children, tradition, and common sense in modern society happen under the hideous banner of the pride flag.”
A day later, Walsh dedicated an over hourlong episode of his podcast, “The Matt Walsh Show,” which is produced by the media company The Daily Wire, to the Pride flag. The episode was titled “The Pride Flag Deserves Our Disrespect.”
Chaya Raichik, who runs the far-right X account LibsOfTikTok, has repeatedly prompted conversations among her nearly 2.5 million followers that appear to take aim at the Pride flag.
“Imagine walking into your kid’s elementary school and this is what greets you,” she wrote on X in June, along with an image of what appear to be teachers wearing rainbow Pride clothing and a person dressed in drag. “What do you do?”
When asked about the post, Raichik said in a message to NBC News, "Why are you comparing anyone who criticizes the progress pride flag being shoved down the throats of children, to a violent murderer?"
And in June, after the Biden administration raised the Progress Pride flag, a version of the flag meant to be more inclusive of transgender people and queer people of color, next to the U.S. flag at the White House for LGBTQ Pride Month, Fox News ran a headline on its website suggesting the flag symbolizes pedophilia.
“White House flew controversial new transgender flag that promotes grooming and pedophilia, say critics,” the headline read. Fox News changed the headline shortly after the article was published.
Alejandra Caraballo, a transgender advocate and clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic who has researched hate speech against the LGBTQ community, said Friday’s killing of Laura Ann Carleton in Cedar Glen, California, didn’t surprise her in light of the online rhetoric from far-right figures.
“They have blood on their hands for inciting violence against the community,” she said, specifically referring to Walsh and Raichik. “There’s always a place for reasonable disagreement and criticism of any community, but this goes far beyond that and has long exceeded any kind of reasonable criticism into explicit hate speech.”
Walsh and Fox News didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Travis Ikeguchi, 27, the man who police say shot and killed Carleton, appears to have had a yearslong history of posting disturbing — and often violent — anti-LGBTQ messages on social media.
Accounts on X and Gab that appear to have belonged to Ikeguchi, who was killed in a shootout with law enforcement officers, shared dozens of posts criticizing the LGBTQ community.
On June 13, during Pride Month, the X account posted a photo of a burning Pride flag with the text: “What to do with the LGBTQP flag?” The “P” added to the LGBTQ initialism appears to refer to “pedophile.”
Police said Monday that before he killed Carleton, 66, a mother of nine, Ikeguchi yelled “many homophobic slurs” over her clothing store’s Pride flag. The killing wasn’t the first act of aggression prompted by a Pride flag in recent months.
A Pride flag was taken down and burned this year outside a City Hall building in Tempe, Arizona. And even New York City — arguably the birthplace of the modern LGBTQ rights movement — hasn’t been immune: In February, a woman got out of her car and approached a rainbow Pride flag hanging outside a restaurant and set it on fire, and in June, Pride flags were torn down and damaged at least three times outside the Stonewall Inn, the site of the iconic 1969 Stonewall uprising.
As violent acts and rhetoric surrounding the flag have ramped up, some lawmakers and officials across the country have simultaneously tried to restrict the flag on government property.
In 2021, House Republicans introduced a measure, the Old Glory Only Act, that would require the secretary of state to ensure “that no United States diplomatic or consular post flies any flag other than the United States flag over such post,” in what was seen as an attempt to bar embassies from flying Pride flags.
Officials have particularly moved to ban or restrict the flag, as well as other LGBTQ symbols, in schools. In most cases, administrators have said the LGBTQ emblems are divisive and “political.”
The efforts to ban the Pride flag coincide with a historic number of anti-LGBTQ bills that have been introduced in state legislatures this year, many of which would restrict art forms associated with the LGBTQ community and the teaching of queer issues and identities in schools. More than 490 anti-LGBTQ measures have been introduced in legislatures this year, 78 of which have become law, according to a tally by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Caraballo said the historic level of proposed anti-LGBTQ legislation plays a critical role in inciting violent anti-LGBTQ acts, such as last week’s fatal shooting. A spokesperson for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, which is handling the case, said the incident is being investigated as a potential hate crime.
“In many ways they’re legitimizing this movement to erase LGBTQ from public life,” Caraballo said, referring to the Republican legislators who have introduced the record wave of anti-LGBTQ measures.
Carleton’s daughter Ari Carleton didn’t respond to requests for comment about rhetoric coming from far-right figures in the wake of her mother’s killing. However, on Monday, she called her mother’s murder “senseless.”
“Make no mistake, this was a hate crime,” she wrote on Instagram. "Her flags had been torn down before and she always responded by putting up a bigger one.”