The National Organization for Marriage (NOM), the leading force behind the now-failed effort to stop marriage equality, announced in September that it will be joining the ugly fight against a law passed in California to protect transgender children in schools from bullying and discrimination. The move is completely outside NOM’s claimed mission to “defend” marriage as an institution of “one man and one woman.” But it’s not a shocker. We’ve seen it all before among radical right groups hellbent on enforcing a religious agenda.
During the ’80s and early ’90s, amid the darkest years of the AIDS epidemic and well before the reality of marriage equality, conservative religious groups that were focused on battling against abortion rights would sometimes meet with limited success. The groups often shifted into gay-bashing campaigns (augmenting the work of lesser-known, diehard anti-gay activists) as a way to raise lots of money to re-energize their anti-abortion crusades. The Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA), for example, got an initiative on the ballot in that state in 1990 to require parental notification for abortions by minors. It failed, and the OCA came back in 1992 with Measure 9, which would have had the Oregon Constitution deem “homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism and masochism as abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse.”
That failed too, but not until after a long, brutal campaign punctuated by hate and violence in which the OCA and other groups raised a lot of money. The issue of gay and lesbian rights was always a cash cow, because there was much fear and misunderstanding about gays, a tiny and often invisible minority at the time. AIDS only exacerbated that, as the right exploited a panic over the epidemic and further stigmatized gays as diseased, dirty and disgusting. Radical right groups promoted fear and ignorance, putting money in their coffers for the larger ideological battles they were waging against women’s right to choose, secular society, free speech and what they saw as widespread sexual immorality — battles that have re-energized them over the years and which they are still waging, sometimes with alarming success (as evidenced by recent anti-abortion legislation in the states), using the Republican Party to do it.
Today, with Hawaii on the verge of becoming the 16th state to pass marriage equality, and with gays much more visible, conservative ideologues are having a harder time on the issue, including trying to raise money around it. But it doesn’t mean they’re any less ferociously focused on taking away the rights of gays — or women, or Muslims, or atheists or any other group that doesn’t fit their Christian theocratic worldview.
Enter transgender rights, the newest potential cash cow for the extremist right. NOM has joined the fight against a bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown this year that allows trans students to define their genders themselves, choose which restroom they want to use and decide whether to play on girls’ sports teams or boys’ sports teams, in accordance with their gender identity. And this week, the California group attempting to repeal the law announced that it has enough signatures to bring the issue to the California ballot next year (though it’s not clear whether they actually have enough signatures), setting up a similar battle to that of Prop 8, which NOM helped pass. Frank Schubert, the strategist who exploited voters’ ignorance and irrational fears about gays and children to pass Prop 8 (and who crumbled under questioning when I interviewed him), is leading the effort.
NOM had a terrible year in which the Supreme Court struck down a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act and invalidated Prop 8. Last week alone the group saw Illinois and Hawaii move forward on marriage equality. Its own fundraising appears to have dwindled from the days when NOM would make splashy announcements about big donors. NOM and other groups think they can raise a lot of money on fear and ignorance about trans people.
You can only imagine the kind of hate that NOM and other groups will inject into a campaign to take away needed protections for transgender students. NOM and the radical right can’t be allowed to win with anti-democratic ballot measures in which the majority strips away the rights of a minority. And we also should remain aware of how intricately all these issue are tied together. Abortion rights, sexual orientation and gender identity all involve decisions about what you do with your own body and about keeping the state from controlling your body. Religious extremist groups may shift focus, or even seem to back off from one issue or another from time to time. But there’s no doubting that they’re gunning for the rights of all of us.