Take the far-right extremist group the Proud Boys. According to local reports, a group of men believed to be affiliated with them stormed into a drag queen story hour at the San Lorenzo, California library this past week, terrifying children and their parents and librarians. Or the 31 people with white nationalist ties arrested for trying to riot at an Idaho Pride event this weekend.
We have entered the era of the Rainbow Scare.
The Rainbow Scare has haunting echoes of the Red Scare and related Lavender Scare (as historian David K. Johnson coined it) from the mid-20th century, when fears about the spread of communism during the Cold War emboldened Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and others in the US government to persecute and ostracize people who were deemed to be “communist sympathizers,” cavorting with the Soviet enemy. LGBTQ+ people were among them — fired from their jobs, forced to undergo psychiatric treatment and institutionalization, including electric shock treatment, and prosecuted as security threats to the nation.
This was the era when then-President Dwight Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which helped fuel a national witch-hunt to purge queer Americans from the federal government. Around 5,000 federal agency employees lost their jobs on the basis of their sexual orientation. McCarthy and other leaders used LGBTQ+ people as a wedge issue and scare tactic to justify state-sponsored discrimination, just as right-wing leaders are trying to today.
Today, extreme right officials and community leaders are heinously using LGBTQ+ students as pawns to stoke fear (and win votes). Banning books, censoring curricula and silencing LGBTQ+ students and teachers are the latest tactics in the right’s efforts to perpetuate regressive discrimination under the guise of a culture war.
The Rainbow Scare is evident in the more than 200 bills in state legislatures that aim to or already have stripped LGBTQ+ and specifically transgender kids of the right to access life-saving health care, to play sports or even to talk about orientation or gender identity in schools. It’s there in the coordinated efforts to ban books in libraries and schools that have LGBTQ+ characters or themes. And in bills like the one passed by the Ohio House of Representatives, which would — in addition to banning trans girls from sports — require a genital exam and verification by a doctor if a student’s sex were questioned.
Even in progressive localities, like my town in Connecticut, a blue state that was second to pass marriage equality, right-wing school board officials recently, secretly stripped explicit mention of LGBTQ+ students from its Title IX policy. They apparently hoped no one would notice. But we did. The board’s response: “This policy covers all students, whether or not certain language is included.” The sting is felt regardless.
While America is one of the most egregious offenders, the regression isn’t just limited to the US. Australian actress Rebel Wilson was recently outed by the Sydney Morning Herald. The paper apologized, but this is the kind of media tactic that frequently plagued LGBTQ+ celebrities some decades ago. Coming out has long been misconstrued as a one-time action rather than a long, often difficult process, but many of us believed our culture had evolved enough to acknowledge that taking away a queer person’s agency to own their own narrative causes undue harm.
That harm is measurable. The kids are not all right.
Compounded by the pandemic, children are facing higher rates of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. LGBTQ+ children and teens fare even worse. 73% of LGBTQ youth have experienced symptoms of anxiety, according to a recent study by the Trevor Project, a nonprofit devoted to suicide prevention among LGTBQ youth. And another 73% of LGBTQ youth reported that they have experienced discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Indeed, it feels there is a mounting effort to return to McCarthyism, to punish people for free thinking or for honoring our differences. The good news this time around is that, unlike in the 1950s, the majority are on the right side of history.
Support for LGBTQ+ people is at an all-time high, with almost eight in 10 Americans believing we should have laws that protect us from discrimination, which includes almost two-thirds of Republicans, according to a 2022 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). A record number of Americans, 62%, have accepted LGBTQ+ people into the mainstream and are “satisfied” with our acceptance, according to a 2022 Gallup poll. And the highest number ever, 71%, of Americans support marriage equality, according to another 2022 Gallup poll.
I’m heartened by the outpouring of LGBTQ+ support from allies, including leaders, elected officials who are Republican and still stand with their LGBTQ+ constituents, teachers who risk their own livelihoods to provide affirming spaces for their queer students; parents who take the time to learn and grow and support their children and the many localities and small towns across America that are standing up their first Pride events this year.
All of which raises the question, where is all this hate coming from?
Clearly, the Rainbow Scare-mongers are in the minority. Perhaps they’re getting louder and more unscrupulous in desperate, last-ditch efforts to win a losing battle. It’s possible because they are fighting dirty, that they will make headway and win more seats on school boards and other roles, pushing for harmful rollbacks of gains and protections for LGBTQ+ students and communities. It may get worse before it gets better.
We will continue to stand up and speak out, to fight for the safety of our children — so that they can be out and proud and go on to do great things in the world. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
My five-year-old recently brought home a drawing that he made which read, “A rainbow exploded near my mom. Then she used an umbrella to walk through the rainbow.”
May our proverbial umbrellas — allies and advocacy — protect us from the Rainbow Scare, and may we walk confidently through the storm, our rainbows shining brightly, in their glorious, full spectrum of colors.