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Right-wing media blame LGBTQ equality, ‘Pride flags’ for crisis in Ukraine

Commentators attack U.S. military ‘wokeness’

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(Graphic by Andrea Austria for Media Matters for America)

By Alex Paterson and Mia Gingerich | Right-wing media figures are using the ongoing crisis in Ukraine to attack “wokeness” in the U.S. military, claiming acceptance of LGBTQ service members and a drive for inclusion have provided an opportunity for Russian President Vladimir Putin to start a war. 

Amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a crisis that itself threatens the lives of LGBTQ Ukrainians, conservative outlets took aim at President Joe Biden’s repeal of the ban on transgender service members and other inclusive policies, including the military’s diversity training, which they have falsely labeled “critical race theory.” 

Right-wing pundits continue to promote a culture war narrative that advancing LGBTQ rights poses a threat to America’s international security. After the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021, right-wing figures blamed “woke ideology” and pushed the false claim that the U.S. Embassy in Kabul flew a LGBTQ Pride flag on its rooftop ahead of the Taliban’s takeover.

Conservative pundits are once again using the war on Ukraine as a political cudgel to attack LGBTQ people:   

  • On Feb. 23, Fox News host Tucker Carlson denigrated “trans rights,” saying they’re one of the “values” White House press secretary Jen Psaki was referencing when she discussed the “costs” of “standing up for our values” regarding Russia’s attacks on Ukraine.
  • Appearing on “The Five”, Fox News host Pete Hegseth claimed Americans were “running around talking about genders and reparations” and “as a result, [Putin] thinks this is his moment to make an aggressive move.”
  • National Review senior writer Michael Brendan Dougherty published an op-ed on Feb. 22 criticizing the U.S. State Department for pulling personnel from the Ukrainian Embassy ahead of Russia’s invasion, asserting, “the State Department spends an inordinate amount of time promoting progressive values, such as flying pride flags in the few European countries that have not yet legally recognized same-sex marriage, or holding seminars on diversity.”
  • Far-right conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson posted a video to YouTube on Feb. 24 discussing Russia’s invasion, with Watson mockingly saying, “It turns out that repealing Trump’s ban on [trans people] in the military didn’t deter Putin. Turns out that the Pentagon’s effort to help nonbinary people who identify as they/them serve openly in the military didn’t deter Putin.” 
  • An article from The American Spectator had a subheadline that read “A military that gives priority to climate change, LGBTQ+ issues, and the virtues of democratic socialism is surely inviting Putin to bite off even bigger chunks of Ukraine,” with the article asserting that military leadership was putting an “emphasis … on wokeness” and that Biden’s “tough talk doesn’t impress adversaries who know that a woke military is no threat to them.” 
  • Daily Wire podcast host Matt Walsh asked if the U.S. military had “recruited enough lesbians? Are our armed forces sufficiently trans inclusive?”
  • Later on his podcast, Walsh said it was “not a coincidence that this has happened after Biden spent his first year in office focusing primarily on wokeness and intentionally making our military weaker and more feminine.” Walsh later played an ad from the Army featuring a lesbian couple, responding by saying, “How could Putin do what he’s doing right now? Doesn’t he know that western countries have the most diverse, equitable, tolerant, and trans-inclusive militaries in the history of the world? And he’s still messing with us? Wow. I mean, it’s almost like we’re nothing but a joke at this point.” He later claimed that Biden was attempting to “fill our military with lesbians who can’t do three pushups.” 
  • Daily Wire editor emeritus Ben Shapiro tweeted that “Russia and China are focused on expanding their spheres of influence via aggressive action. The West is focused on expanding its national debt and exploding the gender binary.”

During the Feb. 24 edition of PragerU’s “Will & Amala Live”, anti-LGBTQ pundit Dennis Prager denigrated Adm. Rachel Levine, the assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, saying, “under Democratic leadership the country’s military is much weaker and is perceived as such by our enemies. Just the fact that — is no offense against the individual — but a transgender Admiral does not induce fear on the part of our enemies, it makes us look like we are more interested in woke than we are in power.”

Fox News contributor Lisa Boothe asserted that Russia chose to capitalize off America being “weak” because “our focus is flying pride flags around the world.”

On the Feb. 24 edition of Newsmax’s “Dick Morris Democracy“, frequent Newsmax guest John Mills asserted that Russia’s invasion was “the fruit of wokeness and CRT training,” adding, “Putin and Xi of China are not impressed by this. In fact, it only emboldens them and encourages them to be adventurous. And this is what the fruit of the wokeness culture is delivering.”

  • Fox News ran an article on Feb. 25 headlined “Georgia GOP candidate, a retired Marine colonel, urges military to reverse transgender policy amid Ukraine war.” The article centered around an interview with Mitchell Swan, a Republican candidate for U.S. Congress in Georgia, who claimed, “welcoming individuals with gender dysphoria into the ranks may weaken military performance and sends a message of weakness to America’s adversaries in crises such as Ukraine and Afghanistan.”
  • Retired Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold in a Feb. 10 op-ed for Task & Purpose described what he called “critical military theory,” claiming, “Individuality or group identity is corrosive and a centrifugal force” in the military. 
  • In an article on Russia’s invasion, the Washington Times cited Newbold’s op-ed, stating that the “Biden administration efforts to promote social engineering and ‘woke’ diversity and inclusivity policies pose a danger to U.S. military warfighting capabilities, according to a retired three-star general.” The article went on to say Newbold’s criticism of “the Pentagon’s ‘woke’ policies” were a response to the Biden administration’s “efforts to promote climate change, gender identity politics and critical race theory in the ranks of the armed forces.” 
  • Right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza tweeted a segment from his podcast in which he cited Newbold, saying that “it’s really refreshing to hear from a Marine who is not in high heels” and claiming Newbold is taking a stand “in the face of all this kind of wokeness, this racial propaganda, this gender nonsense.” D’Souza later reiterated his support for Newbold’s position, claiming, “The only group that should matter is the military group itself. So the only group identity that works is patriotism — love of country, we’re all in this together. But any other group identity — I’m Black, I’m hispanic, I’m gay, I’m Asian — any of that is going to create sub-groups within the group [and] undermine military morale.”
  • Far-right radio host Michael Berry warned Russia and China to not “get any idea,” mockingly adding, “We still have some badasses left in our military and some good high-tech missiles and shit we can hit you with, as soon as everyone gets out of the gender tolerance [meeting].”

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Alex Paterson is a researcher for the LGBTQ program at Media Matters, where he has worked since 2019. Alex holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from Montana State University and has a background in LGBTQ advocacy, including previous work at the National LGBTQ Task Force and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Mia Gingerich is a researcher at Media Matters. She has a bachelor’s degree in politics and government from Northern Arizona University and has previously worked in rural organizing and local media.

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The preceding article was previously published by Media Matters for America and is republished by permission.

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News Analysis

Inside the battle over Republican Senate votes for Respect for Marriage Act

Some advocates for religious liberty joined forces with LGBTQ groups to play a vital role in passage of the Respect for Marriage Act

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A mass same-sex marriage ceremony on June 21, 2013. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The U.S. Senate passed the Respect for Marriage Act on Tuesday 61-36, clearing the threshold required to secure a filibuster-proof majority by just one vote, thereby sending the bill on its way to becoming law.

The landmark legislation’s path out of the evenly divided upper chamber was, until that 60th “yea” vote, far from clear. Tuesday’s passage of the Respect for Marriage Act marked the third time this month in which a few Republican senators held the keys to its fate.

Before and just after Thanksgiving break, the Senate managed to avoid having to debate amendments to the bill proposed by some conservative members of the Republican caucus who felt the bipartisan addition of supplemental protections for religious liberties was insufficient.

Success on the first procedural move was won with a margin of just two Republican senators who voted with their Democratic colleagues. The second, with only one.

Had the Senate chosen instead to consider these amendments, the Respect for Marriage Act could easily have been defeated, with time running out to pass legislation before the new Congress is seated in January, at which point control of the House will flip from blue to red.

Particularly in the days leading up to this week’s votes, lobbyists with a wide spectrum of views on the Respect for Marriage Act were laser focused on winning over members of the small camp of GOP senators who were on the fence or, perhaps, relatively tepid in their support for (or opposition to) the bill.

Tim Schultz (Photo courtesy of the 1st Amendment Partnership)

Among the parties representing special interests engaged in ongoing discussions with Senate Republicans was Tim Schultz, president of the 1st Amendment Partnership (1AP), a nonprofit group focused on education and public engagement to promote and protect religious freedom. Schultz’s work on behalf of the organization includes some lobbying activity.

Speaking with the Washington Blade by phone on Tuesday before the final vote was held, Schultz said the key to winning support from these Republican senators was to show them how the Respect for Marriage Act does not threaten – and in some respects, may in fact strengthen – protections for religious liberty.

Other GOP senators opposed to the bill cited different reasons, arguing for example that it is unnecessary or improper for the legislature to preempt the fallout of a potential future U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.

Schultz noted that unlike the conservative lawmakers whose primary focus was on religious freedoms, these other objections raised by Senate Republicans were mostly brought forth by members who were never going to vote in favor of the Respect for Marriage Act in the first place. In some cases, they believed the landmark cases establishing marriage equality as a fundamental right in the United States were wrongly decided, which is a non-starter.

“The lawmakers who have been the margin of victory [in key votes] have cared a lot about religious protections,” Schultz said. They are sincere in their efforts to understand precisely whether and how religious liberties might be affected by passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, he said. “They are serious in their efforts to try to get their arms around those questions.”

The primary arguments happening in the Senate “have been held by [Republican Senators] who all have a broad conception of religious freedom,” Schultz said. “So, the question has been, ‘is this sufficient? Or should we demand quite a bit more?'”

Engaging these GOP lawmakers, he said, often involved “trying to get the senators accurate information, including responses from faith groups and scholars.” This sometimes required addressing and dispelling arguments against the legislation “point by point,” Schultz added.

Schultz said it was an amusing twist to lock horns over the Respect for Marriage Act with other groups that promote and fight for religious liberties, organizations with which he has some deep and longstanding relationships.

“It’s weird, because I am a professional religious freedom advocate and I share their conception of religious liberty. But I think their analysis of this bill is incorrect. So, it’s been a bit strange to be having an argument among folks who, otherwise, I agree with.”

Strange bedfellows?

The bill’s passage through the Senate could be read as a signal of the efficacy of a model of government relations by which LGBTQ groups in some circumstances can reach mutually beneficial compromises with organizations that are concerned with religious liberty, Schultz said.

Compromise was also the goal for the bipartisan coalition of lawmakers in the House and Senate who sponsored, co-sponsored, or otherwise championed the Respect for Marriage Act.

Writing the legislation within bounds of universally accepted constitutional precepts, part of their aim was to lessen the likelihood that it might face a successful legal challenge. The other primary reason for backing a narrowly construed bill: greater chances of securing the support necessary from congressional Republicans to get it passed.

But the Respect for Marriage Act was conservative in focus, if not in effect, from the jump. It was meant to address the very specific consequences and fallout for same-sex couples that would result if the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority opts to overturn or substantially weaken the two landmark rulings that established marriage equality as a constitutional right in America.

Practically speaking, however, compromise did not come at a cost. “This will be the biggest federal legislative victory for gay rights since the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Schultz said. (Incidentally, that hard-won victory also happened during a lame duck session, following the 2010 midterm elections.)

Though some groups acknowledged its limitations, the Respect for Marriage Act was publicly backed by a diverse swath of LGBTQ civil rights and legal advocacy organizations, including: the Human Rights Campaign, the National Center for Transgender Equality, GLSEN, PFLAG National, GLAAD, Equality California, the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Lambda Legal, the Interfaith Alliance, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, LGBTQ Victory Fund, and the National LGBTQ Task Force.

The Respect for Marriage Act faced a tumultuous road to passage through Congress

In July, the House passed the Respect for Marriage Act with a decisive margin, picking up 47 Republican “yeas” for a total of 267 votes in favor of the bill (with 157 members, all Republican, voting no).

At the time, there was little to no concern expressed publicly by GOP lawmakers in either chamber over the Respect for Marriage Act’s threat to religious liberties, Schultz said. He added that this may be explained, at least to some extent, by members’ focus on the then-upcoming Nov. 8 midterm elections.   

After Congress reconvened with Republicans poised to take control of the House next year, the Biden administration and congressional Democratic leadership had made clear that the Respect for Marriage Act would be a top priority for the brief legislative session before the next Congress is seated in January.

“By the Monday after election week, people started focusing again,” Schultz said. “It was game time.”

Logistically, it was a heavy lift for Congress. Lawmakers had just a few weeks to pass legislation and cobble together end-of-year must-pass spending packages.

Democratic congressional leadership were under pressure from President Biden to allocate more funding for COVID-19 and aid to Ukraine, proposals that both faced resistance from their Republican colleagues. The Senate was way behind on the National Defense Authorization Act, another must-pass bill to fund the military that happens to also require a lengthy review process. And finally, momentum was building behind the bipartisan legislative proposal to revise the Electoral Count Act.

For the key GOP senators, all other considerations were secondary to religious liberty

As the Senate vote neared, campaigns by special interest groups were dialed up, including by opponents of the bill, which ranged from extreme anti-LGBTQ organizations deemed hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center to conservative think tanks with close ties to Capitol Hill.

Liberty Counsel President Matt Staver made the outrageous argument that the protections for same-sex couples provided in the Respect for Marriage Act would lead to “pedophilic marriages,” perpetuating the dangerous lie that queer people are linked to child sexual abuse.

Fortunately, “the crazy stuff you see online doesn’t penetrate into how senators talk about and think about this stuff,” Schultz said. “They are concerned with substantive objections” to the Respect for Marriage Act.

And while there was some discussion of the deadly Nov. 19 shooting at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, the tragedy did not play a major part in GOP senators’ deliberations over passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, Schultz said – perhaps partly because much of the substantive talks had already happened with the Senate vote just days away.

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News Analysis

Analysis: Voters repudiate attacks on trans youth in midterms

From Virginia to Michigan, transphobia – especially directed at young people – proved not to be a winning message for Republican candidates running in the 2022 midterm elections.

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Transgender flag. (Photo by Bigstock)

The results of this year’s midterm elections showed a tendency among American voters to rebuke extremism from the right, whether it took the form of denying the results of democratic elections or denying women’s reproductive freedoms.

For the LGBTQ community and its allies, it was also a repudiation of attacks from some far-right GOP candidates on trans people, particularly trans youth.

Virginia would not have reelected Democratic Reps. Jennifer Wexton and Abigail Spanberger “if transphobic attacks that are geared toward and about kids were an effective message and an effective persuasion message,” Virginia Delegate Danica Roem told the Washington Blade on Tuesday.

Transphobic campaigns led by the congresswomen’s Republican challengers cost them Virginia’s Prince William County, said Roem, who would become the second openly trans state senator in the country if she is elected in next year’s race to represent Virginia’s 30th Senate District.

Republicans in the state went as far as to weaponize a sexual assault case to attack trans students – by lying about the gender identity of the perpetrator, Roem said.

Last year, the mother of a boy who was charged with sexually assaulting a girl in a Loudoun County high school told The Daily Mail, “First of all, he is not transgender…And I think this is all doing an extreme disservice to those students who actually identify as transgender.”

It is not just in the DC-Maryland-Virginia region that voters rejected transphobic attacks during this election cycle, Roem said. GOP candidates tried this approach in Michigan and Wisconsin, leading to the reelection of Democratic Governors Tony Evers and Gretchen Whitmer, who will enjoy the state’s first Democratic trifecta in 40 years, Roem said.

“Across the country anti-equality opponents tried to win close races by persuading swing voters that trans kids were a danger – a group of people that needed to be bullied and attacked,” said Geoff Wetrosky, campaign director for the Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest LGBTQ organization.

“And it failed for them as a strategy, in places from Michigan to Kansas, where close races ended up going to the pro-equality candidates not despite these attacks but because of them,” Wetrosky told the Blade.

“Voters did not appreciate candidates singling out trans kids and speaking propaganda and stigma to rile up extreme members of their base,” he added.

Wetrosky recounted how parents in Arizona had received an anti-trans mailer that was disseminated by former Trump administration official Stephen Miller’s organization America First Legal and reacted by “showing up to the polls for their trans kid but also to show that communities of color could not be split from LGBTQ folks.”

It would be inaccurate to say that Republican gubernatorial candidates like Florida’s Ron DeSantis or South Dakota’s Kristi Noem were reelected because of their open hostility toward trans youth, Wetrosky contends, because we saw that strategy backfire elsewhere.

In terms of attacking trans candidates running for elected office over their gender identities, “the right still tries to use these tactics but it’s harder and harder to manufacture a boogeyman,” LGBTQ Victory Fund and LGBTQ Victory Institute President & CEO Annise Parker told the Blade by phone on Tuesday.

Parker agreed with Wetrosky’s position that much of the transphobia seen from Republican officeholders is meant to appeal to the most extreme elements of the base of the party, for the purpose of raising the profiles of those with national political ambitions.

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News Analysis

Gerrymandering blamed for Jim Obergefell’s defeat in bid for Ohio Legislature

“It was despicable what happened,” said Geoff Wetrosky, campaign director for the Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest LGBTQ organization.

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Jim Obergefell. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Civil rights activist Jim Obergefell, lead plaintiff in the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, lost his bid for the Ohio Legislature 61.7% to 38.3% to Republican opponent D.J. Swearingen.

Obergefell’s defeat, however, is no indication of the extent to which his candidacy was viable, said Geoff Wetrosky, campaign director for the Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest LGBTQ organization.

Ohioans passed a constitutional amendment that was supposed to make redistricting a fairer process, but Republicans who oversaw that process flouted those new guidelines and even ignored a ruling from the Ohio Supreme Court that struck down their newly redrawn districts, Wetrosky told the Washington Blade on Tuesday.

“It was despicable what happened,” he said.

LGBTQ Victory Fund and LGBTQ Victory Institute President & CEO Annise Parker, who formerly served as mayor of Houston, having become the first LGBTQ mayor of a major American city, agreed with Wetrosky’s assessment of Obergefell’s race.

Parker told the Blade by phone that she estimates the unfair redistricting in Ohio was 90% responsible for Obergefell’s failure to capture the state legislature seat.

“The results were not what we were hoping for, but that does not mean I will stop fighting,” Obergefell said in a statement following his electoral defeat. “I will always be a champion for all Ohioans, and I will continue to fight for the issues that matter the most to our district.”

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