Republicans Are Using Attacks on Queer People and Libraries to Rally Voters

Even if the right-wing narrative dies down after the election, the damage is permanent.
a sign that reads "Drag Queens are Welcome Here" is held in front of a library entrance
Martin Pope / Getty Images

Education is on the ballot in this year’s midterm elections, but not in the way you might expect. Nearly every Republican candidate running for a governorship or trying to flip a congressional seat has decried that parents no longer have a say in their children’s education. 

The right-wing movement to ban "critical race theory" was successful in turning many local school boards over to Republicans in elections in 2021, and also helped flip Virginia's governorship to Glenn Youngkin, who won after making “parents’ rights” a key message to voters. Many of the same groups that helped elect Youngkin have spent much of this election cycle attacking librarians and trying to remove books they deem objectionable from schools and public libraries—particularly books about racial justice and LGBTQ topics—and in doing so, preventing all students and families from accessing those materials.

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One of the earliest iterations of this message was banning classrooms from teaching “critical race theory”—an intentionally muddled term that is often used to target any study of racial justice or books from non-white authors. This year, there is more focus on LGBTQ reading materials—particularly those centered on gender and queer identities. 

Right-wing groups like Moms for Liberty have led campaigns to label books by LGBTQ authors as “pornographic,” and in some cases have successfully removed them from library shelves. Meanwhile, drag shows and LGBTQ story time events at libraries have faced a near-constant stream of harassment by far-right groups like the Proud Boys. Last week, a donut shop in Oklahoma that hosted a drag event was firebombed by a masked assailant, who left behind a letter containing anti-LGBTQ rhetoric; and in Boise, Idaho, a man was arrested after attacking a transgender librarian with his car.

A chart tracking the rise in anti-LGBTQ demonstrations in the U.S. from 2018 to 2022

Screenshot: Crowd Counting Consortium

Policy experts say these focused attacks on libraries and LGBTQ people are part of a wider shift in right-wing campaign mobilization, where one incendiary narrative can be quickly swapped for another. Jay Ulfelder, a research project manager at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, notes that while the targets may change, the organizations involved tend to be the same, no matter the cause.

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“[T]hey cycle through different topics and they'll hit really hard on whatever the topic is,” Ulfelder told Motherboard. “I mean, if you look at their message boards, they're nuts about it for a while. It's like, you know, really intense rhetoric and then the narrative shifts and they're onto the next thing, but it's the same.” 

In the past two years, he notes, the target du jour has shifted from masks and COVID mandates to Black Lives Matter to “critical race theory,” and now, more recently, street protests against libraries and other spaces hosting LGBTQ events.

“Over the last several months, the narrative shifted to anti-queer with a particular emphasis on anti-trans rhetoric,” said Ulfelder, who has been tracking the escalation of right-wing attacks with data on the Crowd Counting Consortium’s blog. “Again, it was like the right wing media had begun pushing that narrative. There was all this legislation, and kind of an elite politics-level thing happening then where again, you’ve got legislators tabling legislation around this. You got the talking head on, the right wing media all talking about it. And then as the anti-COVID stuff died down, it really started to trickle into the street politics.”

Like many others, Ulfelder says he has also observed the rise of anti-semetic rhetoric in the U.S. in recent weeks, following the widely-covered comments and subsequent media implosion of Kanye West

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Many Republican candidates on the ballot this Tuesday are campaigning explicitly on “parental rights.” Republican Lee Zeldin, who is locked in an uncharacteristically tight gubernatorial race with New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, has promised to bring an even harsher version of Florida’s widely-criticized “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” law to the Blue state. In Florida, the law has banned any discussion of LGBTQ identities in classrooms from Kindergarten to third grade.

But in many cases, the real world damage has already been done. Conservative parents across the country are now emboldened to submit “material reconsideration” forms to ban books, as one parent in Beaufort, South Carolina, did recently, leading to the removal of nearly 100 books containing scenes or mentions of sex. In other states, elected officials are giving Moms for Liberty members the authority to teach librarians how to do their jobs and getting serious about the prospect of state funding for private education, all in the name of parental rights.

Even if the politicians pushing for parental rights and book bans move on to another fight after the midterms, there will still be newly-elected school board members in positions to continue the crusade against books that they deem objectionable—which are often written by authors from marginalized identities.

In some places across the country, Tuesday’s elections will determine whether public libraries will be defunded following pressure from far-right groups, despite 75 percent of voters saying they oppose book bans according to a recent poll. But regardless of whether Proud Boys stop showing up at libraries to protest drag queen story hour events after the election,  Ulfelder’s data demonstrates that whatever is trending is cyclical. 

“The focal-point shift, that kind of street-level activism, it's often, you know, they're not going away or dying down,” said Ulfelder. “It's just kind of like they move on to a new scene.”