A Fighting Strategy For Louisiana’s LGBTQ+ Movement

Don’t say gay bill
Photo credit: Aiden Craver

Last July, Louisiana House Representative C. Travis Johnson headed to Baton Rouge for an unprecedented veto override session. Because of unexpected pressure from below, he then made the biggest flip-flop of his career: backpedaling his own transphobia. 

Despite being the state’s Democratic Party Vice-Chair, Johnson co-sponsored the transgender sports ban, which had passed the two-thirds Republican Senate in May during Louisiana’s regular legislative session. Republicans had introduced three other anti-trans bills at the beginning of the session and voted for them as a bloc. Thanks to loyal opposition members like Johnson, the sports ban landed on the Democratic governor’s desk. While he vetoed it, he was his party’s black sheep: most Democratic legislators of both congressional chambers either abstained or supported the bill. 

Thanks to them, Republicans commanded the solid super-majority needed to override the veto. Since they didn’t have time to do this during the regular legislative session, the GOP called for a historic special veto override session to push this bill. 

But history turned out to be on the side of Louisiana’s trans community. On the first day of the session, protesters dropped a banner from the viewing balcony reading “Protect Trans Youth.” Soon after security brutalized them and shoved them down the stairs, several Democratic Senators huddled with Johnson—maybe it was then that they decided to ditch his bigoted aims. This was no isolated event: trans Louisianans spent months putting demands on the Democrats through lobbying, phone zaps, rallies, marches, and even playing ball outside the Capitol. The banner drop tipped the scale. The next day, Johnson and almost every other House Democrat voted his own anti-trans bill down to upheld the veto. 

In 2021, in the little state of Louisiana, the trans movement won. This underscores a strategy for the LGBTQ+ movement in 2022: understand that Republicans march in lockstep and won’t compromise, don’t go easy on Democrats who will, and mobilize the masses of ordinary trans people to fight back. 

Evangelical Republicans have money and motivation 

The national Republican leadership has decisively whipped state parties into line with its coordinated attack on LGBTQ+ people. Conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation work with hate groups like the Family Research Council to develop “model” anti-trans, anti-gay bills. They pass them down to state-level Republicans, who use them as political bait to mobilize the far-right evangelicals of their base. 

The majority of Americans oppose these attacks, but the Republican Party still promotes them because of billionaire backers. Conservative leaders like the DeVos family and the Center for National Policy systematically pool together manufacturing, military contracting, retail, oil, and gas fortunes on anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. All of these industries thrive from the histories of union busting in the heavily Black states that they target. All stand to profit from using culture war issues to distract from low wages and high unemployment. It helps that the conservative family ideal—and its corresponding restrictions on reproductive rights—help secure and replenish a stable domestic workforce. Scapegoating anyone who challenges reactionary “family values” is par for the course.

Why did trans kids come first? Concentrating on this extremely vulnerable group makes for a presumably easy target, and then offers a springboard to roll back democratic rights elsewhere. Trans youth deal with overwhelming harassment, assault, and suicide risks. And there are some arenas of struggle where you just can’t feel more defenseless: classrooms, doctor’s offices, and locker rooms come to mind. After Texas targeted trans children for discrimination with its sports ban, it rode the reactionary momentum to enact its unprecedented abortion ban. Just like the trans bans last year, this year’s Don’t Say Gay bill uses the same copy-paste model of borrowing bigoted legislation from state to state.

Big business’s little brothers toe the line

This nationally coordinated project can’t function without state-level allies. Louisiana’s oil, gas, and construction industries largely financed last year’s leading antitrans politicians like healthcare ban and “fairness in women’s sports” act authors.

Conservative shock troops include evangelical radio show hosts scattered across small town America, and evangelical pastors who run anti-LGBT+ groups or run for office. Republicans also draw their base from rural, high-income white landowners and single-person businesses. These people sympathize with concerns for preserving the conservative nuclear family, considering how much US capitalism prizes family life in everything from credit to land stewardship, especially during an economic crisis

From top to bottom, the GOP is disciplined and intransigent. It knows where its interests lie. 

It’s true that Republicans made some concessions in 2021. After many phone calls and trans people’s heartbreaking testimonies in front of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, Senator Mike Fesi withdrew his trans health ban last year. 

But, when push came to shove, the GOP aligned with the transphobic agenda set by its corporate sponsors. Education Committee lawmakers voted down one trans sports ban, only to backstab their constituents by approving an identical bill less than two weeks later. Republicans united against trans youth. 

If there’s no money to be made, Democrats waffle 

Unlike Republicans, who report to a tight network of billionaire-backed bigots, Democrats don’t have an equivalent incentive to take a stand for LGBTQ+ kids. Liberal industries like entertainment don’t follow through. After tooting its horn about pulling out of states with anti-trans laws, the NCAA failed to pull out of anywhere. New Orleans hospitality businesses, which tout their inclusivity, came out with too little, too late. LGBT+ rights are apparently a risky prospect for big investors. This is why Democrats in the Louisiana legislature were so spineless on trans issues until the movement left them no choice.

Some liberal, white-collar professionals can be valuable movement fighters. Several lawyers actively serve the LGBT+ community, as do many religious leaders. During the legislative session, left-wing clergy denounced anti-trans attacks. Several journalists have sympathized with trans kids. However, many in this class tend to shy away from collective organizing. It takes a movement to stop anti-LGBTQ+ legislative attacks.

The masses must be at the movement’s core 

Johnson’s story tells us that the LGBTQ+ community can fight to turn the tables on the evangelical attack. They don’t have the funds or the political know-how of a nationally coordinated evangelical onslaught. But when they organize mass support and confront those in power, politicians change their votes and ultra-conservatives back down. 

This takes bringing together support from broad sectors of LGBTQ+ community. 

A winning strategy for the movement engages LGBTQ+ workers. This class is most likely to suffer from the discrimination that bigoted laws provoke. In New Orleans, like in much of the US, these are the culture bearers, artists, healthcare workers, cooks, wait staff, bartenders, baristas, and sex workers. This population stems transphobia and homophobia daily by correcting coworkers and convincing bosses. Transgender workers live especially precarious lives, but they also disproportionately join unions. Overall, LGBTQ+ workers understand that the attacks on them distract from the broader misery of their class.

Fighting alongside unions is critical: they understand that LGBTQ+ youth aren’t working people’s enemy. This year, United Teachers of New Orleans has already become a strong accomplice against against bigotry. 

Transgender people from oppressed nations (i.e. Black, Latinx) are the backbone of the LGBTQ+ rights struggle. Last year saw at least 57 transgender people murdered, and most were Black or Latinx. This tragedy has two important political implications. First, transphobia from above encourages anti-trans violence. Second, hateful crimes and laws aren’t just about hate, they’re about repressing a movement. Natalia Smut was an outspoken trans advocate in San Jose, Jahaira DeAlto was a founder of Berkshire Trans Day of Remembrance, Mel Groves helped build a Jackson health and wellness society for Black LGBTQ+ people. For both of these reasons, the fight for these lives is the fight for all others’ equality. 

In response to this year’s escalated offensive with the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, youth emerged as leaders of this broad, powerful movement. They’ve proved they can mobilize walkouts and hold down the streets to fight back. 

The community needs this militancy to take bold action against oppression: like dropping banners or walking off the job to shut down bigotry. Electing better politicians and cheering on positive lawsuits are both good, but there’s nothing like ordinary LGBTQ+ community members coming together to take to the streets and confront their oppressors. When LGBTQ+ people fight back together, they win. 

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