Featured photo: Free hugs at 2022 Greensboro Pride Festival.

This story was originally published by NC Policy Watch on Dec. 8.

Days before two Moore County power stations were shot in a targeted attack, plunging 45,000 people into a nearly a week of cold and darkness, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s National Terrorism Advisory System warned of a heightened danger of ideologically driven attacks against infrastructure.

“Targets of potential violence include public gatherings, faith-based institutions, the LGBTQI+ community, schools, racial and religious minorities, government facilities and personnel, U.S. critical infrastructure, the media and perceived ideological opponents,” the national bulletin read.

North Carolina’s LGBTQ community didn’t need to be told they were a target — particularly in Moore County. Shortly before the attack on the substations, there had been threats and protests against a drag show at the Sunrise Theater in Southern Pines on Dec. 3, — the latest in a series of incidents in which sometimes masked and armed far-right protesters have attempted to break up LGBTQ related events at public libraries, book stores and other businesses across the state.

The night the power went out, local resident Emily Grace Rainey created social media posts saying she knew why it had happened and that God was chastising the county over the drag performance.

Rainey, a former Army captain and psychological operations officer, resigned last year after an escalating series of far right protests. She later was under investigation for her leading a group from North Carolina to the U.S. Capitol before the insurrection on Jan. 6.

Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields, who was photographed embracing Rainey at a conservative political event in 2020, dismissed her as a suspect at a press conference early this week, saying he had spoken and had “a word of prayer” with her.

Rainey has made the most of the spotlight, appearing this week on the War Room podcast, hosted by former President Donald Trump’s one-time political strategist Steve Bannon. On the show, she said the drag performance belonged in a “red light district,” condemning its organizers and calling its supporters “demonic.”

State and federal investigators, however, have not dismissed her, or anyone else, from suspicion in the ongoing investigation. On Wednesday Gov. Roy Cooper announced a reward of up to $75,000 for information leading to an arrest or conviction in the crime.

While the motive behind the attack hasn’t yet been established, law enforcement and politicians from both major parties have publicly and repeatedly condemned it.

But this week many in the LGBTQ community, some North Carolina lawmakers and political experts, are asking why condemnations of the rising tide of hateful rhetoric and violence against the LGBTQ community has been nowhere near as clear or plentiful.

“Though we are unsure of what connection this terrorist attack had to the Drag event in Southern Pines, what we do know is that Queer people and Drag Artists in general are being targeted in hopes to instill fear in a marginalized community in order to silence us and our existence,” said Naomi Dix, the performer headlining the Southern Pines drag event, in a statement through Equality NC.

“This is a time for us as a community to be unified in our efforts to gain power within this continuous fight,” Dix said. “And to stick out and stand up for our safety and the safety of the entertainers who are leaders and the foundation of safe space and representation for the Queer community and its allies.”

Hateful rhetoric from some GOP elected officials needs to be recognized as fueling this violence, several LGBTQ elected officials told Policy Watch this week.

Rep. Marcia Morey

“You have fiery language by top elected officials who call LGBTQ people filth, others calling drag queens child molesters,” said State Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham). “That is heard. It’s spread on social media. It seeps into the culture and it leads to attacks, to violence. I wish more officials, particularly Republican officials, would call it out when it happens, before it gets to that point.”

Morey is one of a small handful of openly LGBTQ elected officials who has for years pushed for greater protections for the community, from statewide non-discrimination laws to the outlawing of scientifically discredited and dangerous “conversion therapy” that seeks to make LGBTQ people straight. The General Assembly’s Republican majority has repeatedly kept those bills from even coming to an up or down vote.

“They define it in ‘we’ vs ‘them,’” Morey said. “When an entire community of tens of thousands of people is without power in the winter due to an attack, they feel they should stand up and say there should never be this kind of domestic terrorism. But when it’s a different community, when it’s LGBTQ people who they have no affiliation with or understanding of, it becomes ‘them’ and they can be silent. But as government officials, we’re responsible for everyone’s safety.”

Threats on several fronts

The threat isn’t just at drag brunches and bookstore story hours. It’s also in state legislatures across the country — including in Raleigh.

In the last legislative session, a series of anti-LGBTQ bills were filed but never came to a vote. At that time, Democrats had the legislative numbers to sustain the vetoes with which the measures would have been met had they made it to the desk of Gov. Roy Cooper. The state was also courting LGBTQ-friendly Apple Inc., which ultimately announced its first east coast campus would be based in the state, an investment expected to total more than $1 billion and create 3,000 jobs over the next 10 years.

But the ground has since shifted. Republicans gained seats in the latest election, making the margin by which Democrats can sustain a veto just one vote. In states from Texas to Florida, culture war fervor once the province of the party’s far right wing has gone mainstream, leading elected officials to go to war with major corporations like Disney when they oppose anti-LGBTQ bills.

Rep. Cecil Brockman

“There are enough conservative Democrats now that I think a number of these things could now pass here,” said state Rep. Cecil Brockman. “That’s just about the numbers.”

As one of just a few out LGBTQ state lawmakers, Brockman said he feels dispirited and torn.

“I find myself wondering, should I be at the table trying to at least make these laws a little less worse?” Brockmans said. “It seems like we always have more conservative Democrats at the table negotiating these things. Why is that?”

State legislatures across the nation are seeing an unprecedented wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation, according to Alexis Rangel, policy counsel with the National Center for Transgender Equality. Many of those bills target transgender youth, whether excluding them from school sports or restricting how they and their parents can make decisions with their doctors about gender transition.

“The state legislative seasons in the last few years have seen so many bills targeting LGBTQ people, particularly trans people and trans youth that we’ve had to split our attention between local governments, state governments and school boards,” Rangel said. “It’s an attack on all fronts and it’s very well coordinated.”

Bills have also moved into new areas — one example being a new conservative vogue for trying to prevent transgender women from benefiting from government programs aimed at assisting women-owned businesses.

“They’re really targeting any stability transgender people have or can find,” Rangel said.

Alexis Vida Rangel

In some areas corporate support has been essential, Rangel said, as in the massive corporate backlash to HB2 in North Carolina that helped lead to its partial repeal. But every state and every community is different.

“It really depends on what each state or each community is facing,” Rangel said. “That support is always good to see, but it’s not always enough.”

Both Brockman and Morey said they hope Democrats will hang together and make protecting LGBTQ people a priority. They also hope that a corporate America that increasingly courts the LGBTQ community and condemns homophobia and transphobia will stand with them. But that’s far from certain.

“I certainly hope that will be the case,” Morey said. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

New visibility, new threats

For much of America, if not the world, a drag performance has ceased to be shocking or threatening. Reality TV drag competitions regularly put up huge viewer numbers, spawn international spin-offs and win Emmy awards. Drag stars make appearances on massively popular network TV shows and launch their own successful brands.

But the recent wave of threats to drag events is a case study in the way in which mainstream acceptance of marginalized groups and their culture is often met with violent backlash.

“Drag used to be something that happened within the LGBTQ community,” said Dr. Rebecca Kreitzer, an associate professor of Public Policy at  UNC-Chapel Hill whose research includes gender and sexuality politics. “As it’s become more mainstream, as you see it in more mainstream spaces and there is more acceptance of it, people who are threatened by it and strongly oppose it — who increasingly hold the minority opinion — oppose it more loudly and violently.”

Dr. Rebecca Kreitzer

Polls continue to show increasing support for LGBTQ people — and an increasing number of people who identify as LGBTQ, especially among younger generations.

Those invested in maintaining heterosexuality as the status quo and rigidly enforcing traditional gender roles and norms see the transgressive gender play of drag as a major threat, Kreitzer said.

Casting both transgender people and drag performers as a threat to children fits into a long tradition of conservative moral panics that cast minority groups and changes to culture as harmful to vulnerable youth.

“It’s not an accident that so many of this wave of bills targets trans youth,” Kreitzer said. “And it’s not an accident that you see some of these people calling drag queens ‘groomers’ — which most people understand to mean child molesters. The messaging is that anything that is outside of the status quo, the gender norms that they want to preserve, is so dangerous that it amounts to child molestation.”

That same rhetoric was used decades ago to warn that out gay teachers were threats to children, Kreitzer said. But as more of the public came to personally know gay and lesbian people in their own lives — the result of a movement among LGBTQ people to come out and be known publicly — that rhetoric receded.

“But there are still a lot of people who don’t know a transgender person,” Kreitzer said. “So the messaging has changed from gay men being a threat, being potential child molesters, to transgender people and drag queens now being the threat.”

That’s not where mainstream culture or public opinion is, Kreitzer said, as evidenced by the sea of rainbow packaging and LGBTQ-affirming advertisements from the world’s largest corporations each year during Pride month. But as the culture changes, the loudest voices of opposition become more fierce. In today’s Republican party, Kreitzer said, that’s come to mean once fringe opinions dominating the conversation and rhetoric that would have been disqualifying from top elected officials.

“I do believe that rhetoric, the mainstreaming of that rhetoric, can lead to violence as we’re seeing now,” Kreitzer said. “Unfortunately, we’re seeing examples of it every day.”

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