Most of the most insidious work to oppress LGBTQ+ people in this country is not done by people in white hoods or those who sling speech. Most of that work is done by people in plain grey business suits, working in tall offices and riding the same D.C. metro that transgender advocates like myself use every day. While not fitting the popular conception of a backwoods hate group, they are fighting the rights of transgender people every step of the way.
Both versions of bigotry were on full display at the Supreme Court this Tuesday, where hundreds of joyful, powerful, strong queer people showed up to rally on behalf of Aimee Stephens, a Michigan transgender woman fired after she came out; her case was being heard by the nine justices inside, the first trans rights case to ever be debated by the federal bench. As predictable as ants at a picnic, the Westboro Baptist Church circled the perimeter of our rally with signs making sure we knew that “God Still Hates Fags,” that signature WordArt typeface announcing their prejudice for all to see.
For my entire life, Westboro has been the third rail of American bigotry, so blatant in their disregard for humanity and decency that even those working to debilitate transgender equality want absolutely nothing to do with them.
I know they don’t because they told me. After a brief bomb scare had security forcing crowds to a corner adjacent to the Supreme Court building, our own rally was mixed among the smaller group protesting in support of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a far-right legal juggernaut whose sole function in society appears to be fighting society’s progress.
The ADF and its allies appeared much like any other Capitol Hill grunt, head buried in their phones and red ties secure and straight. That’s why I wasn’t immediately aware who I was talking to when I struck up a conversation with Bob Trent, the media relations director at the ADF and effectively my counterpart. We chatted briefly about the weather, The Beatles, and the swift action of security in response to a suspicious package.
After he told me who his employer was, I awkwardly clarified my own role with the National Center for Transgender Equality and walked away. But much to my own surprise, he sought me out again in the crowd an hour later. Pointing above the growing gaggle of my friends and colleagues, he gestured toward Westboro, now surrounded by a chanting group of gays.
“I just want you to know,” he said, somewhat meekly, “they aren’t with us. We didn’t invite them.”
With increasing rapidity and middling levels of success, the ADF has long posed the greatest legal threat to transgender equality in this country, only taking second place in 2017 with the inauguration of Donald Trump. They sue school districts with policies inclusive of transgender students. They print out copycat “bathroom bills” and ship them to state legislatures across the country. They promote conversion therapy, fight for business that turn away queer people, and train thousands of lawyers — some of which become Trump judicial nominees — in their fine-tuned craft of litigating hate.
While their spokespeople gathered among us near the Supreme Court steps, their lawyers argued against our basic right to fairness inside its chambers. John Bursch, the ADF representative who argued before the court in favor of firing of a transgender woman, previously claimed the employer was acting “out of love” because it would be healthier for trans people to “align their mind with their biological reality.”
For a brief moment, I felt sorry for Mr. Trent. He and his colleagues must engage in hours and hours of strategizing to portray the work of the ADF as anything other than bigoted against people like me. Messaging research, focus groups, and draft after draft of talking points and op-eds, all in the name of obscuring the true impact of their work. And here, on the ADF and its allies big day, was the Westboro Baptist Church spoiling it all by saying the quiet part out loud.
The work Mr. Trent must do to apply a layer of apparent decency to their work is on full display in the ADF’s internal style guide. Alongside branding standards, the ADF instructs its employees to replace words like “transgender” with “sexually confused,” “gay” with “homosexual behavior,” and “intersex” with — I’m not kidding — “sexually mutilated.”
Perhaps most telling, however, is how Mr. Trent and his colleagues are instructed to describe their own work and the policies they defend. They don’t engage in “bigotry,” according to the style guide. They’re merely “defending biblical, religious principles.” They don’t oppose “sex education programs” in schools; they oppose “sexual indoctrination.” It’s not “gay marriage”; it’s “marriage imitation.”
It reminds me of the work many of the president’s own allies are called to do every time he maligns migrants, refugees, or women of color. Trump’s prejudice should be cartoonishly clear to anyone watching, and his words are backed by the very real and very disparate harm caused by his policies. It’s why members of Congress who agree with those policies rush to obfuscate his blatant bias with the veneer of lingo and respectability. The President didn’t mean they’re “shithole countries.” He just supports a “merit-based immigration system.”
To borrow a phrase from the feminist philosopher Kate Manne’s recent bestseller Down Girl, these tricks of language rely on the “naive conception” of bigotry. The ADF, allies of the president, and many others in Washington hope to manipulate the view that racism, ableism, misogyny, homophobia, or transphobia cannot be called for what it is until it’s screaming in your face, carrying a five-foot poster declaring your eternal damnation. Doing so allows them to get away with heinous and biased policies without due scrutiny or accountability.
As any transgender person can tell you, language certainly does matter on its own. It can be used to deny people their humanity and their peace of mind, as well as mark them as second-class citizens. Deadnaming and misgenderling — alongside slurs like “fag” — sting on their own and leave a very real emotional toll. It’s a good thing that hateful speech comes with a societal cost for those who use it.
But language cannot be the sole premise upon which we assess the harm of institutionalized bigotry as well as who is engaged in sustaining it. Doing so allows the ADF and its allies to obscure their concrete role in quietly defending a worldview without transgender people in it, one that must overlap significantly with Westboro. Waiting for evil to be anything but banal only empowers anyone who can sustain the gendered and racialized norms of appearance and civility in politics.
Mr. Trent may try to distance himself from Westboro, but the fact he even felt the need to on Tuesday is deeply revealing. The Alliance Defending Freedom — as well as the Family Research Council, the Heritage Foundation, the Federalist Society, and many others — are fighting for a world without LGBTQ+ people in it, where anyone can feel free to deny trans people our most basic rights because they feel God hates us. That fact should not go unnoticed simply because they aren’t holding signs declaring it.
Gillian Branstetter is a writer, advocate, and spokesperson for the National Center for Transgender Equality. Ms. Branstetter is a former reporter who now works to promote accuracy and ethics in coverage of transgender people by local and national media. She lives in Washington, D.C.