Exiled for Telling the Truth About What Will Happen to LGBT People
I see no clear road to breaking out of our illiberal death spiral
I lived in Ohio from 2006 to 2015. I began transitioning in 2009, and I tried to be a good trans activist. I put out hopeful messaging and did the public speaking stuff to spread visibility and positive images of trans women. I did call banks and even sat on a couple boards. We did lobby days and tried to get state non-discrimination laws passed. By the time I left, I knew it was entirely futile, and was beyond burnt out.
The state was gerrymandered so badly that by any measure there was zero chance of finding the votes to pass pro-LGBT legislation. By the end, most Republican legislators couldn’t even be bothered to pretend to care: at best they’d send some junior staffer to sit and smirk at us. Usually they’d tell us to leave the pamphlet and get out. Some just told us to get out, even when we were living in their district.
When they say MAGA, they mean an America where there’s no visible LGBTQ presence.
Still, I worked on the trans military issue after I left, and we made progress. I was a hopeful leader because there was a path forward. In return, I was invited to things, went to White House Easter egg rolls for my kids, Christmas tree lightings, and Pride events. Years later, I ended up co-authoring the Biden campaign’s policy agenda for LGBT service members and veterans.
But, today, I’ve never felt like more of a pariah in my own community.
I’d felt something like this before in Ohio: the last year I lived there the local group decided to make drag queen Bianca Del Rio grand marshal, immediately after she said horribly transphobic things about Carmen Carrera. When the few openly trans people in the area brought it up, the answer was, “the gays love Bianca, and there’s hardly any of you. Shush.” They were in part right: most trans people in the area transitioned, and either left or went to ground. I never did find an out trans man in Greene or Clark counties.
Today, I frequently feel like persona non grata because I feel it necessary to speak some extremely inconvenient truths. Namely, the GOP is authoritarian and en route to ending our democracy. Because of gerrymandering, the filibuster, non-proportional representation in the Senate, and the GOP’s naked ambition to hold on to the White House in all subsequent elections based on the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen, the Equality Act will never happen.
There are also some inconvenient truths about where we’re headed in a country where a Supreme Court is dominated by conservatives. The oral arguments to end Roe v. Wade clearly signaled that Obergefell and Lawrence v. Texas are next. Twelve states have “trigger laws” banning abortion that will go into effect the moment that Roe v. Wade is overturned. Similarly, 31 states still have laws or constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage on the books that will go back into effect when Obergefell goes down, including California, Oregon, Colorado, and Virginia. Fourteen states still have anti-sodomy laws that would make gay sexual relations illegal again when (not if) Lawrence is overturned.
LGBTQ people will not be able to restore marriage rights.
Most state legislatures have been gerrymandered to the point where elections cannot change who controls the government. In Ohio, Trump got 53% of the vote in 2020, but the GOP will control 80% of the seats in the legislature come 2022. Nor will referendums have much effect: most states with a GOP controlled legislature require that any ballot initiative be approved by the legislature.
In other words, no matter how much public support there is for marriage equality, once Obergefell is overturned it’s not coming back in our lifetimes.
Today the court is 6–3 conservatives, and that’s almost certainly sufficient to overturn Obergefell and Lawrence v. Texas. By 2026, when the court is 7–2, things like Romer v. Evans are toast gerrymandered red states will be free to target the LGBT community with the precision of a scalpel and the lethality of a hypersonic missile.
The current generation of activists needs to understand the reality behind the GOP: when they say MAGA, they mean an America where there’s no visible LGBTQ presence. Already they’re working to treat anything with LGBTQ content as obscene and prosecute anyone who provides it to minors. Our community elders, the gay men who survived the plague and the lesbians who cared for them, have repeatedly told me that what they learned was that the GOP would be happy to see us all die.
My sources say that before Trump left office, there was a memo floating around the White House to purge trans people from federal service, and from federal contractors, by revoking their security clearances for “mental health” reasons. Thus, when the GOP succeeds in claiming unalterable power over the US for generations, hoping that they do not target the LGBTQ community with increasingly draconian measures is somewhere between extremely foolish and suicidal.
Which brings me to my point. There’s power and money to be made in selling people on false hope, and it’s not limited to one political party. Conservative scammers have made millions convincing the faithful to give Donald Trump money, buy survivalist rations, take hydroxychloroquine, eat horse paste with Ivermectin, and even to eat expensive magic dirt in response to COVID. LGBTQ Progressives make fun of this idiocy, but at a fundamental level, we’re no better.
We’ll happily pour money, time, and effort into things that make us feel hopeful, but don’t have a prayer.
I get emails raising money to support the Equality Act on a daily basis. I see emails trying to raise money for LGBT candidates that come in waves, but when I look at the fundamentals of those elections, they’re almost always in safe districts in gerrymandered states. In red states, they’re essentially part of the token opposition that’s packed into blue ghettos and allowed to exist mostly to provide a false veneer of democracy and legitimacy to an otherwise competitive authoritarian form of government.
There are exceptions, of course. But for the most part, the LGBTQ movement has been cut off from the bigger picture: we’re slipping into an illiberal form of government where public opinion has zero impact on legislation or the courts. Like I found in Ohio, the GOP makes it increasingly clear that they don’t care about public opinion on specific issues either: because of gerrymandering it’s all about keeping the base happy, and the base is rabidly anti-LGBT.
We increasingly live in a country where gerrymandering and non-proportional representation has made voting less and less capable of addressing issues. When Obergefell dies in the next three years or so, there’s no plausible path to putting people in office at the state level who would vote to make marriage legal again. The Supreme Court made sure of that when they signed off on gerrymandering in Gill v. Whitford in 2018.
There’s an incredible amount of money to be made in elections. This means selling people on the idea that “we’ll get ’em next time.” In reality, in gerrymandered states, unless democrats win the popular vote by an impossible 15+ points, there’s no way they’re regaining control of state legislatures. The goal of competitive authoritarian governments (like Hungary, the place that the GOP envies) is to keep dissent, unrest, and disobedience down by convincing people that maybe in the next election they won’t pull the football away at the last second.
In this regard, organizations like HRC and the Victory Fund will be playing right into the hands of the GOP in 2024 and beyond. Pretending that the system itself isn’t corrupt beyond rehabilitation only helps perpetuate the system. It mostly acts as an anesthetic while the victim is being vivisected.
Conversely, there’s not a lot of money in organizations which recognize when a system is fundamentally corrupt. However, they can arise organically. ACT UP came about because of Republicans being fine with all the queers dying horribly, and all they had to do was nothing. The Occupy Wall Street movement came about as a reaction to greedy, careless financial institutions collapsed the world economy and never paid a price.
Instead of numbing the people with false promises of progress via conventional means, they encouraged people to be angry and disobedient in the face of a corrupt system that was completely unresponsive. They were a stick when carrots had failed.
And we are entering an era where there are absolutely no carrots we could offer the GOP that they would be interested in. You can spend every dime you have procuring more carrots and more varieties of carrots and at the end of the day it won’t move the GOP an inch: because at the end of the day their implacable goal is an America with no visible queers.
This is why I’m persona non grata:
Not because I’m wrong, not because my ultimate goals are out of line with the policy aims of the community (hell, I fucking wrote most of the ones having to do with the military and the Veteran’s Affairs), but because I come between the movement and their fundraising with a bunch of inconvenient truths about where we are, and where we’re going.
I doubt I’ll ever be invited to the White House again, even though I genuinely like Joe Biden and generally approve of his job performance. I wield no institutional power anymore. But that’s perhaps freeing, and I wish people would trust me more. Everything you hear coming out of people affiliated with LGBT organizations has an extreme conflict of interest: they lose money if they’re honest about what’s going on.
Behind closed doors and off the record, many top queer lawyers and strategists are saying the same things I am. They caveat it with, “well, it’s going to be really bad for a decade.” However, none can articulate how we will break out of our illiberal death spiral. In the 30 years since the competitive authoritarianism model emerged, I can find no examples of countries that have fallen into it, and then spontaneously recovered.
I turned 47 last month. If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll live another 30–40 years. I don’t expect queer rights to recover in that time frame, making what’s happening as good as “forever”. That’s why I’m not going to stick around the US to find out. Leading a revolution is a game for the young, and I’m just getting too old for this shit.
Brynn Tannehill is a writer and transgender advocate who has written for the Los Angeles Blade, Huffington Post, Dame Magazine, The New Civil Rights Movement, and The Bilerico Project as a blogger and featured columnist. She is the author of two books: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Trans, and American Fascism: How the GOP is Subverting Democracy.