Originally published by The Hill on May 1, 2023
By Pamela Shifman
This year alone, over 460 bills targeting LGBTQ rights have been introduced in states across the country. Twenty-four states have now banned abortion or are likely to do so, cutting off millions from bodily autonomy and essential health care. This month, Missouri became the first state in the country to severely restrict gender-affirming care for people of all ages.
What some Americans might not realize is that many of these crackdowns draw from a strikingly similar playbook used by extremists in other countries. Understanding threats to our own democracy now demands that we see the connections to these tactics around the world.
As the London School of Economics explains, “Right-wing agendas have consistently identified feminism, gender equality and anti-racism as a problem, and have used ‘anti-gender’, anti-feminist, and anti-migrant feeling as a way of garnering support for nationalist, cultural, religious or political agendas.” Commonly referred to as “anti-gender” movements, they are gaining steam, even as many Americans have yet to hear of them.
News coming out of Florida has clear echoes in Budapest and Warsaw. Just this month, Florida’s Board of Education approved a proposal to forbid classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in all grades, a dramatic expansion of Gov. Ron DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” ban that originally applied only to kindergarten through the third grade.
In 2021, Hungary’s parliament passed a law banning gay people from being featured in school educational materials or on television shows for kids under 18. For the country’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, demonization of LGBTQ communities is a key ingredient in his nationalistic vision of Hungary as the last holdout against godless, western liberals.
When Secretary of State Antony Blinken confronts countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia, he warns that backlash against LGBTQ communities is a “canary in the coal mine” for broader human rights and democratic freedoms. More Americans are waking up to this terrifying reality: if it’s true in other countries, it’s also true at home.
The same lesson applies to the erosion of abortion rights. As Macarena Sáez of Human Rights Watch has pointed out, “In the United States, the criminalization of abortion also becomes an issue of freedom of speech, expression and information, as well as privacy,” since state governments may now prosecute people seeking information about abortion on social media. The results curtail the freedom of everyone by increasing “the arbitrary power of the government over community.”
Through this lens, it’s easier to connect the dots of what we are witnessing in the United States. When Gov. DeSantis, for example, asks state universities to complete a survey about students who accessed treatment for gender dysphoria, it’s simply one tactic in a broader strategy. Mix in the headline-grabbing claims that an AP African American studies course “lacks educational value,” and the purpose seems clear: to sow chaos, mistrust and opposition to funding for public education itself. As Becky Pringle of the National Education Association has explained, the ultimate goal is “the destruction of public education, the very foundation of our democracy.”
What might shock many Americans is that the global anti-gender movement is largely funded by rightwing U.S. forces. U.S.-based organizations working against LGBTQ and women’s rights have funneled more than $1 billion overseas to bolster anti-gender groups.
And that’s where we can help to turn the tide. It all begins with naming these attacks for what they are: the tip of the spear in a campaign against our democracy itself. As The Bridgespan Group and Shake The Table have outlined, it’s time to marshal a wave of resources to counter funding for anti-gender and white supremacist movements, so that more resources flow to women — especially Black women and other women of color — and LGBTQ activists whose fight for their rights is the existential fight for our democracy.
For our political leaders, the charge is even more fundamental: It’s time to move from defense to offense. Sixty-four percent of Americans say that abortion should be legal in most or all cases. The same percentage favors protecting trans people from discrimination. The vast majority of Americans want students to learn accurate U.S. history, including the ongoing legacy of slavery and racial inequality. Connecting the dots between attacks on abortion rights, trans communities and communities of color — and tying them to the democratic freedoms of everyone — is not just good policy, it’s a path to victory.
Rather than pivot away from these issues, it’s time for progressive leaders to take them on, and win. And it can be done. Look at Gov. Tim Walz in Minnesota, who just signed an executive order guaranteeing that gender-affirming care will remain available in the state, a key part of his winning agenda. Under Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s leadership, Michigan this year joined 10 other states who have moved to boldly protect reproductive freedoms and access to safe, legal abortion in the wake of Dobbs v. Jackson, which overturned the constitutional right to abortion.
With critical elections of 2024 rapidly approaching, crackdowns on LGBTQ people, women and communities of color have moved to center stage. Until more of us see these attacks for what they are, and come together to defeat them, these forces will keep gaining ground.
Pamela Shifman is president of the Democracy Alliance, a network of progressive donors committed to defending democracy and building the progressive infrastructure in the United States, and founder of Shake the Table, a global research and action hub that connects philanthropy and social movements to advance racial, gender, and economic justice.