Kevin Rudd shows Pride as dark clouds shadow rainbow celebrations

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Washington: The first week of June marks the beginning of Pride month in America: a period to celebrate the LGBTQ community and commemorate the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall uprising, which served as a catalyst for the gay rights movement.

For four consecutive weeks, streets across the US are adorned with rainbow flags and cities come alive with parties, parades, picnics and protests.

Thousands converge on New York City’s Stonewall Inn in 2019 for the 50th anniversary of the rebellion that catalysed a movement for LGBTQ liberation.Credit: AP

In Washington, former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd hosted his first Pride event as US ambassador on Thursday night, with drag queen Crystal Edge on MC duties, Sydney DJ Kitty Glitter behind the decks and hundreds of guests in attendance at his new residence in DC’s north-west.

In Florida, tens of thousands of revellers descended on Orlando for the weekend’s Disney Gay Days, a decades-old, four-day festival that began when a group of friends decided to meet up at the theme park in red shirts to make their presence more visible.

And in New York – where the Stonewall riots erupted after police raided a gay bar in Greenwich Village, resulting in patrons standing up to discrimination and abuse – millions will later this month attend the annual Pride March, one of the biggest in the world.

Australian DJ Kitty Glitter pictured with Kevin Rudd at his first Pride event as Australian ambassador to the US. Credit: Instagram

But just as Stonewall marked a turning point for LGBTQ civil rights in the US, the country now faces what President Joe Biden describes as “another inflection point”.

“In 2023 alone, state and local legislatures have already introduced over 600 hateful laws targeting the LGBTQI+ community,” Biden said as Pride Month began last week.

“Books about LGBTQI+ people are being banned from libraries. Transgender youth in over a dozen states have had their medically necessary healthcare banned.

“Homophobic and transphobic vitriol spewed online has spilled over into real life, as armed hate groups intimidate people at Pride marches and drag performances, and threaten doctors’ offices and children’s hospitals that offer care to the LGBTQI+ community. Our hearts are heavy with grief for the loved ones we have lost to anti-LGBTQI+ violence.”

It was a message of despair from a president who, only a few months ago, stood on the South Lawn of the White House to sign the Respect for Marriage Act, ensuring same-sex and interracial couples in America had the same legal protections as other married couples.

However, with the fight for marriage equality having been fought and won, transgender issues have become the galvanising force for some conservative politicians, parents and right-wing extremists who seem determined to wind back the advances made. Some have gone so far as to call for the eradication of the trans community altogether.

“There can be no middle way,” conservative commentator Michael Knowles told the Conservative Political Action Conference in March, an event at which Donald Trump was headline speaker. “Transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.”

The past few weeks also provide a cautionary tale. Pride Month has long afforded companies the opportunity to tap into the buying power of the so-called “pink dollar”, albeit with some opposition – including within the LGBTQ community itself.

Pride month merchandise at Target. The retailer is removing certain items from sale.Credit: AP

However, the “Go Woke, Go Broke” rallying cry of the political right went into overdrive last month, when Target had to pull a number of items from its “Pride Collection” off shelves following threats from store visitors across the country, and safety concerns among staff.

Items that triggered rage for some customers included a one-piece, “tuck-friendly” swimsuit – a bathing suit that has extra material for the crotch area, allowing trans women who have not had gender-affirming surgery to conceal genitalia. It didn’t matter that the swimsuit was available in adult sizes only; social media users claimed it was being sold to children or came in kids’ sizes. Soon enough, the damage was done.

Target’s stock lost $13.8 billion in two weeks, and shares of the chain dropped for eight straight sessions – the company’s longest losing streak since November 2018.

“The goal is to make ‘pride’ toxic for brands,” right-wing commentator Matt Walsh said on Twitter. “If they decide to shove this garbage in our face, they should know that they’ll pay a price. It won’t be worth whatever they think they’ll gain.”

Target was just the latest in a line of businesses to feel a backlash for promoting the LGBTQ community ahead of this month’s festivities. Last week, the Los Angeles Dodgers were bullied into dis-inviting a drag charity group, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, from a Pride Month awards ceremony. Members of Congress had also unsuccessfully called for a boycott of outdoor retailer North Face after it featured a drag queen in its “Summer of Pride” campaign, which promotes outdoor events taking place across the US.

Kid Rock, in performance, took an aggressive stance against inclusive marketing.Credit: MCT

Then there was Bud Lite, whose parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev lost $27 billion in market value following its ill-fated partnership with transgender Tik-Tok star Dylan Mulvaney. MAGA-loving country musician Kid Rock was particularly aggrieved, posting a violent video of himself using a machine gun to destroy cases of the beer, before declaring: “F— Bud Light and f— Anheuser-Busch! Have a terrific day.”

Sarah Kate Ellis, president of GLAAD, the world’s largest LGBTQ media advocacy organisation, said many US companies had sought to give the gay community greater visibility for decades. As such, she said, businesses shouldn’t succumb to the bullying of a “small group of extremists”.

Nonetheless, the backlash against Target and its staff “should be a wake-up call for consumers” and was “a reminder that LGBTQ people, venues and events are being attacked with threats and violence like never before”.

With less than 18 months until the next election, many are now bracing themselves for things to get uglier – and not just in corporate pushback terms.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, which is the largest LGBTQ civil rights organisation, more than 520 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced this year alone – from attempts to block trans participation in sports to preventing people from using public bathrooms consistent with their gender identity. Of those bills, 74 have been enacted into law.

Among the latest is a bill that was signed by Florida a few weeks ago by Governor Ron DeSantis, Trump’s biggest rival for the Republican presidential nomination, which banned gender-affirming care for minors. Notably, the pair have spent the past week sparring in the early voting state of Iowa in a bid to woo evangelical voters.

“It’s kind of sad that we even have some of these discussions,” DeSantis said as he signed the bill at a Floridian Christian assembly last month, standing behind a lectern with a sign that said “Let Kids Be Kids”.

Leading Republican figures: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former US President Donald Trump.Credit: AP

DeSantis’ bill is one of many that have been put forward by Republicans to cut transgender youth access to what advocates describe as “age-appropriate, medically necessary” healthcare. Such treatment, which has been provided in the US for more than a decade, usually involves hormone blockers to treat gender dysphoria, with surgery generally reserved for those 18 years or older.

Indeed, the Human Rights Campaign says it’s now tracking more than 125 gender-affirming care bans. There are also more than 100 anti-LGBTQ+ curriculum censorship bills, inspired in part by DeSantis’ so-called “Don’t Say Gay” laws, banning classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten to the third grade in Florida. The group is also tracking 45 bills that seek to restrict drag performances, following in the footsteps of Tennessee’s restrictions earlier this year.

There have, however, been positive gains. The bipartisan Respect for Marriage Act that Biden enshrined into law in March was the biggest legislative win in the fight for LGBTQ+ equality in years, guaranteeing federal rights, benefits and obligations of marriages in the federal code for same-sex couples.

And on Friday night, a federal US judge ruled that Tennessee legislation restricting drag queen performance – the first in the nation – was unconstitutional.

“This is a moment of crisis for our community and our country,” said Human Rights Campaign president Kelley Robinson of the current LGBTQ landscape in America.

“But with crisis always comes reckoning – and with reckoning comes the opportunity for bold and transformative change.”

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