Commentary

Susan J. Demas: Adults who choose to bully LGBTQ+ children are weird — and profoundly broken

October 23, 2022 7:07 am

The Michigan Pride rally at the state Capitol in Lansing on June 26, 2022. | Photo by Andrew Roth

Twelve years ago, the LGBTQ+ community started a powerful campaign to help young people with three simple words: “It gets better.”

Growing up gay or trans is often devastatingly hard, from enduring slurs hurled by kids at school to having abusive parents who kick you out of the house just because of who you are or who you love. 

That’s why more than 70,000 LGBTQ+ people and allies have shared videos to try and help kids feel like they’re a little less alone. We belong to a vibrant community of millions around the world and are here to offer encouragement, love, support, positivity and joy. 

Let’s not sleep on that last part. If you’ve ever been to a Pride rally, there is so much unfettered joy — the joy that comes with being comfortable with who you are and celebrating with others who get you. There’s singing, there’s laughter and there are a lot of hugs. The ubiquitous rainbow flags, hearts, socks and more on display evoke joy, beauty and fun, just like drag shows.

“Don’t let them steal your joy,” is advice you hear a lot. But let’s be real: That’s exactly what far-right bigots are trying to do. None of them seem like they’re real fun at parties, at least from their humorless, hateful online screeds.  

They seem to believe that if they’re miserable, everyone else should be, too — especially those they consider to be lesser, like LGBTQ+ people, even kids.

Since the “It Gets Better” campaign started in 2010, there have been many important strides in basic rights for LGBTQ+ people, from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage to the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision this year that Michigan law bars discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

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Attorney General Dana Nessel speaks at Michigan Pride on the Capitol steps, June 15, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

In Michigan, we elected our first openly gay top officeholder in 2018 — Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel, although the married mom of twins has been subjected to an endless stream of invective from Republicans, especially her Nov. 8 opponent, Matt DePerno.

Nessel told me in a 2019 interview that the upside of her sexual orientation being mentioned — sometimes gratuitously — by the media is that kids “who may identify as gay or bisexual or transgender” can “feel as though they can have a real future and they can be whatever they want when they grow up.”

It’s been a sea change for Michigan to finally be run by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other top Democratic officials who strongly support LGBTQ+ equality.

As always, however, there’s a backlash to progress. There’s been a resurgence in the last two years of brutal bigotry, led by ranting Republican politicians in Michigan and across the country. 

It’s not just vile rhetoric, although there’s plenty of that. There also are disgusting threats of violence from far-right groups to shut down Pride festivals and drag queen performances. The same folks who are always yawping about the freedom they deserve seem very eager to take that freedom away from LGBTQ+ people — by any means necessary.

At the same time, Republicans are introducing bills by the dozens that don’t just roll back recent wins — they have the explicit goal of stigmatizing and criminalizing LGBTQ+ people and allies.

Kids are their No. 1 target, like banning trans girls from playing on girls school sports teams, which would apply to exactly two students in Michigan every year. 

Republican nominee for Michigan governor Tudor Dixon campaigns in Lansing on Aug. 27, 2022. (Andrew Roth | Michigan Advance)

GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon is a huge fan. But despite her pledge to “protect girls’ sports,” her debate coach just happens to be former Gov. John Engler, the former interim Michigan State University head who was run out on a rail for repeatedly insulting sexual assault survivors of former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar.

Republicans never tell you what enforcing their sports ban would look like, and for good reason. 

That’s because requiring genital checks of minor children in school is deeply weird. Another solution could be forcing student-athletes to provide their menstrual history as some Florida schools are doing, which again, is a bizarre invasion of privacy. 

The GOP is running this year on a parents’ rights agenda, where they say the government shouldn’t tell parents what to do. But that clearly doesn’t apply to parents of trans kids. Just last week, Michigan Republicans introduced draconian legislation to throw them in prison for life if they make the choice to help their own children seek gender-affirming care.

Other proposals taking aim at children include muzzling teachers from talking about LGBTQ+ issues with “Don’t Say Gay” bills and banning books about characters like them so they feel even more isolated. 

Everything is designed to tell LGBTQ+ kids that they’re different, immoral and bad — just for daring to exist.

This can have devastating consequences for kids.

The Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found 45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, with one in five transgender and nonbinary youth attempted suicide. LGBTQ youth of color reported higher rates than their white peers.

However, LGBTQ youth who had supportive families, communities and schools had lower rates of suicide than those who didn’t.

Other proposals taking aim at children include muzzling teachers from talking about LGBTQ+ issues with “Don’t Say Gay” bills and banning books about characters like them so they feel even more isolated. Everything is designed to tell LGBTQ+ kids that they’re different, immoral and bad — just for daring to exist.

– Susan J. Demas

But Republicans don’t care, having launched their very own “It Gets Worse” campaign. They’ll gladly use children as political punching bags to score points this election. Some candidates, like GOP Secretary of State nominee Kristina Karamo, have gone so far as to attack LGBTQ+ kids who die by suicide.

“The media is deceiving the public saying, ‘Oh, well, you look at the suicide rate. Look at the suicide rate it’s because of stigma,’” she said. “Stigma? How about the act itself is simply not natural?”

You have to be a pretty sick and twisted person to go after anyone who kills themselves, but what kind of a monster would say that about children? It’s frightening to think how such needlessly cruel people would treat their own child if they came out.

Karamo, who speaks at QAnon conventions and thinks yoga is the work of Satan, may go rhetorically further than some of her fellow Republicans. But their agenda of brutalizing vulnerable children and shoving LGBTQ+ people back into the closet is the same.

That’s not what the majority of Michiganders want. Most of us want a world where people have the freedom to be who they are and marry who they love.

But there are some sad and broken people in the world. Adults who delight in bullying children deserve our undying scorn, not absolute power to run our state or nation.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 22-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ+ people, the state budget, the economy and more. She previously served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 90 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 5,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 80 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two kids along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

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