Johnny Townsend: Oppression never gives up on its own

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Pride flag is raised at Washington Square by Salt Lake City and LGBTQ+ leaders, marking the beginning of Pride Month on Thursday, June 1, 2023.

Fifty years ago, on June 24, 1973, a transgender woman from my LDS congregation in New Orleans survived the UpStairs Lounge fire, an arson at a French Quarter gay bar that took the lives of 32 people. Regina’s partner wasn’t so lucky. Neither was Inez Warren, who died along with her two gay sons. Neither was Mitch Mitchell, who initially escaped but ran back in for his partner Horace Broussard. They both died, along with Bill Larson, a minister who burned to death clawing his way through a broken window, and many others.

The fire wasn’t a hate crime per se, started by a disgruntled patron who’d been kicked out of the bar earlier that evening. But the New Orleans community joined forces in perpetrating a hate crime after the fact, with religious leaders refusing to bury the dead, with some family members refusing to claim bodies, with witty residents making jokes about “the weenie roast in the French Quarter.”

Survivors returned to work the following day, forced to pretend nothing had happened or risk losing their jobs.

Many in the LGBTQ community felt we’d finally “made it” when same-sex marriage was legalized. They believed that society always moves forward, that there’s always progress, no matter how slow. They believed that once the old bigots die off, the younger generation will naturally be more inclusive.

What we’ve seen in recent years is that folks can organize behind fear and hatred quickly. Oppressors understand that the only way to perpetuate their hatred is to recruit the youth. The only way to recruit the youth is to force propaganda on them. And the only way to force propaganda on them is to deny them any access to LGBTQ books in school libraries, to defund public libraries, to censor classroom instruction on LGBTQ history.

They label anyone who simply acknowledges the reality of LGBTQ existence a pedophile, a groomer, a criminal, a monster.

A mere 11 people are behind almost all school library book bans across the nation. Haters organize media reports to inflate their presence so that the rest of us fear being crushed by this overwhelming “majority.”

And people do back down. Far-right extremists organize boycotts to destroy anyone who steps out of line. They even go after Ted Cruz, surely one of the least woke senators in existence, for saying that executing gay people in Uganda is going too far.

Over the past few decades, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has tried to become more mainstream, part of the general Protestant and evangelical community, not understanding that the demon that is hatred will turn on them as quickly as it turned on Target and Chick-fil-A.

When I came out to my fellow congregants many years ago, one announced, “I hate when people tell me they’re gay. They always expect me to stand up for them. This is their battle.”

Another offered more support. “I’ll have my girlfriend sleep with you. That’ll fix your little red wagon.”

I declined the offer.

Another suggested electroshock torture. I declined that offer, too.

My stake president confided, “I don’t understand why the Church has a problem with gays, but you’ve been too public, so I don’t have any choice but to excommunicate you.”

There’s always a choice. They just come with consequences.

A few days ago, a friend in a rural Louisiana parish attended a public library board meeting where the first three speakers insisted the library eliminate all LGBTQ-themed books. Two hundred people in the room sat silently, and my friend felt alone. Scared.

But he stood and spoke up against censorship. Then half the room gave him a standing ovation, 30 people coming up afterward to thank him.

Extremists try to scare our allies into submission. But you’re not an ally unless you stand up even when it’s uncomfortable. No one needs fair weather allies.

In the series A Small Light, we see Miep Gies in Amsterdam rise to the occasion and help hide Otto Frank’s family. After the war, she corrected anyone who said she was extraordinary, insisting the claim allowed them an emotional outlet for doing what she and everyone else is capable of — being an ally even when it’s the most frightening thing you’ve ever done.

Extremists are coalescing efforts against the LGBTQ people in your community and across the nation. We need you to step up and be allies.

Johnny Townsend

Johnny Townsend is an author who lives in Seattle.