Reclaiming ‘woke’ from the right: An LGBTQ perspective

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has stepped up his war on “woke-ism,” most recently with an alarming video post on Twitter bragging about his “most extreme slate of anti-trans laws in modern history.” With the stroke of a pen he has already erased LGBTQ visibility in school classrooms, dismantled diversity programs, and banned the teaching of critical race theory. Who or what is next on the list is anyone’s guess, but we know from history that intolerance is like a raging forest fire that consumes everything in its path.

For the LGBTQ community, this is all part of a familiar and ongoing story of progress and backlash. The same visibility that allowed LGBTQ people to create community, educate, and organize for equality has also made us a target of those who hate and want to harm us. As an organizer at the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force (1982-93), I documented thousands of episodes of anti-gay violence, much of it encouraged by a religious right alarmed by our growing visibility and strength as a movement. Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell filled his treasury with wildly successful direct mail appeals that declared “war against homosexuality” and that urged his adherents to “stop homosexuals dead in their tracks.”

What I learned about people consumed by fear and prejudice is that they are relentless and never stay in one lane. The scapegoating of one vulnerable group inevitably spreads to another. “Queers” were among those singled out for extermination in a White Patriot Party “Declaration of War” against enemies of the white race. A white supremacist leader who was convicted in the 1983 arson of a Jewish community center in Indiana was also found guilty of torching a gay Christian Church in Missouri that same year. I had stacks of incoming mail from indiscriminate haters emblazoned with swastikas (“WHITE POWER! DEATH TO FAGS!”).

Originally a vernacular term in the African-American community for staying alert and awake in the face of racial discrimination, the adjective “woke” gained broader attention during the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and, later, to mean someone who is aware of and cares about social injustice more broadly. Almost overnight the word “woke” was weaponized by the right and became a term of derision. Don’t like hearing uncomfortable truths about our history as an enslaving nation? Well, heck, just call it “woke.” Advanced Placement high school courses in African American studies? Woke. Books exploring gender identity? Woke. Disneyland? Woke. Bud Light? Woke.

Dismissing others as woke is a cynical and lazy—but highly effective—way to trigger fear in the listener, dismiss and dehumanize opponents, and shut down curiosity, inquiry, and compassionate action. Uncomfortable with woke teachers? Accuse them of “grooming” children to be gay or trans, as if that were even possible. In an instant, they are transformed from people to predators.

Anti-woke absolves all its adherents of accountability and responsibility to do anything to right historical wrongs or even respect the “other.”

Jesus declared, “The truth will set you free,” (John 8:32), but for DeSantis and his fellow Republicans, acknowledging the truth of our nation’s past errors and crimes is an outrage. Calls for reckoning and justice are viewed as pure weakness leading to downfall rather than as an opportunity for understanding, correction, and redemption. Too fragile to face facts, they are on a campaign to destroy truth and those who speak it. “Wokeism” is now described as a “virus,” which makes those who “carry” the virus (e.g., progressive activists, feminists, academics, librarians, and even scientists) spreaders of disease.

The progressive left has been criticized, sometimes with justification, for focusing too narrowly on America’s failures to live up to its stated ideals and for unfairly “canceling” those who violate woke norms and values. What critics overlook is that the conservative right is—and always has been—cancel crazy: Canceling “woke” library books and drag shows, opposing and nullifying laws to protect against discrimination, and even canceling democracy itself by limiting voting rights and casting doubt on fair elections. In the final analysis, the anti-woke right is intent on canceling reality—and the history that undergirds it—in its pursuit of a world of fixed identities and strict hierarchies in which dominant groups are in control of the narrative of who we are as a nation and who is entitled to share in its promise.

While attacking “woke” history as a litany of “victimhood” stories, the anti-woke have embraced a narrative in which everyone from Christian conservatives to Elon Musk and the super-wealthy are actually oppressed by “wokeism.” By exaggerating the power of the historically dispossessed, minimizing the harms done to them, and recasting them as scary elites, the anti-woke encourage those with relatively more privilege to view themselves as victims of those with less. Considering that LGBT people are four times more likely to be victims of violent crime than non-LGBT people and that anti-LGBT discrimination is completely legal in much of the U.S., who is victimizing whom? And how better to cancel someone than with violence or to deny them employment, housing, and services? For those who think the Black Lives Matter movement has “gone too far,” consider how many white people you know who fear for their safety when stopped by the police?

DeSantis and the Republicans are betting that their war on “wokeism” (i.e., democracy, truth, inclusivity, and compassion) will divide and ultimately conquer the electorate. Their campaign is already succeeding—driving down public approval ratings for LGBTQ rights and the teaching of critical race theory. Amid the anti-woke backlash in our politics, schools, libraries, and polling places, progressives and those deemed outsiders can withdraw, go to sleep, or stay small by closing ranks in identity tribes, focusing on narrow self-interest. Or we can become more visible and vocal, enlisting the support of active, unequivocal, unapologetic allies across the boundaries of race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, class, ability, and ethnicity. Our fates, after all, are intertwined.

Along the way, we can affirm the best of our nation’s history, learn about each other’s struggles and triumphs, and forgive the fact that all of us are uneven in our knowledge and compassion. We must build bridges, stay curious, listen to each other’s stories, and above all, mobilize to win elections, despite the right’s relentless efforts to subvert them. Finally, we must rescue and reclaim the word “woke” from those who distort and disrespect its intent. Recognizing that “woke” is not a fixed destination but an aspiration, let us humbly aspire to live into its deepest and broadest meaning—vigilant, aware of racism and injustice, and passionately committed to wise and just action.

Kevin Berrill, LCSW, was Anti-Violence Project Director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force from 1982-1992. He is co