There’s been a noticeable uptick in police harassment since 2023, that began with legislators proposing bills aimed at LGBTQ people. More recently police and other public officials have seemingly gone out of their way to target the LGBTQ community. This includes spaces in “red states,” like Missouri where police officers arrested the owners of Bar:PM (a leather bar in St. Louis) after they wrecked their police cruiser into it. “Blue states” however, are not immune to this — as was the case in Seattle where authorities raided The Cuff and The Seattle Eagle citing them for “lewd conduct” because of a bartender’s exposed nipple, and patrons wearing jockstraps.
As many LGBTQ activists are already aware, federal policymakers have been enacting legislation at the local and federal level targeting the LGBTQ community. Among those at the federal level is the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), a bill introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal in May of 2023. Endorsed by President Joe Biden, the bill is a bipartisan initiative to “protect” kids from harmful content online by placing a responsibility on online social media platforms to regulate content and services. Republicans have noted, if passed, the bill would be used to protect “minor children from the Transgender [sic] in this culture and that influence.”
While KOSA seems to have stalled, despite urging from the Biden administration to pass it, some states have begun passing their own versions of the bill — or by enforcing laws at LGBTQ venues like The Cuff in Seattle. Utah’s obscenity laws has even caused PornHub to pull out of states passing these laws, due to their vagueness.
While some may dismiss these concerns as overblown, it seems clear that it is only one part of a larger strategy aimed at curtailing LGBTQ expression. The irony is that those espousing “freedom” are the same ones passing censorship laws. This gradual ratchet effect, which began last summer by targeting children’s books and LGBTQ persons online, has now shifted into something targeting LGBTQ institutions. It’s the same rhetoric used in the 1960s—which included government produced propaganda directed at LGBTQ people painting them as a social contagion dangerous to kids. At the height of this moral panic were laws prohibiting positive depictions of LGBTQ persons, the impact of which is still being felt today through stereotypes and negative framing.
Even in states that aren’t adding to this moral panic, KOSA has provided the framework by which states can pass vague “obscenity” laws that appear neutral, but in practice are aimed at LGBTQ people. Structural forms of discrimination also exist online as social media platforms act as determiners of what is allowable under their guidelines. In reality, moderation disproportionality impacts LGBTQ people, and especially trans women online. According to a recent study, content moderation against trans people was roughly five times more to occur than cisgender counterparts. These facts and figures resonate with trans content creators we spoke with, like Polly People who was recently de-platformed for “inappropriate attire” — the same attire that is promoted by cisgender women on the same platform.
Whether it’s jockstrap night at the local leather bar, trans content creators trying to express themselves, or protests of expressions of sexuality at Pride or events at Folsom, we are quickly descending into an age of marginalization that many LGBTQ people haven’t experienced since before Stonewall. While some of the established forms of collective organizing and community have been forgotten or lost, new forms are emerging to fight against these laws and regulations designed to further marginalize and render invisible the lives of LGBTQ Americans.
Christopher T. Conner is assistant professor of Sociology at the University of Missouri. They are author of numerous scholarly publications, including ‘The Gayborhood: From Sexual Revolution to Cosmopolitan Spectacle.’ Fletcher Jackson is a senior undergraduate student at the University of Missouri, Columbia in Religious Studies and are co-teaching a class in spring 2024. Their research is at the intersection of psychology, spirituality, and queer visibility.