Ten years ago, as a reporter at Canada’s preeminent queer publication, I covered growing crackdowns against LGBTQ people in Russia, East Africa, the Middle East, and the Caribbean. Five years ago, as a staff member at an organization that assists LGBTQ people fleeing those and other regions, I spoke with countless individuals who suffered the effects of such persecution firsthand. These days, I sit on the board of a Ugandan group that helps queer people who are unable to escape the country, secreting them in safehouses as the government passes more and more laws that criminalize their existence.
What is currently unfolding in the United States and Canada around queer and trans rights is reminiscent of the early stages of those terrifying campaigns that I’ve seen play out elsewhere — where ostensible concern about corruption of children paves a path to an ultimate, and often explicit, goal of outright eradication.
It is an escalation of a specific, decades-long effort spearheaded by American evangelicals to incite a legislative crackdown against LGBTQ people — what began with Anita Bryant and Pat Robertson in the U.S. has since expanded to involve the organized exportation of homophobia and transphobia around the world through a well-funded network of extremist Christian groups and organizations.
In the late 2000s and early 2010s, Uganda and Russia were among the countries in which their strategies found traction, resulting in legislation that claimed LGBTQ people were a threat to children. That was an incredibly effective message that propelled politicians in both countries to new heights of popularity, and offered them an easy distraction from domestic corruption, an easy scapegoat for an assortment of social ills, and an easy outlet for state violence and oppression.
The idea that gay people were trying to “recruit children” was introduced to Uganda by an American pastor named Scott Lively. The idea took hold, and in a matter of years resulted in proposed legislation that opponents termed the “Kill the Gays” bill. Lively is widely believed to have played a key role in drafting it.
A few years later, American evangelicals took the message to Russia, leading to a 2013 law against “gay propaganda” that allowed President Vladimir Putin to pander to his Orthodox support base. The law’s formal title describes it as being “aimed at protecting children from information promoting the denial of traditional family values,” and it bans the “promotion of nontraditional sexual relations to minors.” In practice, it criminalized any public acknowledgement of the existence of gay people, resulting in their official erasure from Russian society and a ban on any forms of support. Its introduction coincided with an increase in horrific vigilante violence against LGBTQ people, often carried out in the name of protecting Russia’s children.
Now, there are echoes to be found in the current wave of anti-trans and “Don’t Say Gay” laws that are being adopted in much of the U.S. in response to a similarly manufactured panic.
This summer, the Human Rights Campaign, the U.S.’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group, declared a “state of emergency” for the country’s LGBTQ people, citing “an unprecedented and dangerous spike in anti-LGBTQ legislative assaults sweeping state houses this year.” Trans people and their families have been driven from their homes by laws that criminalize gender-affirming care and the threat of even worse. Some states have already passed laws allowing trans youth to be taken from their homes.
The hatred is even spilling into parts of the country that historically have been relatively queer-friendly, such as with the woman in California who was killed for flying a rainbow flag outside her store.
Last month, the Canadian government issued a travel advisory for LGBTQ people heading to the U.S. (Though that sadly comes on the heels of Canada closing its borders to asylum-seekers fleeing from and through the U.S.)
being transgender in 2023 is waking up every morning to another news story about how another state is passing another law against your existence specifically, and then having to continue to do some job where nobody you interact with knows anything about the genocide happening— stacy NY 9/21 (@StacyCaySlays) September 1, 2023
As has been seen elsewhere, there’s a path for this to become even darker.
Earlier this year, a coalition of social-conservative groups led by the Heritage Foundation published a manifesto called the “2025 Mandate for Leadership,” which lays out a plan to turn the country into a theocracy. It says both that “allowing parents or physicians to ‘reassign’ the sex of a minor is child abuse” — and that the death penalty should be pursued for crimes involving the sexual abuse of children.
Canada remains a few steps behind the U.S. but is nevertheless heading along the same road, with a panic around pronouns and “parental rights” having bubbled to the surface in just the past few months, involving laws and policies in a number of provinces that assert that parents’ preferences ought to override students’ express wishes regarding their names and pronouns.
In recent years, some Canadian faith-based groups and "anti-woke" organizations have taken an active interest in races for school trustee positions, including by “providing endorsements, mobilizing volunteers, and providing candidates' training from U.S. political operatives,” CBC reported last fall. As a result, a number of anti-LGBTQ candidates have been elected to many school boards.
The populist right in Canada knows this is a winning strategy. At last weekend’s Conservative Party of Canada convention in Quebec City, delegates adopted two policies that target trans rights.
So where could all of this go?
In Russia and Uganda, legislation served to solidify and exacerbate the hatred and persecution that already existed in both countries, persecution that has only worsened in recent years.
Uganda eventually passed a new “Kill the Gays” bill this past spring. It’s been called one of the world's toughest anti-gay laws that calls for life imprisonment for anyone convicted of homosexuality, and the death penality for "aggravated homosexuality," which is defined as same-sex relations involving HIV-positive people, young people or other vulnerable people.
In May, the Ugandan LGBTQ human rights activist Frank Mugisha told Rachel Maddow that the law not only erases “the entire existence of an LGBTQ person in Uganda, but also it radicalizes Ugandans into hatred of the LGBTQ community.”
Now other countries in the region are considering similar legislation. In Kenya, they are debating the “Family Protection Bill, 2023,” which, if approved by parliament, would condemn LGBTQ people with a life sentence.
There is a recognizable pattern of genocide, which this all seems to be following.
In 1996, Gregory H. Stanton, the founding president of Genocide Watch, identified what he called the “Ten Stages of Genocide,” which he developed through his work with the UN Security Council on resolutions that created the International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda and the Burundi Commission of Inquiry, two places where genocides had occurred. His 10 stages illustrates that genocide is a process, and one that does not necessarily follow a linear progression.
So, it should be extremely alarming to everyone how many stages appear to have already been crossed.
If all the laws and constant rightwing propaganda against trans people were happening in a different country about a different minority, the world would be on alert for a potential genocide developing.— Jonathan Riley (@realJonRiley) April 29, 2023
Check out the 10 Stages of Genocide from the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust: pic.twitter.com/l3NR9aTrhH
One Missouri father of a trans teenager recently told the U.K.’s Channel 4 News that he and his wife are “both rabbis, and so I don’t say this lightly, that it feels like shades of 1929.”
In the spring, the state launched a new website for neighbours to report on neighbours of suspected gender transitions, he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been that terrified in my whole life.”
Later in the report, trans teen Chelsea says she can see clearly where things are going on the current trajectory. “I promise you ain't seen nothing yet. This is just an opening act. It’s going to get worse from here.”
Andrea Houston is the managing editor of Ricochet Media and teaches Queer Media in the journalism program at Toronto Metropolitan University