Thursday, December 8

How Cleveland Became an Epicenter of Anti-Trans Violence: Part II, Hate Groups

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This is Part II of a five-part Op-Ed series exploring the intersecting forces driving Cleveland’s worsening anti-trans violence epidemic.  The author encourages readers interested in saving trans lives to read this series in its entirety and to share it out to their personal and professional networks. Part I: The Intro is located here. Part II of this series focuses on the broader role that hate groups, anti-LGBTQ+ lobbyists, and anti-trans political attacks in Ohio and nationwide play in Cleveland’s local trans violence crisis.

At first glance, Cleveland does not seem like an American epicenter of transphobic violence. A Midwest hub of approximately 385,000 residents, it is the quintessential “big city and small town.” When passing on the sidewalk, Clevelanders often look one another in the eyes, smile, and nod. It is a city where people often know each other, and where it is easy to meet others. Cosmopolitan and diverse, Cleveland hosts a multitude of cultures and communities, along with a robust economy, burgeoning neighborhoods, and a sprawling night life. Situated along the banks of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River, Cleveland is home to some of the best hospitals and universities in the world, along with many companies and promising startups.

On any day, strollers and drivers can see rainbow flags flying in front of many homes and shops, owing to the city’s vibrant LGBTQ+ community, which has a long history and strong presence in town. This community is perhaps most visible and organized within the city’s inner westside, where many LGBTQ+ organizations, businesses, and households reside, and where rainbow colors reign all down Detroit Avenue.

And yet, Phylicia Mitchell and Keisha Wells were both slain on Detroit Avenue, just as  Brandi Bledsoe,

Skye Mockabee, Brittany-Nicole Kidd-Stergis, Betty Janet SkinnerCemia Dove Acoff, and Claire Legato were murdered in many of Cleveland’s other assumedly affirming neighborhoods.

How can this be?

Simply chalking these horrible murders up to an ingrained transphobia among Clevelanders broadly, as tempting the assumption might be, would be misleading. While much intolerance surely resides in Northeast Ohio, no evidence suggests that Clevelanders are any more or less phobic than Americans generally. Rather, Cleveland’s anti-trans violence crisis is multilayered and complex, with forces at the national, state, and local levels converging into a deadly storm. In this op-ed, we will examine the impact of those state and national forces, particularly the roles of hate groups, anti-LGBTQ+ lobbies, and anti-trans political attacks, which form the wider backdrop for the epidemic. We then pivot in subsequent sections to expose local issues and injustices driving the violence that are endemic to Northeast Ohio.

A Self-Professed Sanctuary…

In many ways, Cleveland is one of the most legally affirming areas in Ohio. In the fall of 2018, Cuyahoga County – broadly known as Greater Cleveland – became the first county in Ohio history to enact sweeping nondiscrimination protections for the LGBTQ+ community. The decision required political courage by county leadership, as hundreds of screaming homophobes and bigots swarmed the council chambers to vent their ignorance and wrath. Hiding behind a veneer of religious zealotry, they prophesied the unraveling of Greater Cleveland’s socioeconomic fabric should the nondiscrimination ordinance pass.

Fortunately, Greater Cleveland’s LGBTQ+ community and our allies countered such aggression by testifying at the Ordinance 9 hearings, as well. On the night of the deciding vote, more than 200 activists and fearmongers alike squeezed into the cramped, sweltering chambers to collectively testify – in a 4-hour battle – for the future of Northeast Ohio.

I, too, was there. Still wearing suit and tie, I came out as a transwoman before supporters, haters, lawmakers, and news cameras. I spoke about how I grew up in Northeast Ohio, how I served in secret for 6 years in the Army during “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and how I returned home to build a life and family in my hometown – and how I wanted to do so with safety and dignity.

Ultimately, county leadership – in a split vote – affirmed equality in Greater Cleveland, initiating a joyous celebration.

And yet, while a small but growing number of Ohio’s local governments have followed Cuyahoga’s example, such victories have been few and far between. Instead, lack of comprehensive state and federal legal protections are combining with a barrage of anti-LGBTQ+ bills, a transphobic political environment, and a threatening coalition of anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups, lobbyists, and lawmakers to endanger trans and queer people across the region and the broader American interior.

These wider forces form the backdrop for transphobic violence in many cities, and they must first be understood before fully comprehending the local dynamics of Cleveland’s specific anti-trans violence crisis.

…Amid a Sea of Hate

Legally, Ohio offers no comprehensive nondiscrimination protections for the hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ+ people who call the state home, and the Ohio Fairness Act – the bill that would provide such protections for the first time – has been stalled in the Ohio Statehouse for a decade. Likewise, the federal Equality Act, a bill that would extend nationwide nondiscrimination protections to millions of LGBTQ+ Americans, still languishes on Capitol Hill.

Meanwhile, Ohio’s state legislature – like dozens of others across the country – has been hijacked by a series of anti-LGBTQ+ bills. Simultaneously, Ohioans themselves are being bombarded with transphobic messaging, amid a sophisticated misinformation campaign sponsored by a coalition of multimillion dollar lobbyists, hate groups, and politicians beholden to such monied interests.

In many ways, the anti-queer hate groups have good reason to worry. In the five-plus decades since the Stonewall Uprising, the LGBTQ+ liberation movement has achieved amazing success. Legally, even recent memory recalls milestones such as the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” marriage equality, Title VII protection, and removal of the trans military ban. Attitudes and identities are changing in America, as well. According to recent polling, a full 70 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage, up from only 27 percent in 1996.

Moreover, the share of U.S. adults identifying as LGBTQ+ more than doubled in the last decade to a record high of 7.1 percent. Much of this growth has been led by the youth, with more than 1-in-5 Gen Z adults identifying on the rainbow. For context, roughly 1-in-38 Baby Boomers and 1-in-125 traditionalists identify as such. In fact, the sea shift among youth has been so significant that pollsters now predict that a full 10 percent of U.S. adults could identify as LGBTQ+ in the near future – a powerful socioeconomic bloc and potential political kingmaker. Though distant, if current demographic trends continue, it is now not entirely fantasy to foresee a time when a strong plurality (possibly even a majority) of Americans could identify as LGBTQ+ by the end of the century.

This future is what the anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups and lobbies fear the most, and they are fully invested and engaged in a war to prevent this outcome. Last year, Ohio’s lawmakers snuck language into the state budget that allows healthcare providers to refuse care if it conflicts with their “moral, ethical, or religious beliefs.” Along with permitting state-sanctioned discrimination against LGBTQ+ identity and reproductive freedom, the opaque political maneuver earned Ohio a feature story in Rolling Stone Magazine and a travel ban from California.

Additionally, during the last three years, Ohio’s lawmakers have repeatedly introduced legislation into the Statehouse that – were they enacted – would bar transgender athletes from competing on affirming sports teams. Hyperbolically and pseudo-scientifically, lawmakers favoring of such bills have prophesized that trans athletes (who have been competing for many years in the state as themselves and currently only number one student in Ohio) would destroy women’s sports. Much like similar efforts to bar trans people from public bathrooms, supporters of such discrimination consistently fail to provide data to support their claims, relying on ignorance, fear, and misinformation instead.

Ohio’s anti-trans sports bill – which recently advanced in the Statehouse at the beginning of Pride Month and now threatens to become a law – would not only bar trans athletes from competing on safe and affirming teams but would also force high school students “accused” by their classmates of being transgender to undergo invasive and traumatizing genital exams, a medieval practice that could harm cis and trans kids alike for generations.

Such anti-trans sports bills in Ohio and elsewhere have received considerable support from organizations such as the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which is a multimillion dollar international lobby group and an anti-LGBTQ+ hate group according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The ADF has also played an active role in Cleveland itself, including recent attempts to undermine marriage equality by challenging Cuyahoga County’s nondiscrimination protections.

Indeed, the outsized and exponential influence of hate groups and anti-LGBTQ+ lobbyists on Ohio’s state and local political infrastructure should worry any lover of democracy, regardless of party affiliation. Benefiting greatly from the rise of donor advised funds as a fundraising tool, groups espousing white nationalism, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny have received millions in anonymous gifts for years through such vehicles. Armed with these bloated war chests, such groups have leveraged armies of attorneys, PR spin doctors, op-eds, internet trolls, and talking heads to scapegoat, stigmatize, and demonize trans people – transwomen and trans youth, specifically – as an exponential danger to Ohioans, arguing that society can only survive if trans people are excluded from opportunity and visibility in public life.

By focusing their attacks on trans people – a demographically small and broadly misunderstood community that struggles to find acceptance even among LGB people — the hate groups and lobbies have successfully seized control of the narrative. According to a recent study, only 1-in-3 Americans believe in affirming trans participation in sports, a significant decline from previous polls. Worse yet, recent studies have shown a troubling erosion of LGBTQ+ acceptance among young American adults, a testament to the efficacy of fear mongering and fake news by the hate groups and lobbyists, particularly on social media. Advocates see a strong correlation between such scapegoating and rising LGBTQ+ violence, particularly against the trans community, and especially in Cleveland and America’s other anti-trans violence epicenters.

And yet, even as my trans neighbors bleed to death in the streets, it is we who are broadly seen as pushing a hypersensitive “woke” narrative – another sign of effective propaganda by the hate groups and lobbyists, whose narrative will likely propel many of their beholden politicians into victory in the upcoming midterm elections.

Empowered by such success, many such groups are taking an active and visible role in Ohio politics. For example, The Center for Christian Virtue (which opposes LGBTQ+ equality) recently established a $1.25 million headquarters adjacent to Ohio’s Statehouse. Meanwhile, many of Ohio’s lawmakers have seemingly grabbed this olive branch of hate.

Center for Christian Virtue

In early 2022, Ohio’s lawmakers introduced a bill that would prevent healthcare professionals from providing gender affirming care to trans youth, even when supported by their parents. According to the bill, caretakers who do provide gender affirming care could lose their licenses, even if such care has been shown to save lives by the broader medical community. Supporters of the bill claim that such drastic measures are needed to prevent a wave of irreversible body modifications among children, but data suggests otherwise.

Generally speaking, the standard of medical care for trans youth relies on nonpermanent yet affirming treatments such as counseling, peer support groups, and medications to temporarily delay the onset of puberty if appropriate. Such care, by design, has few if any permanent effects, while also saving kids from suicidal ideation, which more than half of trans youth suffer from. Of the relatively few trans people who do detransition, only around 0.4 percent report regretting their decision to transition, which typically occurs during adulthood.

As such, like the anti-trans bathroom and sports bills that also target trans people based on fake news and fearmongering, the proposed anti-trans medical bill is clearly driven of the hate groups’ misinformation campaign. Indeed, the bill’s sponsor and pastor Gary Click, R-Vickery, has publicly acknowledged receiving support from the American College of Pediatricians (ACP). Not to be confused with the American Academy of Pediatrics, the euphemistically and deceptively named ACP is classified as an anti-LGBTQ+ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

While strategically targeting the trans community, such groups (many of which have a history of antagonism toward the broader LGBTQ+ community, women’s rights, and racial equality) are expanding their focus toward a wider war. Recently, Ohio’s lawmakers have proposed a bill that would combine aspects of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill with legislative language that may target critical race theory as part of educational curriculum – thus affecting the full LGBTQ+ community, along with communities of color and other marginalized groups.

Likewise, the anti-LGBTQ+ groups are strengthening and consolidating. Last year, the ADF partnered with other groups opposing LGBTQ+ equality to create a new coalition named Promise to America’s Children. From 2018 to 2019, the number of anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups tracked by SPLC has risen by 43 percent while the number of anti-LGBTQ+ bills across the U.S. rose from 41 to 238 since 2018. Most of these bills specifically target trans people.

As the forces of hate strengthen in Ohio and beyond, many LGBTQ+ people fear what may come next. Judging from the positions held by the hate groups and anti-LGBTQ+ lobbyists nationwide – which range from legalizing and promoting conversion therapy, to overturning Title VII protections and reimposing the trans military ban, to criminalization and forced sterilizations of queer people – it seems their hateful ambitions are limited only by the force of LGBTQ+ resistance.

Ominously, such anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups and lobbyists have achieved some of their greatest successes in Eastern Europe. In Poland, queer people live in danger within “LGBT Free Zones” while in southern Russia LGBTQ+ people are summarily rounded up, tortured, and murdered. Now, with the American interior in their crosshairs of hate, we must wonder if the U.S. is in danger of another Lavender Scare. Such political upheavals could usher the beginning of a new era of LGBTQ+ oppression in the U.S., presaged with the overturning of Roe and possibly culminating with the erasure of marriage equality itself.

This fearful backdrop forms the basis of Cleveland’s trans violence crisis, as the anti-trans hate groups, lobbies, lawmakers, and bills rob trans and queer people of safe spaces. Likewise, the transphobic and homophobic messaging of such forces – which depict trans and queer people as inherently dangerous – empowers and emboldens vicious and bigoted individuals who are hellbent on hurting trans people.

In the face of such hate, many trans Midwesterners intentionally seek refuge in those few bastions that affirm their worth, including Greater Cleveland. A city of wonderful beauty and vast opportunity, many trans people seek sanctuary along the banks of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River. Many, like myself, have built lives and families here. But tragically, many trans people become entrapped while pursuing their dreams in Greater Cleveland. Too often, their lives are cut short amid a tangle web of cultural exclusion, pervasive violence, and systemic injustice. In the next section, we will untangle that web to examine how the overlapping local effects of gender identity, sex, sexual orientation, race, and class combine to create a deadly trap for too many trans Clevelanders. 🔥

About Author

Eliana Turan is a trans Clevelander, writer, activist, scholar, and nonprofit professional who has studied and exposed violence in Northeast Ohio and beyond, along with helping survivors of such attacks. She has supported numerous LGBTQ+-serving organizations in various leadership roles, and she is a Ph.D. candidate from Walden University. She served in the U.S. Army from 2000 to 2006 and survived three deployments.

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  1. Pingback: How Cleveland Became an Epicenter of Anti-Trans Violence: Part IV, Mass Incarceration - The Buckeye Flame

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