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Why are white nationalist groups targeting LGBTQ groups?

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

January 6 featured Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. A week ago, members of another white supremacist group, Patriot Front, were arrested before, authorities allege, violently disrupting a gay pride event in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. What do county electoral ballots and pride parades have to do with white supremacy? Kathleen Belew studies the far right She is the author of "Bring The War Home - The White Power Movement And Paramilitary America." And she says there is a direct connection.

KATHLEEN BELEW: That's the key thing to understand if we would like to combat this problem. And the other one we need to put on that list is seemingly individual acts of violence that result in mass casualties against targeted populations, like the one we just saw in Buffalo, but that we've also seen in El Paso and Charleston and Pittsburgh.

These groups see gay rights, immigration, interracial contact, and especially the birth of interracial children, feminism as all being a problem because they believe that those things will undermine the white birthrate. And that means that for these activists, they see those as apocalyptic threats that are somewhat interchangeable in a larger project of protecting and preserving whiteness itself and advocating for a antidemocratic, white ethno-state, which is what they're doing.

RASCOE: So this is separate and apart from, like, the KKK, you know, after reconstruction and things like that. You look at these as different movements?

BELEW: Sort of. So there's two different things that happened. In 1979, the Klan joins together with a whole bunch of other people for the first time in American history. They join together with neo-Nazis, skinheads, later with militiamen, radical tax resisters, people in white supremacist religious groups. That amalgamated group - that sort of coming together - that's the white power movement. So it includes the Klan, but it's not just the Klan.

RASCOE: It seems like targeting LGBTQ people could be a way to talk about an issue on somewhat mainstream outlets in a way that you cannot do so much when it comes to, like, targeting, like, Black people or even Hispanic people. If you just outright say, I don't think my kids should be around Black people, it seems like that might make some people uncomfortable. But if you say, I don't want my kids - I'm worried about my kids being around gay people or around drag performers, there's this whole kind of movement that allows that type of conversation to happen or feels like this kind of conversation is OK to happen. Like, is there a difference there?

BELEW: That's an excellent observation. And you're very right to point particularly to the anti-LGBTQ activism at work right now because it goes with a larger conversation about the myth of people grooming children for "alternative lifestyle," quote-unquote, or ideas about, like, whether or not Disney is creating problems for children. So we see the mainstream manifestation, and then we see the violent, opportunistic use of that issue.

Think about it this way. We're talking about the same activists who appeared at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017 and infamously were chanting antisemitic chants and doing a lot of activity that made a lot of people feel really uncomfortable. When those same activists and groups showed up on January 6, they, by and large, were not wearing swastikas and using Nazi chants and wearing Klan uniforms. They were mostly uniformed as militiamen because that is a bid for public acceptance.

What they are always doing is looking for the open window - right? - the people that can be persuaded, recruited and radicalized further. And in our culture, with this intense political polarization that we're experiencing, there is a larger and larger set of opportunities for these groups. And this kind of opportunistic mobilization is very well-practiced and is something that they have been working with for a very long time.

RASCOE: So it seems like there's a reason that they are choosing to focus on, say, drag queens or trans people over, say, you know, just a prominent gay person like Neil Patrick Harris - or they are choosing to kind of focus on this very marginalized group.

BELEW: Yes. All of these should be understood as performative publicity stunt actions, alongside being sort of opportunities for violence. What they want out of a confrontation, like the one that seemed to be in the works at Coeur d'Alene, is very likely a piece of video footage that they can use to recruit people into their movement. So what would be great for them is confronting people who look dangerously other while they are dressed in khakis and polos. You know, they didn't choose militarized uniforms for that action for a particular purpose.

RASCOE: So what's the best way to address these tactics? I mean, what you're saying is, for those who would not want to be a part of this and for the people who are targeted by this, it's really scary. Like what can be done?

BELEW: The answer to that question really depends on where you sit within your community. You know, volunteer at your local library and go to school board meetings because these have become sites of confrontation. And I think the one that everybody listening can do - and this is the hardest one but we need it - is to simply pay attention to the problem. It sounds simple, but this is like drinking from a firehose, right? If you went and read every story about the Proud Boys, you're still getting just one thread in this broad, complex tapestry. And the most important thing to do is to start thinking about, how is this not one group, not one shooting, not one event - how is it a groundswell? And if it's a groundswell, what do we need to do?

RASCOE: That's author and historian Kathleen Belew. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

BELEW: Oh, thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY SMITH'S "WOLF LIKE HOWLS FROM THE BATHHOUSE (S.E. LAND OTER CHAMPS)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.