Midway through the 1990s, Mickey Mouse became an ally of Satan. Disney had failed God-fearing families like my own with its rakish entertainments and its tolerance for LGBTQ people. Pause one scene in The Lion King, my mother once told me, and the dust above Simba spelled out S-E-X. There were Gay Days at Disney World; the company even offered benefits to the partners of gay workers. Evangelicals perceived a threat, and reacted accordingly: In 1997, the Southern Baptist Convention announced a boycott of Disney. “When Disney crosses to the other side of the street, there’s a sense of betrayal and outrage,” said Richard Land, an Evangelical theologian who was then the president of the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “You can’t walk the family side of the street and the gay side of the street in the Magic Kingdom at the same time.”
Yet Disney endured, and in 2005 the Southern Baptists surrendered. Focus on the Family dropped its boycott, and so did the American Family Association, and then, finally, the SBC announced it would no longer shun Mickey or his attractive products. The boycott, they said, had “communicated effectively our displeasure concerning products and policies that violate moral righteousness and traditional family values.” A decade later, Evangelicals would lose their biggest battle yet, and not to Disney. With its ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized marriage equality for same-sex couples.
I was in front of the Court the moment the Obergefell decision came down. I had long since abandoned evangelicalism for atheism, and with my friends, I hoped the ruling would deal the Christian right a blow. That day on the steps of the Court, I saw a level of joy I’d never witnessed in church. People wept and sang and cheered. For a moment, victory was ours.
Later, with the rise of Donald Trump, it could look, superficially, as though the Christian right had traded LGBTQ rights in for white nationalism. Trump campaigned on immigration bans, not the overturning of Obergefell. Yet if liberals felt triumphant, about LGBTQ rights if nothing else, this belief was misplaced. The Christian legal movement had not given up either on marriage equality, or the broader question of equality for LGBTQ people, and Trump had promised his Evangelical backers a slew of conservative judges.
Marriage equality is still legal in the United States, but the Christian right has renewed its assault on LGBTQ rights. Disney is once again the enemy, this time for its belated opposition to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The Mouse has sided with the “groomers” of children, conservatives say. The allegation has roots in old smears, which accuse LGBTQ people of pedophiliac inclinations; the Christian right is consistent in its attacks. The conservative activist Christopher Rufo once tweeted incessantly about “critical race theory” in public schools. He has pivoted, now, to Disney, tweeting that its corporate ranks are packed with LGBTQ employees who wish to influence the nation’s children. “Disney wants to re-engineer sexual narratives targeting minors,” he claimed. Benny Johnson, a far-right commentator, tweeted an image of the Magic Kingdom castle with the phrase “groomers” superimposed on the front.
There is a high chance this rhetoric will ruin innocent lives, or even get someone hurt. In the age of QAnon, the fringe is now mainstream: Pedophiles are everywhere, which means children are in constant danger. This perspective has already radicalized a fervent minority. It was present when Trump supporters besieged the Capitol. It was present when a man showed up to Comet Ping Pong with a gun looking for child molesters. And it scaffolds legislative efforts to roll LGBTQ rights into the pre-Obergefell past. Disney is the enemy because it opposes a bill that makes it illegal for teachers to discuss LGBTQ orientations in kindergarten through third grade. Florida parents additionally have the right to sue school districts “over teachings they don’t like,” the Washington Post reports. In a variety of states, Republican legislators have moved to ban trans children from playing school sports, typically in the name of protecting girls. Texas began investigating the parents of transgender children for child abuse before a court temporarily stopped the inquiries. In Alabama, legislators just passed a law that will criminalize providing medical gender-affirming care for trans children.
With conservatives in control of the Supreme Court, the future of LGBTQ rights in this country looks murky indeed. In truth, Obergefell was always fragile. Though public opinion largely favors the ruling, the court’s 5-4 decision was narrow, and it rested lightly on top of fraught political ground. Millions of people did not change their religious beliefs when gay marriage became legal. To the Christian right, this is a battle with supernatural stakes. Evil is a real presence in the world and it manifests itself on what Richard Land once called the gay side of the street. Something greater than the Magic Kingdom is at stake. The souls of children are there for the taking.
The high court was always the wrong place for liberals to look for progress, because no decision can alter the Christian right’s religious convictions. Nor could the court defund or tax the wealthy organizations and churches that have kept LGBTQ rights fixed squarely in their sights. Abortion is only one plank in a comprehensive right-wing worldview. The Christian right’s views on sex and gender are places where its authoritarian bent are most visible, and its anti-democratic tendencies come most clearly to the fore. The movement seeks total power, over even the urges of the body. Where desire bucks the right’s mastery, the unruly body must be ground to dust.
At the Supreme Court, justices could only rule on a matter of law, a single question with limited reach. Future iterations of the court may eat away at the liberties of LGBTQ people until only Obergefell is left, a house with no foundation. To some, this may have once seemed unlikely, or even unthinkable. The nation’s youngest adults are much more likely than previous generations to either identify themselves as LGBTQ or to support LGBTQ rights, which should foretell a crisis for the right. Even Trump made noises about supporting LGBTQ people when it was convenient for him to do so. Once in power, however, his administration systematically attacked rights for LGBTQ people in the federal workforce, and empowered Christian right activists who’d never given up on a world without LGBTQ people in it. In the states, Republican legislators fixed inexorably on trans people again, introducing and in some cases passing so-called “bathroom bills” that would prohibit trans people from using the correct restrooms. Republicans would later build on these bills to further restrict rights for trans people.
There is a war, and it’s bigger than Disney, bigger even than Obergefell. The right understands this, and behaves as such. They don’t care if a “groomer” gets hurt. If LGBTQ people choose suicide over a hostile world then so much the better, the right concludes. The real risk for them isn’t that trans children will die, but that children will realize they’re trans. Faced with such an enemy, what can liberals do? They cannot place their hopes in the courts. Authority will not descend from on high to save anyone. The fight is on the ground, and the right is winning.