There is a great disturbance in the Dark Side of the Force. Not only are state bans on same-sex marriage toppling as social acceptance of gay people rises year over year, but where America once had a legion of prominent, well-connected homophobes, in the past few years a vacuum has opened.
Fred Phelps, Jesse Helms, and Jerry Falwell are all dead. James Dobson is semi-retired. Mark Regnerus has been discredited. Scott Lively, usually focused on Uganda, is running a quixotic campaign for governor of Massachusetts. Gary Bauer’s mouth has been dormant for years, Tony Perkins has been quiet, and even Peter LaBarbera has kept a low-profile after being arrested in Canada in April. Sure, Pat Robertson still makes regular homophobic pronouncements from his perch on the 700 Club, but they’re interspersed among dubious predictions about tsunamis and Armageddon, plus claims to leg-press 2000 pounds. Newer, more libertarian-leaning voices have less to say about homosexuality. There is a tacit acceptance of LGBT Americans’ existence and a recognition that the holy war, if not quite winding down, now looks un-winnable.
Still, amid libertarians and resurgent neocons, there remains a strain of conservatism that seems determined to equate “conservative” with “angry, hateful, attention-seeking jerk.” (This is still true even if one wishes to be charitable and assume that extreme right-wingers can be decent folks—Justices Ginsburg and Scalia are close friends, after all.)
Fox News’ Todd Starnes is an adherent of that strain. A glance at his public statements shows him to be auditioning for the role of America’s #1 homophobe, and he has just the combination of platforms to do it: Fox News, Fox Radio, and Twitter. When you’re proudly to the right of the Southern Baptist Convention vis-à-vis migrant children, you’re not only really far to the right, you’re also working double-time to make sure human decency never gets in your way.
According to his bio, Starnes is the author of two books: Dispatches From Bitter America and They Popped My Hood and Found Gravy on the Dipstick. We can now add to that a third, God Less America, whose cover displays a fading “B” in front of “Less,” and which is one long screed against everything progressives stand for, starting with gay rights. While Israel-Palestine seems to rile him on Twitter, it’s on issues pertaining to LGBT rights that Starnes really shows his true colors as a hater and a singular troll—a more sophisticated version of Bryan Fischer.
To him, the homosexual menace has evolved. No longer merely a threat to “our children” as in decades past, LGBT Americans have now become a sinister and extremely powerful special interest group predicated on crushing dissent and smashing Christianity. When the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision revealed how much sway theocrats still hold in the U.S. and led to a huge outpouring of criticism, Starnes saw an opportunity.
While maintaining that the Court’s decision only meant that “Obama’s plan to force Christians to fund abortions is thwarted,” Starnes is also delighted that progressives observed that the ruling also opens up space for employers to fire LGBT employees by claiming the company has a religion. By reacting against the reaction, he tries to make the winning side look like a beleaguered remnant, drowning in a sea of secular totalitarianism as it tries to stand up for religious freedom against the Homofascists. In other words, in spite of the growing acceptance of LGBT rights, for Starnes, standing up for liberty means making a courageous stand against gay people, particularly when they have the gall to make you bake them a cake.
What does it mean to be America’s #1 homophobe? The parameters of the position, such as it is, have shifted over time. It’s usually based on rhetoric and may have absolutely no correlation with a person’s political achievements. In 1978, during the “Save Our Children” campaign, it was definitely Anita Bryant, and at various times since Jesse Helms, Pat Robertson, and Karl Rove have held the title. While Ronald Reagan’s cruel passivity in the face of AIDS may have cost millions of lives (most of them heterosexual and African), his personal tenderness towards gay friends complicates the story, and at no point in his long career did he campaign as an explicit gay-basher relative to the times.
Similarly, when activists celebrated the repeals of DOMA and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, they weren’t undoing the work of Reagan-Bush, but of the otherwise weakly pro-gay Bill Clinton. Being America’s #1 homophobe requires lying about gay people far more than it requires legislation. It requires an obsession that goes far beyond the prurient. Putting the word gay in scare-quotes is not necessarily required, but a strong plus.
Since coming to prominence three or four years ago, some of Starnes’ biggest causes have been ordered from the usual conservative menu: the president’s birth certificate, the alleged IRS scandal that targeted Republican groups for audits, a general phobia about Muslims. He’s also gotten into hot water from colleagues at Fox for tasteless tweets blaming Obama for the Malaysian Airlines crash. But it’s the antigay rhetoric that differentiates him from a generic talking head. Specifically, his refusal to accept that gay people are people is less a religious conviction than a calibrated effort to whip up support among the dead-enders who constitute the bulk of talk radio’s listenership.
Joe Jervis (of JoeMyGod) has pointed out in disbelief on at least two occasions that Starnes’ Twitter feed, while representing the thoughts of a professional working journalist at a major media outlet, sometimes makes no sense. Either way, they do reveal a penchant for distortion. When a journalist in Newton, Mass., (an affluent, liberal suburb of Boston) lost his job for writing of the gay-affirming Queen James Bible, “If you ask me, it sounds like the Gaystapo is well on its way…We must fight back against the enemy,” Starnes spun it as “Newspaper editor fired for criticizing ‘gay’ Bible.” In other words, the issue is no longer about someone getting fired for using derogatory slurs in print, it’s about a growing climate of anti-Christian bigotry in Obama’s America. (Imagine if an LGBT commentator called for a war against Christians. One wonders if Starnes would defend journalistic independence then.)
Similarly, when President Obama signed an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, the lack of an exemption for religious organizations wasn’t just an assault on religious freedom—it also proves that gays are the true enemy. Starnes said, “As I wrote in my new book, God Less America, this administration believes gay rights trump everyone else’s rights—including religious rights…And woe be to any Christian American who refuses to comply.”
Let’s unpack this, because it’s actually very cerebral, with none of the visceral oomph that animated past generations of haters. Jerry Falwell could depict gays as scary because fewer gay people were out in the 1980s and ‘90’s, and the community was politically weaker. Shrewdly, Starnes is barely making any moral arguments about sin or sex or AIDS because it’s too risky now; almost everyone in America knows an open, well-adjusted gay person. Instead, he’s making a highly abstract argument where equality is actually inequality, gay rights only come at the expense of religious rights, and being told that you can’t make discrimination a part of your business model if the government is your customer represents some apocalyptic knockout blow. Throw in some overheated terms like “militant” and “jack-booted,” plus some scare-quotes around “gay,” and the rhetorical passion seems to roar back in, but Starnes’ tactic is really a Hail Mary pass. That abstract argument is fashionable now, and Starnes’ ascent rests entirely on hitting it home again and again—because there almost no other avenues for anti-gay furor left anymore.
As always, there’s tension between ignoring people whose primary role is to troll American society and keeping close tabs on their hateful rhetoric because it merits a response. Ann Coulter is clearly a performance artist who’s content to keep a low profile for months at a time before resurfacing with some over-the-top nonsense, like a fading pop star who drops new singles at staggered intervals to stay relevant. Lack of media oxygen will eventually do her in. But Starnes isn’t just a reactionary; he hammers away at his bêtes-noires daily. He should be watched.
Still, there’s reason to be optimistic. While the war is far from over, it’s clear that the forces of LGBT equality are, for the most part, winning. (Maggie Gallagher and Orrin Hatch, hardly softies, have both conceded that nationwide same-sex marriage is inevitable.) But Todd Starnes’ target demo—older, aggrieved, largely Christian White America—always already believes itself to be a persecuted remnant. Therefore, defiant adherence to the values that made this country great makes them the “Real Minority.” Therefore, Starnes’ entire strategy will only work if that is in part true and institutional homophobia is a dying force in American politics. He might be America’s #1 homophobe, and also its last.