CT isn't immune from anti-LGBTQ rhetoric spreading thanks to ‘bad actors’ on social media, report says

The Human Rights Campaign found 10 people on Twitter reached more than 48 million using slurs and spreading falsehoods about the LGBTQ community.

Photo of Daniel Figueroa IV
A "Trans Love" mural atop East Rock in New Haven before and after it was vandalized.

A "Trans Love" mural atop East Rock in New Haven before and after it was vandalized.

Daniel Figueroa IV/Hearst Connecticut Media

The mural atop New Haven’s East Rock with big, bold pink letters outlined in electric blue and set against a white back drop – the colors of the transgender pride flag, looked out over the Elm City like a proclamation.

“Trans Love,” the mural said, sending a message of inclusion and representation that has helped New Haven, Hartford, Norwalk, and Connecticut as a whole, earns praise from LGBTQ advocacy groups like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).

“States like Connecticut recognize that when everybody, when families are seen and celebrated, when LGBTQ folks are seen and celebrated, everybody is better off,” Justin Unga, HRC’s director of strategic initiatives, said. “We hope in places like Connecticut...people are using everything at their disposal to create a surround-sound of support rather than a surround sound of violence and hate.”

"Trans Love" mural atop East Rock in New Haven.

"Trans Love" mural atop East Rock in New Haven.

Daniel Figueroa IV/Hearst Connecticut Media

But according to a new report from the HRC and Center for Countering Digital Hate, the spread of anti-LGBTQ hate online is proliferating exponentially thanks to a few prominent "bad actors." And there are some real-world consequences. Unga said that rhetoric often leads to othering and acts of violence toward members of the LGBTQ community.

And the otherwise LGBTQ-friendly Nutmeg State isn’t insulated.

In early August, the East Rock “Trans Love” mural, along with much of the area surrounding the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, was vandalized and defaced. “D Boy was here” was written along ledges and signs. Crude, spray painted messages filled with graphic, sexually violent imagery saturated the concrete.

And the mural’s message — once a point of pride even for city staff — was completely blacked out. In its place, thick, black spray paint haphazardly slapped on a wall and shaky, thin letters in blue again reminding visitors that someone named D Boy once spent a few, rather destructive, minutes atop East Rock.

"Trans Love" mural atop East Rock in New Haven after it was vandalized.

"Trans Love" mural atop East Rock in New Haven after it was vandalized.

Daniel Figueroa IV/Hearst Connecticut Media

“It’s unfortunate. We don’t see it much,” Sean O’Grady with the New Haven parks department said. “Fortunately, this is a pretty diverse and accepting community. People in New Haven don’t really tolerate that behavior.”

Elsewhere in Connecticut, a “Tolland Democrats” sign on a private property adorned with the rainbow flag was spray-painted red in July. A witness described the act as one of vandalism and disdain for the message of the sign. The Tolland Town Council was among local leaders to condemned the vandalism. “We value the lives of our LGBTQ+ neighbors and their contributions to our community,” the town council said in a statement. “The Tolland Town Council condemns the vandalism that occurred on Sunday, July 17th and the hatred behind this targeted daytime attack of a pride flag painted on privately owned property.”

The Tolland Democratic Town Committee ended up painting a positive message stating “Love conquers all” in large, bold, white letters on top of the red spray paint and more than a dozen Pride flags border the sign.

After the Pride flag sign on Merrow Road in Tolland was vandalized, some volunteers got together to repair the sign.

After the Pride flag sign on Merrow Road in Tolland was vandalized, some volunteers got together to repair the sign.

Tolland Democratic Town Committee / Contributed Photo
The Pride sign that has been on Merrow Road in Tolland for a few years was sawed down overnight Thursday.

The Pride sign that has been on Merrow Road in Tolland for a few years was sawed down overnight Thursday.

Ryan McCann / Contributed Photo

The current climate surrounding the LGBTQ Community can make members of that community feel as though they are “under siege,” according to Patrick Dunn of the New Haven Pride Center.

"This incident is indicative of a larger wave of hate brewing nationally, and locally,” Dunn said in reference to the New Haven incident. “While to this person this may seem like a ‘no big deal’ destructive impulse, the trauma that it creates is very real for the LGBTQ+ community. In an environment where there is a very loud voice of hate targeting LGBTQ+ people, especially trans folks, means that this type of violent behavior and destruction of public art is very personal."

What's happening on a national level

According to the HRC report titled “Digital Hate: Social Media’s Role in Amplifying Dangerous Lies About LGBTQ+ People,” much of that “loud voice of hate” resonates from the Sunshine State. The report found use of slurs like “groomer” and “pedophile” surged more than 400 percent after HB 1557, more commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay or Trans Bill” was passed.

And the anti-LGBTQ messaging came directly from Republican Governor Ron DeSantis’ office, according to the report. His then-press secretary Christina Pushaw is among the 10 key figures the report found to have generated much of the “grooming” rhetoric. Those ten garnered a combined 48 million views for Tweets pushing the groomer narrative. On March 4, Pushaw called the measure an “anti-grooming” bill and tweeted: “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children.” The tweet likens the bill’s critics, members of the LGBTQ community and its allies to sexual deviants.

That tweet alone was seen more than two million times and the phrase “anti-grooming bill has been tweeted more than 44,000 times since, according to HRC data. HRC used the social analytic tool Brandwatch to sample nearly one million tweets posted between January and July that mention the LGBTQ community along with slurs like “groomer,” “predator,” and “pedophile.”

Pushaw is among the top five people driving what Unga called a “dangerous narrative.” Unga said social media is being used to amplify a "dangerous anti-LGBTQ rancor" to gain political notoriety and build a brand that's politically and financially profitable.“Social media is a platform that is creating animus against LGBTQ people and that needs to be called out. Full stop,” Unga said. “That needs to be called out. Social media cannot be a limitless platform to expand the McCarthysim ideas of today.”

The HRC warns that spread of misinformation leads to to the spread of violence. According to data from the FBI, around 20 percent of hate crimes are now related to anti-LGBTQ bias. And the HRC found that 2021 and 2022 have been the deadliest years for transgender individuals. NPR recently reported that far right groups are shifting focus to target LGBTQ events.

It’s also leading to legal consequence. HRC identified 344 bills as anti-LGBTQ in state houses across the country, with 25 passing.

“These bills and laws attack the LGBTQ+ community, particularly transgender and non-binary young people and their families, preventing them from accessing age-appropriate medical care, playing sports with their friends, or even talking about who they are in school,” HRC President Joni Madison said.

Unga said the most insidious part is that some leaders like DeSantis and Greene saw far-right extremism on display and capitalized on those movements to rally a political base by vilifying a marginalized community based on misinformation.  DeSantis used Connecticut to back his legislation, citing a federal case where Danbury High School students sued to block a Connecticut law allowing transgender athletes to compete in women’s sports. The suit claimed transgender women have inherent physiological advantages, though the claim is not backed by prevailing science. The suit was dismissed, but the decision is being appealed.

“If you are an elected official, you’ve got to take a hard look at yourself and what it is that you are doing with this type of rhetoric,” Unga said. “When you call them groomers, pedophiles or whatever, you’re contributing to the harm of your own constituents."

Representatives from the DeSantis office declined multiple requests for comment.

Connecticut among LGBTQ+ friendly states

The misinformation being spread runs counter to current trends in American ideology, Unga said. According to the Pew Research Center, 61 percent of young Republicans support pro-LGBTQ measures like same-sex marriage. And the American Values Atlas of the Public Religion Research Institute found nearly 80 percent of American adults support pro-LGBTQ measures.

The HRC even grades some cities based on support for LGBTQ initiatives. New Haven has a 73, Hartford scored a 72 and Norwalk got a perfect 100.

“We created Connecticut’s first local Commission on the Status of Women to review progress and assist in the elimination of any gender-based discrimination, which includes discrimination among marginalized gender identities such as transgender people and gender non-conforming people,” Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling said. “LGBTQ+ inclusivity permeates all aspects of our city, whether it’s through policies such as our city ordinance that states that all contractors hired by the city shall not discriminate against any person on the grounds of gender or sexual orientation, or when it comes to our Antidiscrimination Housing Ordinance that was amended in 2021 to reflect explicit non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people, by adding ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity or expression’ as protected characteristics.”

Unga said it’s time for social media companies to step-up and take responsibility for the spread of misinformation. The report found virtually all instances of hate-filled messages espousing misinformation went unchecked. Unga said that’s especially dangerous with a looming election that could shift the balance of power in many states and in the federal government.

“We are now in the throes of the Midterm Elections where we can expect the most dangerous actors — the most violent and dangerous actors — to be out there again spreading dangerous misinformation, calling LGBTQ people groomers and pedophiles,” Unga said. “It is important for us to recognize, while we are mid-election, that social media companies have this time to understand and correct the mistakes of the past.”