A church commemorating Transgender Day of Remembrance in Washington, DC, November 2016 (Ted Eytan)
|Content warning: The following piece includes examples of hate and extremism.
Churches, synagogues, and other places of worship have found themselves in the crosshairs while in the pursuit for LGBTQ rights and safety. According to new findings from GLAAD and the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism, from June 2022 – January 2024, researchers documented at least 66 incidents in which religious institutions were targeted over their perceived support for and inclusion of LGBTQ people in the US. These incidents included arson, property theft and destruction, and threatening letters, emails, and phone calls — illuminating that religious institutions are not immune to the alarming rise of anti-LGBTQ hate sweeping the US.
Places of worship from all faith traditions, including churches, synagogues, mosques, gurdwaras, and Buddhist temples, are increasingly showing support for LGBTQ equality. These same acts – from the flying of rainbow banners, to Pride month services, to LGBTQ youth groups – are also garnering the attention of anti-LGBTQ extremists, making supportive religious institutions a target right alongside drag shows and health care clinics that serve transgender people .
GLAAD and ADL’s new findings include a number of high-profile cases, including the recent 18-year sentencing of Aimenn Penny, an alleged associate of the white supremacist “White Lives Matter” network, for his attempt to firebomb a church in Chesterland, Ohio in March 2023. According to police reports, Penny was angered by the church’s upcoming drag shows and sought to “save the children,” echoing familiar and false anti-LGBTQ tropes.
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The rising number of attacks against affirming religious institutions reflects growing research about the ways longtime extremist groups are attempting to expand their reach by targeting LGBTQ people and allies. These particular acts of extremism do not reflect a larger reality in faith communities. Research shows people of every faith support LGBTQ people, and a majority of LGBTQ people consider themselves religious. In recent weeks as well, Pope Francis has spoken up for LGBTQ people and relationships to be recognized, and stated that transgender people can be baptized, be godparents, and witness weddings. The Pope has also urged Catholic parents to accept their LGBTQ children.
“For years, anti-LGBTQ activists relied on the stereotype of LGBTQ condemnation from religious figures,” said Ross Murray, Vice President of the GLAAD Media Institute and ordained deacon.
“Now that religious communities are faithfully coming to the conclusion that the LGBTQ community should be safe from violence and welcomed into faith communities, anti-LGBTQ activists are turning to violence and intimidation on those faith communities. Faith leaders cannot back down or allow their voices to be silenced by a radical fringe, but must continue to stand for the safety and welcome of LGBTQ people.”
Here are a few examples of incidents tied to extremist groups targeting LGBTQ-inclusive religious institutions:
- March 2023: A synagogue in Nashville, Tennessee, reported that individuals associated with the white supremacist Active Club network placed anti-LGBTQ stickers on their doors which read: “F*ggots not welcome.”
- June 2023: 11 individuals associated with the antisemitic extremist group Goyim Defense League (GDL) demonstrated outside Temple Beth Israel in Macon, Georgia. Protestors shouted antisemitic and racist slurs, distributed flyers spreading false conspiracy theories about Jewish power and control, and even hung an effigy of a gay Jewish man outside the temple.
- October 2023: Individuals from a variety of white supremacist groups — including GDL, the Order of the Black Sun (OBS), and the American National Socialist White Workers Party (ANSWWP) — protested outside the Cathedral of Hope United Church of Christ in Dallas, Texas. Protestors waved swastika-covered flags, held signs reading “Protect white children” in rainbow lettering, and declared: “Sodom and Gomorrah were your warning,” referencing a Biblical passage many believe condemns homosexuality.
— Dallas Voice (@DallasVoice) January 10, 2024
Places of worship have also reported a number of threatening incidents from individuals with no known connections to extremist groups. For instance, in October 2023, an unknown person drove their car through six rainbow-colored doors displayed as part of a Pride exhibit in front of the United Christian Church in Renton, Washington. In another such example, someone set fire to a Pride flag hanging outside a Buddhist temple in Pasadena, California in April 2023 — destroying a hand-painted banner that flew undisturbed for years to represent the temple’s “fundamental commitment to nondiscrimination.”
These incidents come amidst a previous report by GLAAD and ADL that documented over 700 anti-LGBTQ hate and extremism incidents in the year following the tragic attack at Club Q in Colorado Springs.
The full Anti-LGBTQ+ Incidents Targeting Religious Institutions data set can be requested here.
The research in this article was made possible thanks to a partnership between ADL and GLAAD focused on countering anti-LGBTQ extremism and hate. Learn more about this critical partnership.