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Marco Rubio’s bigoted fight with the U.S. military just got worse

When it comes to LGBTQ Americans, the Republican Party has traded its dog whistle in for a train whistle.

When it comes to LGBTQ Americans, the Republican Party has traded its dog whistle in for a train whistle.

This week, for example, during a legislative hearing on a bill that would make it a misdemeanor to use a bathroom that doesn’t match the sex a person was assigned at birth, Florida state Rep. Webster Barnaby called transgender people “demons” and “mutants.” 

“The Lord rebuke you, Satan, and all of your demons and all of your imps who come parade before us,” Barnaby thundered. “That’s right, I called you demons and imps, who come and parade before us and pretend that you are part of this world.”

Barnaby quickly apologized. But his comments, like many political gaffes, told an unpleasant truth: that bigotry and open hostility underpin the GOP’s continuing assault on the rights of transgender and other LGBTQ people. 

Indeed, Barnaby could take a lesson from Florida’s senior Republican senator, Marco Rubio, in how to use greater subtlety when being bigoted toward gay Americans.

Rubio is suggesting that gay, trans or non-binary service members are simply not tough enough to fight America’s wars.

On Wednesday, Rubio tweeted a short video by Lt. j.g. Audrey Knutson of the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Knutson, who identifies as nonbinary, spoke glowingly about their opportunity to read a poem at an LGBTQ spoken word night while stationed on an aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford. According to Knutson: “My grandfather served in the Navy in World War II. He was on board the USS Hornet. And he — it means a lot for me to be able to join the Navy, because he was a gay man in the Navy, and he had a really difficult service. So for me to join as nonbinary is really powerful to me and something that I’m certainly proud of.” 

For most Americans, this would be an inspiring story of service to one’s country. If not for the fact Knutson is nonbinary, one could easily imagine Rubio, who has never served in the military, praising it.

But instead, Knutson’s experience worries Rubio. “While China prepares for war this is what they have our @USNavy focused on,” he tweeted.

In relying on the most juvenile of gay stereotypes, Rubio is suggesting that gay, trans or nonbinary service members are simply not tough enough to fight America’s wars, especially against a rising power like China. Writing poetry is for sensitive emo kids, not killers. (Maybe someone should buy Rubio a book by Siegfried Sassoon.) 

It’s not every day you see a senator denigrating a member of the U.S. military, and it’s far from clear how an LGBTQ spoken word night undermines America’s ability to “prepare for war.” Indeed, one might argue that building camaraderie and acceptance in a diverse institution like the military is essential to enhancing unit cohesion. At a time when enlistment numbers in the military are in steep decline (the military missed its recruitment goals by 25% last year), welcoming all Americans — no matter their backgrounds or sexual orientations — seems more important than ever. 

A quick perusal of the Ford’s website shows that the Navy places an increasingly high premium on inclusivity and diversity. For example, to celebrate Black History Month in February, the ship’s Multicultural Heritage Committee presented a historical skit and dance performance. In March, the ship celebrated International Women of Color Day. And in October, the Ford marked Hispanic Heritage Month (Rubio is of Cuban descent) with the “sounds of drums” and chanting.

In their complaints, Rubio and Roy are showing their true and ugly colors.

Those appear of lesser concern to Rubio than acceptance of the LGBTQ community. In a 2022 report titled “Woke Warfighters,” Rubio and his co-author, Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, complained that policies to train service members about “transgender service policy” are “purported to make our armed forces more inclusive and compassionate, but they are harmful to the people they claim to help and are sapping our combat readiness.”

Among their specific concerns is an Army recruitment video spotlighting “a little girl raised with two moms” who joined the military to “find [her] inner strength — and maybe shatter some stereotypes along the way.” Rubio and Roy are also unhappy that “the Air Force updated its writing guide to allow airmen and guardians to include pronouns in their signature block.”

According to the two lawmakers, “Focusing on what is different among us, rather than that which unites us, only serves to foster division and discontent among service members.”

How is showing openness to LGBTQ members of the military fostering division? Wouldn’t preventing nonbinary members from including pronouns in their signature blocks encourage discontent? 

In their complaints, Rubio and Roy are showing their true and ugly colors. From their perspective, the only views that matter are the ones of people who don’t approve of or acknowledge the humanity of LGBTQ service members. In short, Rubio and Roy are siding with the bigots. 

They’re not alone. In nearly a dozen states, Republicans have over the past several months passed legislation banning gender transition care for trans youths. In Kentucky, which has perhaps the most draconian policy in the country, doctors will now be compelled to stop treating patients who have already started to transition. The law also prevents school districts from requiring or even recommending that students be allowed to socially transition by using pronouns that “do not conform to a student’s biological sex as indicated on the student’s original, unedited birth certificate.”

Some Republicans argue that their real goal in banning youth gender therapies is to protect trans kids, but how is preventing a trans or gender-fluid kid from using their preferred pronouns helping them? Indeed, one of the chief sponsors of the Kentucky bill, Rep. Josh Calloway, claims the legislation is fundamentally about “parental control” and giving “parents the opportunity to be able to redirect their [child’s] life.” But what if parents decide they want to support their trans children’s desire to socially transition?

Again, the bigotry and hatred are right there on the surface. They don’t consider transgender youths to be legitimate members of society. Like the anti-gay bigots of yore, they seem to believe that trans youths can be “redirected” or “converted.”

And transgender children’s rights and interests are of secondary importance to the impact their gender choices have on others — and of course not those who embrace and honor their transitions, but rather those who oppose them.

It’s the same mindset that has led to howls of protest over Bud Light’s recent decision to hire a trans TikTok star to market its product and sell beer. In simply acknowledging that trans people exist and might want to drink low-calorie beer, it’s presented as a slight to conservatives. The hurt feelings of the latter — and their discomfort with trans people — must trump all. 

In a way, then, one has to almost appreciate Rep. Barnaby for saying the quiet part out loud. At least he wasn’t trying to sugarcoat his bigotry with euphemism and concern trolling. But calling out such blatant and shocking hostility is easy. It’s the insidious and escalating ways Republicans continue to devalue and denigrate the LGBTQ community — and treat its members as somehow lesser Americans — that should be of even greater concern. And it should be called out for what it is — blatant and appalling bigotry.