As a professional opposition researcher — a “queer spy” who gets paid to infiltrate the right wing — I found that my attempts to blend in at the National Religious Broadcasters’ annual convention last month could best be described as awkward-Christian-femme.
My regular wardrobe is some combination of city-cyclist-functional meets aspiring-dapper-butch. But when I go undercover to monitor right-wing events, I skip my monthly trip to the barber, hitch a dainty gold cross around my neck, and attempt to wear something that would make my mom proud.
Like I said, it’s awkward.
Fortunately, people see what they want to see. And in this crowd, people desperately want to see evidence that their message and mission has traction among millennials — that even if the gays can get married and 70 percent of young Americans think that’s just fine, Christian fundamentalism isn’t dying.
So my short hair is seen as trendy, the undeniable butchness of my posture and gait are deemed “confident,” and my carefully trimmed fingernails are read as practical.
Regardless, “awkward” is a small price to pay to expose the forces leading the attack on LGBT people, women, immigrants and undocumented people, Muslims, people of color, and poor folks. Trust me, I know how tempting it can be to turn our backs on the ideologies, actions, and rhetoric of the right. But understanding the strategy of those who inflict harm on our bodies, our spirits, our families, and our communities is a crucial part of dismantling these oppressive structures in the pursuit of justice and liberation. As they say, keep your friends close, but spy on those who think your existence will incite Armageddon.
So here I am the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center. Aside from a few Las Vegas monstrosities, the Opryland is the largest noncasino hotel in the world. With nearly 3,000 guest rooms and more than 600,000 square feet of meeting space, the venue is equipped to host massive events. As it’s located in Nashville (often referred to as the “Buckle of the Bible Belt,”) it should come as no surprise that the hotel is a popular destination for some of the most conservative large-scale convenings in the country.
This week, it’s the National Religious Broadcasters’ annual convention, Proclaim16. In 2010, the resort hosted the first National Tea Party Convention, featuring everyone’s favorite antifeminist, Sarah Palin.
Among the big names scheduled to grace the stage over the next four days are Republican presidential candidates Ben Carson and Ted Cruz (along with his fundamentalist Christian father, Rafael Cruz); Chick-fil-A champion and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; megachurch pastor Rick Warren; Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby; and countless other less recognizable but equally powerful leaders of the Christian right.
Of the estimated 4,800 participants gathered here, most are affiliated with one of NRB’s more than 1,400 member organizations, which include some of the most infamous right-wing institutions in the country. These proud patrons include organizations designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as extremist hate groups, including the Family Research Council and American Family Association, in addition to numerous organizations of similarly nefarious caliber like Focus on the Family, Alliance Defending Freedom, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and NumbersUSA.
The scene here is a mix of suits and ties, sensible church-lady floral, and hip missionary casual. But make no mistake: These are the folks responsible for (among other things) crafting legislation that effectively legalizes discrimination against LGBT people under the guise of protecting “religious freedom,” for stoking the flames of Islamophobia and nativist white supremacy, and for chipping away at comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services around the world.
This is where it gets tricky, though, because the vast majority of people I've encountered here are salt-of-the-earth friendly. They are the kind of people who greet you with a smile, express genuine interest in how you’re doing, and would give you the shirt off their back if ever you asked (even if they knew you were a big ’mo).
Case in point: Within 10 minutes of knowing me, a woman I meet during a lunch event with Rick Warren on Wednesday afternoon offers to take a trip to the Washington, D.C., Department of Motor Vehicles on my behalf in order to help sort out a problem I was having with my driver’s license.
This sweet Good Samaritan — I’ll call her Sarah — works for the Becket Fund, a conservative legal organization best known for representing Hobby Lobby in the 2014 Supreme Court case that effectively turned corporations into churches by granting them the right to apply for religious exemptions.
Sarah and I — two of the youngest people in the room and (for the time being) two of the only lady-identified attendees at NRB’s annual Pastors’ Lunch — quickly dive deep into conversation, discussing the nuances of religious freedom, civil rights, Christian hegemony, patriarchy, and our personal experiences of marginalization and oppression. Sarah’s a Mormon, and evangelicals are notorious for giving members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints side-eye that would make any drag queen proud.
As for my experience of oppression? At some point in our conversation, I determine that Sarah is a person I can trust, and I come out to her. (Sorry to disappoint — I’m actually a terrible queer spy.) Sarah, who has already disclosed having more progressive politics than most of her colleagues, doesn’t bat an eye.
And so we dive deeper. We talk about spiritual violence and how it manifests, about the ways in which suicide has affected our lives, about the stigma attached to mental illness, about the consequences of limited access to abortion services, and about the internal rifts within our communities and the polarization between them. We both acknowledge a need for dialogue and express deep appreciation for the way in which our conversation models the sort of honesty, vulnerability, and respect that is necessary for two opposing viewpoints to find any sort of common ground.
After establishing some of that sacred common ground, though, Sarah asks the inevitable question: Is it possible for someone to hold fast to the belief that homosexuality is wrong and still love a gay person fully?
Looking across the table at this kind, gentle, sincere, and giant-hearted woman, I find it difficult to admit the truth. It’s hard to confess that, as much as I want to find some middle path for us to traverse together, I don’t actually believe that any amount of theological gymnastics will allow for these two realities to coexist. You cannot love me fully and simultaneously deny my queerness. To do so would be to love an incomplete and fragmented version of myself — a version of myself that fails to respect the fullness of God’s creation.
As we parted ways, I found myself feeling both grateful and utterly depleted. I was grateful for the opportunity of an authentic connection, but depleted by the reality of what’s on the line for me. I’m not fighting for the right to deny certain forms of health care to my employees or to refuse services to LGBT customers. I’m fighting for my humanity. I’m fighting for my right to exist. I’m fighting for my right to move through the world safely in a gender-complicated body with the basic dignity I deserve as a fellow human, regardless of whether I’m rocking a fitted vest and newsie hat with a fresh undercut or my very best middle-America church-lady drag.
AGENT QQ-7 is an undercover operative of the Queer Mafia. They take their martinis shaken, stirred, or any way but straight.