After the August shooting of a security guard at the antigay Family Research Council headquarters in Washington, D.C., in which the accused gunman was a former volunteer at an LGBT community center, it didn’t take long for right-wing groups to circulate their press releases. For the American Family Association, it was less than a day after the incident.
The AFA’s Bryan Fischer heaped blame on the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization that immediately denounced the shooting and rejected all violence, and since 2010 has listed the FRC as a hate group because of its persistent and malicious lies about LGBT people.
“[The SPLC] repeatedly and without cause demonized FRC, and have spent years stirring up anger in the homosexual community and directing that anger toward an organization whose only crime is to promote and defend the classic American values of faith, family, and freedom,” Fischer wrote in a blog post, adding, “The SPLC, by their own hateful and malicious rhetoric against FRC and AFA, essentially claimed responsibility for this shooting, and they too should be held to account in the court of public opinion.”
Family Research Council president Tony Perkins had something to say as well, of course, telling everyone who would listen that blame for the shooting should fall not only on the SPLC but also on the Obama administration’s “attack on religious freedom.”
The FRC shooting handed right-wing groups the perfect opportunity to sell the motto they’ve honed as of late: Gays are bullies and defenders of religion are their victims.
“Clearly, they thought about this and saw it as an opportunity to exploit what they see as persecution of their work by anybody who disagrees with them,” says Cathy Renna, the founder and managing partner of Renna Communications, a public relations agency specializing in LGBT clients. “They saw an opportunity to play the victim and exploit and hurt our community even more than they already do.”
Flipping the script is a common tactic for Maggie Gallagher, founder and former chair of the antigay National Organization for Marriage, who says her ilk faces a “wall of hatred” from gay people. Similarly, the Republican 2012 platform includes the following line: “We condemn the hate campaigns, threats of violence, and vandalism by proponents of same-sex marriage against advocates of traditional marriage and call for a federal investigation into attempts to deny religious believers their civil rights.”
Such messaging translates to tangible benefits for the right wing and harm for the gay people they work against. Of the shooting, Renna says, “The FRC is going to milk this for all it’s worth. They’re going to use it in speeches and write about it in fund-raising letters. It’s easy to think, No one will take these people seriously. They’re wrong, because this story went everywhere.”
Gay organizations need to get ahead of the news, Renna says, and stop playing defense. When speaking to the media, they must remind the public that fighting for one’s civil rights is not pushing an aggressive, radical agenda.
“We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” she says. The response to the shooting should have been to “condemn the act of violence, but also acknowledge the FRC for what it is—a hate group that would rather us not exist.”