Last Thursday, Republican Sen. Mike Enzi spoke to a group of middle- and high-school students in Greybull, Wyoming. During the Q&A, a sophomore named Bailee Foster asked Enzi what he was doing “to improve the life of the LGBT community in Wyoming.” Enzi responded by explaining that “in Wyoming you can be just about anything you want to be, as long as you don’t push it in somebody’s face.” He continued:
I know a guy who wears a tutu and goes to bars on Friday night and is always surprised that he gets in fights. Well, he kind of asks for it. That’s the way that he winds up with that kind of problem.
Enzi has since apologized for his “poor choice of words,” but some conservatives have defended him as a brave truth-teller. On Thursday, Erick Erickson penned an article titled “You Will Get Punched and Others Have Rights Too,” asserting that Enzi “has enraged the BLT&GQ community by declaring a simple fact.” Erickson wrote that “the dude wearing the tutu shoulders some of the responsibility,” and although did not “deserve it,” he still “should have known better.”
“And spare me the tirade about Matthew Shepherd,” Erickson added, without further elaboration.
The thesis of Erickson’s piece appears to be that gender nonconformity is an “unnecessary afront [sic] to common decency” and that gender nonconforming people should sometimes suppress their identity to avoid “offend[ing]” others. That argument aligns with Erickson’s view on transgender people, whom he has described as “perverts and the mentally ill.” It also complements his personal brand of homophobia, as laid out in a book he coauthored with Bill Blankschaen titled You Will Be Made to Care. In one chapter, Erickson and Blankschaen criticize a New Jersey jury for finding JONAH, a gay “conversion” therapy group, guilty of fraud and unconscionable practices. Erickson and Blankschaen assert that JONAH “enabled hundreds to overcome same-sex attraction,” calling the group “a labor of love.”
Here’s what that “labor of love” looked like in practice:
In one group activity, clients held hands to create a human chain while one person stood behind the chain holding two oranges, meant to represent testicles. Clients then took turns standing on the other side of the chain while the rest of the group shouted anti-gay slurs at them. The goal was to goad clients into pushing through the chain and grabbing the oranges. At one particularly atrocious session, a counselor instructed [a client] to select someone from the group to role-play his past abuser. The selected participant was made to yell abusive statements that [the client’s] abuser had made, such as “I won’t love you anymore if you don’t give me blowjobs.”
[One counselor] asked most of his clients to undress while he watched. He also instructed at least one client to beat an effigy of his mother with a tennis racket while screaming, as if murdering her. Another JONAH counselor told a client to wear a rubber band around his wrist and snap it every time he felt attraction to a man. And JONAH counselors frequently told their clients to go to bathhouses with their fathers in order to be naked in their presence.
Erickson’s anger at men who wear tutus to bars in Wyoming is quite similar to his rage at the New Jersey jury for concluding that efforts to alter one’s orientation are fraudulent. After all, what Erickson really yearns for is a society where each of us is empowered to police gender expression and enforce sex stereotypes. The notion that men mustn’t wear tutus, or any “feminine” attire at all, is a sex stereotype; so is the idea that men must only have sex with women. Erickson and Enzi want us all to conform to the gender roles laid out for us at birth. If we publicly deviate from these roles and get assaulted—well, we really “should’ve known better.”
This proposition strikes me as startlingly illiberal, though it is certainly in keeping with the right’s swerve toward a Putin-esque imposition of traditional values upon society at large. The bathroom fight is one part of this campaign, as is the effort to let business owners turn away same-sex couples. Religious conservatives resent trans people for rejecting their biblically prescribed vision of gender and still demanding basic rights; similarly, they object to same-sex couples’ insistence that their marriages are valid and equal. In response, these conservatives attempt to bar trans people from public bathrooms and prevent same-sex couples from getting married. (Having lost the latter battle, they are now striving to legalize discrimination against same-sex couples, ensuring that they will still be degraded in the public square.)
But Enzi and Erickson do not merely wish to see the state impose gender norms upon us all. They also want to normalize private violence against individuals who violate these stereotypes. (Bathroom laws have already created this reality for gender nonconforming people.) Yet those stereotypes are simultaneously broad and ill-defined; in his article, Erickson condemns “skinny jeans” and “makeup” on men in addition to tutus. Where, exactly, does he draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable gender expression? And where are the safe zones? Are gender nonconforming people safe anywhere outside of a few big cities in America? Must they always fear brutality if they dare to go to a bar—or even use the bathroom?
These are questions that LGBTQ people face every day in Putin’s Russia. They are not, or should not be, appropriate in Wyoming, or any other part the country. Ours is a nation dedicated to free expression, due process, equal protection, and individual liberty. Enzi and Erickson’s anti-LGBTQ admonitions cannot be squared with these very basic principles of American life. They should leave gender policing to autocrats like Putin. That kind of nasty, brutish repression has no place in the United States.