Red state queer resistance
'We don’t want to have to be 'brave' all the time. It’s exhausting.'
Part I: 'We will not co-exist.'
A Montana elected Republican official with a history of threatening violence against LGBTQ people trained his bigotry on Zoey Zephyr, the first transgender woman to be elected to the Montana Legislature.
Aaron J. Leas, who according to his Gab social media bio, is a Montana Oath Keeper, combat veteran, Christian, and “Elected Precinct 20 Captain of East Helena,” described Zephyr as a “mentally unfit drag pedophile tranny F*ggot.”
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In July, posts from Leas’ Gab account caused controversy when he made threats to “Shut this demonic preying on children down” when the Montana Book Company in Helena hosted a Drag Queen Story hour. Another commenter replied to Leas, “Take note of the people organizing this. The veneer of civil society is crumbling. I hope enough men are still men when that time comes.”
In a piece about the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooter who killed 11 people and wounded six who frequently posted there, The Atlantic called Gab a “de facto home to extremist figures who have been booted off mainstream social networks for threats, inciting violence, or promoting racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic ideas.”
After claiming Zephyr and nonbinary official SJ Howell were both “mentally unsound” and belonged in an asylum, Leas said, “I could imagine these demons being dealt with in a Muslim country properly,” presumably referring to the fact some theocratic countries imprison or give death sentences to LGBTQ people.
In one July discussion, a commenter told Leas, “Wait till you meet some real Americans. 70% approve of gay marriage. Get out of your bubble.”
Leas responded, “No we don’t support f*ggots, or their degenerate way of life, it should be punishable by death. F*ggots are nothing but bottom dwellers, the scum of society. Thats (sic) putting it nicely.”
When someone defended LGBTQ allies and said they aren’t “child groomers,” Leas lashed out them as being a “groomer.”
“Your lifestyle is degenerate, and you will all be destroyed eventually,” he said. “We will not co-exist.”
So much for free speech in the marketplace of ideas.
To those who helped elect Zephyr and Howell, Leas ominously concluded: “There are consequences for this, to which you have ignored. The pendulum will swing back the other way. Then all your cries will fall on deaf ears. Cause you simply refused to respect our societal boundaries.”In a follow-up post Leas said, “…tr*nnies have no place in society”, before while repeating all his slurs again.
Pic: Conservative political discourse in 2023 Montana.
With his views that being LGBTQ should be “punishable by death” and “they will all be destroyed,” if this sounds conducive to domestic terrorism, it’s because it is.
Dictionary.com defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of violence or threats to intimidate or coerce a civilian population or government, with the goal of furthering political, social, or ideological objectives” and “intimidation or coercion by instilling fear.”
While Leas quotes Biblical scriptures to justify his desire to put LGBTQ people to death, figure, if he twisted verses from the Quran to do so, he’d be on a federal “no fly list.” As it is, he’s a Republican official associated with the party.
Part II: ‘It is critical that you take a personal interest in your own safety’
Because I am a trans woman who worked as a lobbyist during the 2021 session, a reporter recently reached out to ask what I thought of Zephyr being elected. Unfortunately, I missed the email as I’d been caught up writing a novel about coming out trans in Montana while in Las Vegas during a writing fellowship.
While I would’ve said I nearly cried tears of joy upon hearing this brilliant young woman had officially won her election because that representation was so important to our not only the trans community, but generally socially conservative Montana, legitimate concern for her safety was not in the back of mind, but forefront especially in light of the Lea's threats.
For my own efforts of working at the Capitol in 2021, I’d been targeted by far-right darling and (former) pastor Jordan “J.D.” Hall who wrote a hit-piece against me in the Montana Daily Gazette saying I harassed Republican legislators, including a fabricated incident claiming I got up in the face of a 75-year-old state senator and yelled at him until someone whisked him away and the Sergeant-At-Arms was brought over.
Ignoring his many troll-ish transphobic “jokes” and even stunningly racist remarks regarding me and my colleagues Indigenous heritage, for example, how he supposedly testified against bills that’d “prevent doctors from massacring children’s genitalia like a redux of Wounded Knee,” as a veteran journalist, I knew the fabricated story about the Senator was particularly hazardous.
Pic: Screenshot from Hall's transphobic, racist, libelous hit piece. I am in the center.
As a soft-spoken introvert who’d warily avoided even talking with Republican lawmakers outside of testimony, having such a narrative out there going unchallenged with zero proof beyond the alleged claims of two “anonymous” Republican officials would not only get me banned from the Capitol or get me fired, but put me in physical danger as well if people wanted revenge for me supposedly picking on a grandfatherly man.
I told him this when I immediately asked for a retraction, and he flatly refused. So, I studied law, and served him a libel civil lawsuit focusing solely on that incident. Seeing I had a great case, attorney Raph Graybill of the Graybill Law Firm and Upper Seven Law firm agreed to take me as a plaintiff.
Since Graybill was the former candidate for Montana Attorney General, Hall set to work immediately publicizing and politicizing the trial, writing a piece called, “First Amendment challenged in court by Graybill, Crossdresser.”
In that piece (and in social media and public) Hall fallaciously claimed I filed a lawsuit against him for “transphobia” and “misgendering” me. Figure, telling gullible audiences “I’m being sued for misgendering” someone doesn’t stoke as much fire and ire as “libel” or bearing false witness does if you’re a pastor.
Hall used these falsehoods against me to promote theocracy at 28 venues across Montana in the “Keeping The Blue Dots at Bay” and “God, Country, Family” tours with speeches titled, “Democrats Are Religious, But Godless.”
He bragged of bringing in tens of thousands of dollars in fundraising against me while mocking my Go Fund Me page to help cover my legal filing costs which had brought in some $400.
It was surreal watching him preach Sunday sermons on Facebook Live with my picture on a monitor as he told people where I’d be giving a lecture so as to find me at a public library.
(The Humanities Montana lecture was about how trans people existed in Indigenous cultures since time immemorial.)
He made more racist comments and went after Graybill, telling one crowd, “I suppose the Lord was not sufficient in me taking the scalp of a confused man in a dress in a legal courtroom, and instead he wants me to take the head of a giant. I’ll be happy to oblige the king of kings and the lord of lords and take out whoever he wants.”
Hall held an rocket-propelled grenade in one pic with the caption, “Want me to shut up about the LGBTQ? No.” On the picture were the words, “RPG is just a metaphor, but it’s appropriate.”
Pic: from court filings.
Hinting at violence while quickly claiming it was “metaphoric” became his standard modus operandi.
“I refuse to be a paper target for the trans mafia that thinks they’re going to shoot and not get shot back at,” he said to another crowd. “And I speak metaphorically in case anyone is wondering, although, literally, if things change, I’ll let you know. But for now, metaphorically.”
In yet another instance, he said, “Listen, don’t jack with the army of the living God because they’ll kill you. Take that as metaphorically if you want. … And if you’re watching on the video, it’s a metaphor, alright! Deal with it. Maybe. Possibly. It’s probably a metaphor.”
An audience member shouted, “Probably, for all you know!”
I am pacifist. Hall, on the other hand, called himself a “preacher who despises pacifism” after posting a pic of a book he was reading called, “When Violence Is the Answer.”
Politicians who saw me nearly every day at the state Capitol knew I was that soft-spoken, mousey, polite, trans woman in black dresses who—whether they agreed with my position or not—gave well-researched, law-based testimonies and literally never bothered any of them beyond their not liking my true and based takes.
Yet some of those same far-right politicians and leaders were sharing a stage with someone declaring I personally harassed them and their Republican colleagues and whose church’s website said being LGBTQ was a “disease-ridden, child-molesting, scat-smothering, disgusting and gross habit.”
Perhaps Hall only said the quiet parts out loud that they apparently agreed with. It was politically expedient to agree with him or remain silent. In a religious blog called Protestia, Hall wrote, “Not a single Republican in Montana would refuse my call, including the governor, who I prayed with on the phone only recently.”
Pic: Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen showing love for Hall's libelous enterprise.
One must keep throwing red state meat to the ravenous culture vultures to keep them fed, after all.
In another Hall-led rally, State Sen. Theresa Manzella said LGBTQ people having to live in fear while walking down the street were “normal consequences associated with the choices they made.” She’d defiantly post on Facebook in response to the backlash, “My right to live a righteous lifestyle based on my sincerely held beliefs does not end where their choice to live a perverse lifestyle begins.”
In January, my attorneys and I were forced to file sanctions as Hall held rallies in the town of Great Falls where the trial was supposed to take place, which grew even more worrisome as even he lambasted the judge who was to preside. Among those in attendance and in support of Hall was the so-called “Constitutional” Sheriff Jesse Slaughter, who’s been called an extremist by the Montana Human Rights Action Network.
On Feb. 1, 2022 Montana District Court Judge John Parker wrote a memo in reference to our case to the Cascade County Bar Association stating:
I urge each of you to review the news reports and bear security issues closely in mind during times when you and your clients have business in the courthouse. It is critical that you take a personal interest in your own safety and the safety of your clients, your colleagues, court personnel and judges.
Pic: the local Sheriff in the county where my trial was to be held didn't inspire much confidence in my personal safety.
One person, who’d been echoing Hall’s words and even ran a newspaper advertisement expressing support for him, traveled more than 200 miles from Great Falls to Billings looking to confront me, bizarrely claiming I engaged in some Q Anon-type “child porn cover-up.”
I’ve never even spoken to this individual.
While I’m glad he never found me, political leaders and pastors of Hall’s ilk must realize unhinged people will take their dangerous rhetoric as literal gospel and act upon it. Soon after, that same person who came looking for me sent out a lengthy, rambling email about me to hundreds of politicians in the state espousing his incoherent theories.
Hall ended up filing for bankruptcy the day before his sanction hearing as consequence of my lawsuit, leaving Montana in the proceeding months after being charged with a Xanax-induced DUI, being investigated for stealing more than $10,000, and allegedly strangling and threating family members, according to police reports.
In one of Hall’s last sermons before he left Montana, he spoke of the “Thou shalt not kill,” the Sixth Commandment.
“I’m a dangerous man when I have to be,” he said. “I’ll confess to you right now: I’v seriously thought about putting people in the ground.”
One couldn’t help but think, especially after bankrupting him and destroying his credibility, such eerie words were pointed at me.
I still fear one day I’ll walk outside and one of his supporters or him will be waiting for me.
Part III: They just wanted to dance
Early Sunday morning on Nov. 20, or Transgender Day of Remembrance honoring those violently killed for being trans, I came back from a LGBTQ-friendly goth club in Las Vegas.
While I don’t drink or do drugs, I was riding a natural, euphoric high. Coming from Montana, hanging in a place playing music I actually like where I can close my eyes, sway, dance and just be me without having to look over my shoulder and worry about my safety just for being trans feels like such a relief and blessing to my soul.
After the 2016 Orlando LGBTQ nightclub shooting which killed 49 people, author Jeramey Kraatz summed up my feelings when he wrote on Twitter, “If you can’t wrap your head around a bar or club as a sanctuary, you’ve probably never been afraid to hold someone’s hand in public.”
Pic: I feel this tweet.
As I laid down in bed that night, I opened the Twitter app and saw a Tweet by a young woman pleading for updates about the Club Q in Colorado Springs which had been hosting their weekly drag show night.
“PLEASE TELL ME!!” she said. “I HAVE FRIENDS THAT PERFORM THERE. I’M THERE EVERY WEEK IF ANYONE FINDS ANYTHING OUT PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE TELL ME”.
The late-night breaking story of the Colorado Springs massacre, which has so far killed at least five with two in critical condition while wounding more than 20, hadn’t even been on any news outlet yet. I felt the young woman’s panic and desperation through the screen. A few minutes later someone told her two of her friends were OK, but a third was in the hospital and they were waiting for updates on them.
I couldn’t imagine the horror those in Colorado Springs must have felt. Then, to have that peace I had just been feeling shattered, I cried thinking about the pain for all of those involved.
They just wanted to dance.
To be free.
To be themselves.
Pic: Club Q victims who died.
For too many, LGBTQ lives are a disposable culture war pawns and an imagined threat which must be dehumanized, cowered and silenced. The very town of Colorado Springs has the fundamentalist Christian-based Focus On the Family headquarters with a near $100 million budget that includes lobbying against LGBTQ people.
Pastor Kevin Swanson, popular amongst GOP politicians, who resides just an hour north of Colorado Springs in Elizabeth, echoes Leas when he said, “Yes, Leviticus 20:13 calls for the death penalty for homosexuals. I am willing to go to jail for standing on the truth of the word of God.”
While many conservatives will go through the motions of saying no one deserves to get shot, they’ll also find pedantic red herrings to cling and gaslight the victims targeted because they were in an LGBTQ bar, parroting outrage industry narratives of politicians and pundits who yell about us being “groomers” and “pedophiles.”
Stochastic terrorism is “the public demonization of a person or group resulting in the incitement of a violent act, which is statistically probable but whose specifics cannot be predicted.”
But unfortunately, what happened in Colorado Springs was all too predictable. What do people think is going to happen and keep happening with constant brain rotting anti-LGBTQ propaganda of constantly calling all of us pedophiles and groomers?
To conservatives who don’t speak out against such rhetoric, your silence is complicit and enabling.
Part IV: ‘Hatred will start to rot you from the inside if you're not careful’
In June 2022, Leah Sottile wrote a piece for The Guardian titled, “Hunting hate: what it takes to be an extremism reporter.”
Her mentor, Idaho-based journalist Bill Morlin, spent decades exposing hate groups at his own peril which included racists planting a bomb outside his office. It seemed a cruelty the racism and bigotry he spent his life’s work against has only gotten worse in the last few years, with white supremacists using anti-LGBTQ rhetoric as a recruiting tool. In June, thirty-one Patriot Front neo-Nazis were arrested for conspiring to riot during a North Idaho Pride event.
Sottile wrote of the struggle to not become disillusioned:
If you don’t believe in the work, why else would you spend your days embedded in chats filled with racist memes, sit through interviews with people spouting hate, listen to audio files of racist preachers? Because make no mistake – this work will make you sick, it will haunt you. A full immersion into hatred will start to rot you from the inside if you’re not careful.
And that last part is something I must always keep in mind as someone who’s also written dozens of articles on LGBTQ-phobia and racism—including pieces this year detailing white supremacist groups.
Because of my own journalism work, in a recent Telegram chat, literal swastika waving Nazis called me a “Native tranny bitch” and proclaimed they were going to make me, “become who they fear” while suggesting bringing back “park patrols”—a reference to the early 2000s when in my hometown of Billings, Montana gangs of skinheads roved local parks and attacked minorities.
I see people writing things to me like, “We know where you are. You provided that during the 2021 session” in reference to my providing testimony against anti-LGBTQ legislation.
You witness first-hand as tensions rise like a tide as you try to warn people, and you’re not surprised when violence and overflow happens. “This isn’t who we are!” sounds naive.
You develop a sardonic humor to protect your psyche, knowing more anti-LGBTQ legislation is on the way as another Christofascist pastor celebrated by far-right republicans hosts a book burning with little kids forced to hold hands and participate.
As Sottile notes, “The hateful things you hear and see become etched into your brain and start to taint the way you see the world.”
But when you feel you may “start to rot you from the inside,” one has to take a deep breath, step back, and know there are plenty of people—even in red states—who are not self, but legit righteous, and aim to stand up for the old Montana adage of “Live and let live.”
While some may look up to me for standing tall against the conservative establishment as an oft edgy leftist with stylish flair, it didn’t come without near fatal consequences beyond threats.
I forget exactly what I wrote on Facebook in the early morning, a week after my October 2021 birthday which prompted the welfare check. But I felt so isolated I ended up with a brief stay in a psychiatric ward. I didn’t want to grow old if the next day, week, month, and years felt like that day all the time.
While normally an open book, that incident is something I rarely mention as conservatives would weaponize it against me as proof of my supposedly being “mentally ill” as a go-to insult seems to be at trans people.
Now, as queer as it sounds, I cling to the words of art next to my vanity mirror depicting Tank Girl putting on boots who’s saying, “I can’t let things be this way. We can be wonderful. We can be magnificent. We can turn this sh-t around.”
No, we are not caricatures of groomers and pedophiles as portrayed by angry political talking heads disgustingly call us. We’re simply people like you who yearn for friendship and affection, who feel heartache, who may even be struggling through the intense personal loss of loved ones—just like many of you reading this or those in Colorado Springs.
I myself had a brother a year younger than me murdered, and such pain became embedded in intense whirlpool of addiction which nearly drowned me. I now take it—as they say—day by day, and recently and proudly celebrated five hard-earned years of recovery with an oven pizza and slice of grocery store cake one quite Wednesday evening.
I had to learn to love myself enough to quit drinking—love myself enough to embrace being trans.
But I’m just one of many overlooked stories of resilience among “red state” queers who just want people to know beyond headlines lies the very real humanity of those needlessly targeted with bigotry and hate campaigns. But such simple stories that may provoke empathy are overlooked if one views us through a dehumanized lens, however.
We don’t want to have to be “brave” all the time. It’s exhausting. We just want to relax, close our eyes, sway like prairie grass in the wind as we listen to the beauty of life’s music, and not have to look over our shoulder wondering if some hater is going to target us for who we are.
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