FEATURE | ‘I was really disgusted’: Hate, disinformation against LGBTQ grows in the US

  • Hate against LGBTQ people is growing in the US.
  • LGBTQ Americans are being accused of paedophilia.
  • Some people are profiting from the hate.

Waving a rainbow flag, Desmond Napoles ambled through a confetti-soaked pride parade – in defiance of a troubling disinformation campaign that sought to link LGBTQ Americans to paedophilia.

In June, the face of the 16-year-old model, fashion designer and activist from New York appeared in a doctored image that ricocheted across social media platforms, fuelling anti-LGBTQ hysteria that has reached a fever pitch in the United States.

Emerging from the darkest corners of the internet, the altered picture made it appear like a California pride parade participant had worn a shirt bearing Desmond’s face alongside a disturbing slogan: “Trans kids are sexy.”

The original photo, published in a southern California newspaper, showed the man wearing a plain white shirt as he marched during the festivities in 2021.

The manipulated version triggered a deluge of angry online comments accusing the participant of paedophilia, echoing a far-right conspiracy theory that LGBTQ people are “grooming” children. 

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Many people called for his death or castration.

“They were using it to make LGBTQ people look like ‘groomers’, and they were using my face,” Napoles told AFP at a glittering New York pride event last month.

Napoles added:

AFP identified the participant in the photo as a middle-aged gay man in California who said in a Zoom interview that he was in “disbelief” when a concerned friend showed him one of the abusive posts.

“I am sickened by people who are accusing us of being child molesters. This has to stop,” he said, requesting anonymity out of concern for his safety and privacy.

The menacing discourse facing Napoles and the California man – coupled with attempts by bad actors to profit off it – shows the real-world harms caused by the rising tide of anti-LGBTQ disinformation.

“God forbid that this were to grow, and that’s what scares me,” the man said.

The disinformation comes amid a sharp spike in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.

That includes false claims – amplified by conservative influencers – linking the community to paedophilia, a barrage of anti-transgender bills introduced by US lawmakers and right-wing boycotts that have targeted brands such as Target over their support of LGBTQ causes.

In June, the US Supreme Court ruled that certain private businesses can refuse service to same-sex couples on religious grounds.

“There has been an explosion in the hateful narrative that associates LGBTQ people with child abuse and ‘grooming’,” Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), told AFP.

“Hate actors spread these lies about LGBTQ people solely to dehumanise them and whip up fear – and it’s mirrored by an alarming rise in real-world violence.”

The altered image – which exploited an old photo that showed Napoles, then a teenage drag star, at an awards ceremony – appeared to originate on the fringe forum 4chan before spreading to other platforms including Twitter and TikTok.

“It just kept spreading and spreading. We didn’t know who was behind it or what was going on,” Napoles said.

LBGTQ activist Desmond Napoles (L), 16, and their

LBGTQ activist Desmond Napoles (L), 16, and their mother Wendy (C), march during the annual New York Pride march in New York City.

Adding to the horror, T-shirts and other merchandise – embossed with Napoles’s photo and the slogan “Trans kids are sexy” – suddenly became available for sale online.

They are advertised across dozens of dubious print-on-demand websites using overseas domain registrars.

Wendy, Napoles’s mother, said she spent hours trying to get some of them to take them down, but with little success.

“I’ve been emailing, just asking, saying: ‘You have a picture of my minor on your T-shirt, this is not acceptable,'” she told AFP.

Many of the websites appear interconnected – displaying similar layouts and sales pitches and listing matching contact information. According to online customer reviews, some have sold trademarked material and stolen artwork.

The websites, which also advertise hoodies and sweaters with the same image and slogan, did not respond to AFP’s request for comment.

The sites illustrate efforts to profit off anti-LGBTQ disinformation.

LBGTQ activist Desmond Napoles (R), 16, and their mother Wendy pose for a photo before marching in the annual New York Pride march in New York.

Members of Rise and Resist participate in the week

Members of Rise and Resist participate in the weekly ‘Truth Tuesdays’ protest at the News Corp headquarters in New York City.

According to one CCDH study this year, mentions of the “grooming” narrative more than doubled on Twitter since billionaire Elon Musk’s takeover last October. 

Just five prominent accounts notorious for promoting this falsehood were estimated to generate $6.4 million annually for Twitter in ad revenues, the study said.

Wendy said it was very hurtful that her child’s image was exploited to stir up hate and “to cause people to believe in something that isn’t real”.

“These people used it without thinking that there’s someone behind the image that they may be hurting,” she said. 

“It’s heartbreaking.”

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