by H. L. Comeriato, The Buckeye Flame
CW: Anti-LGBTQIA+ content, Nazism, and white supremacy.
Across the state, white supremacists are targeting LGBTQ+ communities, driving and capitalizing on a massive uptick in anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and legislation. This is how we got here — and why experts warn that a grim history could repeat itself.
In video footage posted to YouTube, they waved swastika flags and performed the “Hitler salute,” pounding their chests and screaming “Sieg, Heil!” in unison.
Blood Tribe’s leader and former U.S. Marine Christopher Pohlhaus led masked members in a series of violent call-and-response chants, including one notable declaration: “There will be blood.”
Just a few yards away — huddled beneath a stone park shelter — a small group of children listened to a local drag performer read out loud from a picture book.
In the wake of the incident, residents of the overwhelmingly white community expressed shock and disbelief, but experts said they aren’t surprised: Neo-Nazis and other white supremacist groups adhere to anti-LGBTQ+ ideologies designed to eradicate LGBTQ+ people — and displays of anti-LGBTQ+ violence and intimidation have historically been part of that process.
With a record-breaking number of anti-LGBTQ+ bills at the Ohio Statehouse, legal experts and historians say white supremacists are seizing the political moment, ramping up recruitment efforts and preparing to recreate across Ohio a violent and dangerous history.
For more than three years, The Buckeye Flame has embraced a solutions journalism framework, empowering Ohioans to shape their own futures and communities. However, experts and historians describe the most recent wave of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment and legislation as unprecedented and insidious — rooted in massive political narratives that frame LGBTQ+ people as threats to children, families and communities.
In Ohio and across the country, neo-Nazis and white supremacists have worked alongside conservative lawmakers to craft an anti-LGBTQ+ social and political strategy more effective than any other in the last 100 years.
Who are these anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups? How are conservative Republicans emboldening them? And why are experts warning that a grim history could repeat itself?
What is white supremacy?
Since 2015, the number of designated hate groups operating in Ohio has nearly doubled, corresponding with a national uptick in white supremacist, white nationalist and other hate-group activity.
Jake Newsome — a California-based writer, researcher and public historian with a Ph.D. and specialization in LGBTQ+ German, Jewish and American history — said the current influx of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and legislation can be traced back to the launch of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
“Some of [Trump’s] most extreme rhetoric involving racism, anti-semitism and homophobia had been previously pushed to the margins by mainstream society, but it slowly became more acceptable in politics,” Newsome said. “Suddenly, these ideas have a tiny, but growing platform. These [white supremacist] groups that had taken a hit suddenly felt like they had an ally. They felt more emboldened to take to the streets.”
In November, 2017, one year after Trump’s election, hundreds of white nationalists and white supremacists did exactly that during the ‘Unite the Right Rally’ in Charlottesville, Virginia, a protest that led to the death of a counter-protester mowed down by a neo-Nazi.
In video footage of the event, white supremacists chanted “You will not replace us!” — a direct reference to the white supremacist “great replacement” conspiracy theory, which falsely asserts that white Christians are being “replaced” by people of other races, ethnicities and religions.
White supremacists subscribe to fringe social and political ideologies rooted in the total superiority of white people, Western culture and Christianity. White nationalist groups like Patriot Front and the Proud Boys, along with Ohio-based hate groups Active Club and the National Justice Party, openly pursue a white ethnostate, where citizenship is granted exclusively to white people.
While neo-Nazis are typically white nationalists, groups like Blood Tribe also espouse a particular “hatred for Jews and a love for Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany,” according to experts at the Southern Poverty Law Center — a legal advocacy group that specializes in civil rights and tracks hate group activity across the country.
“One of the things that I think the media often misses is that all of these things are connected,” Newsome said. “It’s not that these neo-Nazis and right-wing groups are taking these actions in sequential order of who or what they hate the most. It’s happening all at the same time — and it’s all related.”
Why target LGBTQ+ Ohioans?
On the morning of March 26, Reverend Jess Peacock, who uses they/them pronouns, felt broken glass crunch beneath their boots on the way to unlock the doors of the Community Church of Chesterland in Northeast Ohio.
The night before, white supremacist and documented White Lives Matter Ohio member 20-year-old Aimenn Penny firebombed the church with a Molotov cocktail, hoping to torch the building ahead of a scheduled drag storytime event for children and families.
Two weeks earlier, Penny had appeared alongside members of Blood Tribe, Patriot Front and the Proud Boys during the drag storytime event in Wadsworth, where other White Lives Matter members held signs bearing anti-LGBTQ+ slurs and phrases, including “All f—— groom kids,” and “Children and f—— don’t mix.”
Penny was arrested on March 31 and confessed directly to the attack. Penny told police he regretted that the bomb had not caused more damage and that he was “trying to protect children and stop the drag show event,” according to an affidavit.
Penny was charged with one count of malicious use of explosive materials and one count of possessing a destructive device, and later indicted on a federal hate crime charge. Set to be sentenced in 2024, Penny faces up to 20 years in prison in addition to a mandatory 10-year sentence for his crimes.
But Peacock said the fear and uncertainty anti-LGBTQ+ attacks create over time are far more insidious than any single incident.
“White supremacists are opportunists,” Peacock said. “At times, people of color are more focused-on. [White supremacists] will go to Black Lives Matter rallies. They’ll go to drag shows. It doesn’t matter what the event is. It’s not about the events, it’s about the fear they can create if they keep showing up.”
“For these hate groups, the bigger issue is domination. It’s about controlling anyone who doesn’t match up to the cultural standard — which is white, Christian, male,” Peacock added. “Anything that doesn’t fall under that category is meant to be dominated or eliminated.”
Peacock joined the Chesterland church in 2022, after several years of clergy work in the sparse, rural counties of eastern Washington. There, they encountered a rise in white supremacist activity that redirected their path.
“I saw a disturbing push for Christian nationalism on a national level,” they said. “Politicians saying very disturbing things and how that was trickling down through the rank-and-file Republican, conservative voters parroting these trends.”
Now, publicly negating that rhetoric has become a major part of Peacock’s work as clergy: “If folks begin to feel too scared to go to Prides or drag events, that’s going to separate us. We need to stand up and show up for one another in those times because it sends a message that we aren’t easy targets.”
Ultimately, Peacock and other church and community leaders opted to move forward with Chesterland’s drag storytime event after raising enough funds to implement extra security measures. The event took place without incident, drawing just a handful of protestors.
Pohlhaus, however, only gained momentum, appearing strategically at LGBTQ+ events across the state.
On April 29, he led a group of masked Blood Tribe members outside an adult drag brunch event hosted by Land Grant Brewing in Columbus, marking the first time Blood Tribe members appeared at an LGBTQ+ event marketed exclusively for adults.
Video footage captured by bystanders and shared via Youtube shows Blood Tribe members lining the sidewalk outside the business, engaging in violent call-and-response chants and performing the “Hitler salute” in unison.
After the event, Pohlhaus returned to Maine where he appeared as a guest on a white supremacist podcast, according to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“What we want to do is maximize aggression, the noise, the volume, while also maximizing safety,” Pohlhaus reportedly said. “[…] We go to the enemy, scream at them, give them PTSD and leave.”
In July, Pohlhaus and Blood Tribe members closed out the summer with a public appearance outside an LGBTQ+ Pride event in Toledo. In a statement published by Cleveland Jewish News, officials said the group also appeared outside the Jewish Federation of Greater Toledo campus in Sylvania the same day.
By September, The Columbus Dispatch reported that Pohlhaus had officially launched an Ohio-based chapter of Blood Tribe — the result of a strategic, anti-LGBTQ+ recruitment campaign rooted in public intimidation.
‘Democracy creates more queer people.’
Following World War I, LGBTQ+ people experienced an unexpected level of social tolerance under Germany’s new democracy, the Weimar Republic.
In bigger cities, police stopped enforcing anti-LGBTQ+ laws almost entirely.
“All across Germany there [was] publicly visible queer culture. There were queer nightclubs and bars, of course, but there were also organizations, social clubs, newspapers and shops all over the place,” Newsome said. “On one hand, that was a lot of great progress. On the other hand, it sparked a backlash by political and religious parties in Germany to ‘clean up’ moral decay.”
Of the more than 40 political parties active in Weimar, none utilized anti-LGBTQ+ moral panic more efficiently than the Nazis — still a small, right-wing fringe party in 1920.
“The idea is that under democracy — with its emphasis on personal liberty and personal fulfillment — people became weak and wanted to fulfill their own personal desires, which led to more homosexuality,” Newsome said: “In short, democracy creates more queer people.”
At the same time, German Nazis created a political narrative that framed LGBTQ+ people as dangerous predators, both personally and politically.
“Part of the Nazi’s tactics and rhetoric is that they lumped everything we would call ‘queer’ or ‘trans’ under ‘the homosexual lifestyle,’” Newsome said. “Not as a religious sin, but as a political threat to the security of the government and a threat to Germany’s children.”
Like recent far-right rhetoric popularized by Christian nationalists, German Nazis leaned heavily on the accusation of pedophilia to subjugate and criminalize LGBTQ+ people.
“They constantly used those tropes that ‘homosexuals are pedophiles’ and ‘they’ll recruit your children to their lifestyle,’” Newsome said. “But there was also this idea that if German children grew up to be queer or trans, there would not be any ‘real men’ to run the country.”
“They were saying, ‘You don’t have to believe what we believe, you just have to want to protect your children,’” he added. “That’s a message that goes beyond the radical base, and a message similar to what we’re seeing now.”
‘This is what happens when you erase history’
On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany.
Three months later, Nazis raided the Hirschfeld Institute and its accompanying library and archives — methodically destroying the largest and most important collection of LGBTQ+ related research and material to ever exist.
“This was a direct and intentional strategy by conservatives and Nazis, that the first thing you do is control access to information. You ban books,” Newsome said. “In this case, they burned them.”
“That is a tried-and-true political fascist strategy,” he added. “The Nazis didn’t invent it, and people on the right today are picking up that same playbook.”
Historians estimate between 12,000 and 25,000 books, journals and images were destroyed when Nazis set fire to the Hirschfeld archives. Today, anti-LGBTQ+ groups commonly claim that little research exists concerning transgender people, often in an effort to ban or limit their access to healthcare.
More than 100 years later, Newsome said the destruction of the Hirschfeld Institute was part of a strategic campaign of cultural genocide still felt by LGBTQ+ people, particularly in the United States
“People are making policy decisions today based on the belief that [LGBTQ+ identities] are brand-new,” Newsome said. “This is what happens when you erase history.”
‘We need to heed that warning’
Just weeks from the close of 2023, the Trans Legislation Tracker reported 589 pieces of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in 49 states.
In Ohio, lawmakers passed House Bill 68, which will criminalize healthcare for transgender people under the age of 18 and ban transgender girls from competing in sports from kindergarten through college.
In 2024, other anti-LGBTQ+ bills could ban drag and gender performance at public venues, ban transgender people from using public restrooms and require school staff to out LGBTQ+ students to their guardians — regardless of suspected anti-LGBTQ+ abuse in the home.
R.G. Cravens is a lead senior research analyst with the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. In a written statement, Cravens told The Buckeye Flame that the link between anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and legislation is undeniable.
“We can say that rhetoric and legislation reinforce each other,” Cravens said. “Inflammatory rhetoric against transgender people, specifically, have been used to justify laws that restrict free expression and association and legislate harmful medical practices that jeopardize the well-being of LGBTQ people.”
Craven also said anti-LGBTQ+ politicians have recreated a familiar and effective political strategy: “In Ohio, we’ve seen anti-LGBTQ groups manufacture moral panic over LGBTQ people, and legislators use that manufactured panic to justify bills to ban gender-affirming care and police LGBTQ identity through draconian invasions of privacy like genital inspections to enforce anti-trans sports bans.”
For Newsome, the cultural, historical and political similarities between Nazi anti-LGBTQ+ laws and new anti-LGBTQ+ legislation are chilling: Around 100,000 gay men living in Germany and Austria were imprisoned during Hitler’s 12-year rule. By the time the war ended in 1945, around 10,000 of them had been murdered in Nazi death camps.
When Allied forces arrived, LGBTQ+ people were not liberated from the camps alongside other prisoners. Instead, LGBTQ+ prisoners were transferred to state prisons, many living the remainder of their lives as convicted criminals and inmates.
Over the next 20 years, the West German government kept Nazi anti-LGBTQ+ laws in place, criminalizing and imprisoning an additional 100,000 LGBTQ+ people.
“The queer people in Berlin in the 1920s, life was good for them,” Newsome said. “They had no idea how bad things would get. We need to heed that warning.”
“History has already shown us how far it can go,” he added. “It’s up to us how far we allow it to go this time.”
This article was originally published in The Buckeye Flame on December 22, 2023, under the same title. The Buckeye Flame is an online platform dedicated to amplifying the voices of LGBTQ+ Ohioans to support community and civic empowerment through the creation of engaging content that chronicles their triumphs, struggles, and lived experiences. You can follow The Buckeye Flame on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @thebuckeyeflame