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A Culture War's Collateral Damage

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In case you missed it — and unless you follow "news" websites of a certain political persuasion, you likely did — a story out of Humboldt County made national headlines last week.

And if you missed the coverage, we've probably got you wondering what story was deemed so noteworthy or important that it pierced the Redwood Curtain to travel across the nation. Was it the push for a first-of-its-kind offshore wind development, perhaps? Maybe another exposé on our beleaguered skilled nursing home chain and its profiteering owner, or a retread on plummeting cannabis markets and the communities being crushed under their weight? Or maybe something truly groundbreaking, like a deep dive into Humboldt County's staggering poverty and food insecurity rates, or why we have some of the highest rates of childhood trauma in the state?

Sadly, no. The story that went viral — appearing on dozens of websites over the course of about 24 hours, beginning with a post by the Daily Wire on Sept. 12, which was quickly followed by the likes of the Daily Caller, One America News Network and even Fox News — was about an arrest so common the arresting agency didn't see fit to issue a press release. The basic facts of the case are these, according to Humboldt County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Samantha Karges: On Aug. 12, a 53-year-old man was reported to be masturbating in his parked car with its door open in a turnout South Jetty Road near Loleta and was arrested for indecent exposure. The act was not directed at anyone in particular, Karges said, and no children were reported to be in the area.

Unfortunately, while, well, indecent, it's not the kind of thing that's particularly noteworthy. In fact, some 58 people have been booked into jail on suspicion of indecent exposure since the start of 2022, and those are just the instances that result in arrest. So why the fuss about this one, when nearly all the others went totally unreported, to say nothing of making national headlines?

The sole reason is that the man arrested in this case used to dress up in drag from time to time with an international organization called the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group of self-described "queer and trans nuns" that formed in 1979 and does community service work while promoting "human rights, respect for diversity and spiritual enlightenment." (The Eureka chapter of the group has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for local charities, from trails to youth groups to medical funds through bingo nights and an annual softball game.)

The Eureka House of the Sisters for Perpetual Indulgence issued a press release Sept. 13 clarifying that the man is not and never had been a member of the organization, but was, in October of 2020, a "probationary member" who never finished the group's "long and complex" admissions process. That process, the group says, is designed to ensure it doesn't admit folks who will "bring dishonor on our order."

Still, the headlines, all appearing a month after the arrest, say it all: "Member of Anti-Catholic Drag Queen Group Arrested for Indecent Exposure," "BREAKING: Member of Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence — Drag Nun Group Honored by LA Dodgers — ARRESTED for Public Masturbation," "REPORT: 'Drag Nun' Arrested for Public Masturbation," and "Member of Drag Troupe Arrested for Indecent Exposure," to name just a few.

While the subject of these reports was also reportedly a U.S. Army veteran, serving from 1988 to 1992, according to a prior report in the Times-Standard, and a longtime member and one-time president of the Redwood Veterans Honor Guard, none of the outlets chose to describe him that way. There's a very real — and very sinister — reason for that.

This sad conservative media storm played out, of course, amid a national backdrop of conservative lawmakers, organizations and groups targeting transgender people and the practice of dressing in drag, frequently and purposefully conflating the two. It seems like nary a week goes by these days without news of some fresh attack, some new effort somewhere to strip away trans people's rights or to push LGBTQ people back into the closet. These efforts are fueled by fear. Sometimes real — but often feigned or contrived — it's a fear that needs constant stoking.

We've seen this play out locally in calls for a ban on all-ages drag shows and baseless "grooming" accusations flung at LGBTQ advocacy groups, ostensibly in the name of "protecting children." Of course, as we've reported ("Fear Vs. Fact," May 18), the county's top prosecutor and law enforcement officials have said they can't recall a single case involving a minor groomed or assaulted at a drag show, or through an LGBTQ+ advocacy group or community organization. However, all said they've worked cases in which the perpetrators were family members, coaches, teachers, religious leaders and neighbors. Conservative media and angry local public commentors, meanwhile, never seem to focus on the very documented cases of ongoing sexual abuse perpetrated by those folks, or the myriad of other issues impacting our youth, from abuse and poverty to drug addiction and bullying. (Eight percent of Humboldt County children are the subject of neglect or abuse reports annually, according to kidsdata.com, but we've yet to see Fox News swoop in to cover that.)

As to the central question of why Humboldt County found itself making national headlines last week, either editors at so-called news organizations were looking for a story to reinforce a narrative and stumbled upon one in the form of a man who used to dress in drag getting caught allegedly masturbating in public, or they simply knew a story reinforcing such a narrative would result in clicks and views and attention. Either way, it's gross, it's sinister and it's not news. It does, however, whip up public outrage in some corners, which can have real and sometimes violent consequences for LGBTQ+ people.

National data continues to show that LGBTQ+ people, and transgender people particularly, fall victim to violence at far greater rates than their heterosexual, cisgender neighbors.

A 2021 report from University of California at Los Angeles' Williams Institute found that transgender people are four times more likely to be victims of violent crime than their cisgender counterparts, while a U.S. Department of Justice analysis of four years of crime data found transgender people were victimized at two-and-a-half times the rate as cisgender people. An investigation by Business Insider, meanwhile, found that homicides of transgender people doubled from 2019 to 2021, mirroring a spike in anti-trans rhetoric and legislation nationally.

None of this happens in a vacuum. Cynical editors write headlines to stoke fear and/or grab some clicks. Those headlines then reinforce a false narrative used to try to strip people of human rights. Sometimes they show up in hateful diatribes in the public comment periods of local government meetings, causing already marginalized members of our communities to feel more so. And sometimes they inspire real acts of violence. These are not unfortunate, unforeseeable consequences of ginned-up anti-LGBTQ+ panic, they're collateral damage in an endless opportunistic quest for clicks, viewers and votes.

And that is worth your outrage.


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