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Texas GOP lawmaker hires Christian nationalist who called for drag show attendees to be executed

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Posted at 9:41 AM, Dec 18, 2022

A Republican lawmaker and Texas House speaker candidate has hired a self-described Christian nationalist who called for the public execution of people who take children to drag events.

State Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, hired Jake Neidert, 22, last month as his office’s legislative director amid a wave of anti-LGBTQ violence and rhetoric, and ahead of an impending legislative session that is expected to focus heavily on anti-trans bills.

Tinderholt, one of the most conservative members of the Texas House, is currently mounting a long-shot challenge to Beaumont Republican Rep. Dade Phelan’s House speakership. Tinderholt has previously pushed for legislation that proposed the death penalty for Texans who get and perform abortions.

Neither Tinderholt nor Neidert responded to multiple requests to be interviewed for this story.

Kelly Neidert stands near Library Mall at the University of North Texas in Denton on March 23, 2022. Credit: Emil Lippe for The Texas Tribune

Neidert is the twin brother of Kelly Neidert, the founder of the anti-trans group Protect Texas Kids that has been a key driver of protests of drag and LGTBQ events across the state, and who has aligned with far-right movements — including Holocaust deniers. And like his sister — who has called for “rounding up” people who attend Pride events — Jake Neidert has similarly espoused anti-LGTBQ views.

[“The most hated conservative college student in the state”: How a UNT student embroiled her campus in a culture war]

“You want to force kids to see drag shows, I want to ‘drag’ you to the town square to be publicly executed for grooming kids. We are not the same,” he wrote on Twitter on June 7, 2022, according to screenshots of his accounts that were posted by Living Blue In Texas, which first reported his hiring. His Twitter account has been suspended since this summer, but archived versions of his profile show a tweet from that day was removed for violating the site’s terms of service.

In another post this year, Neidert complained about the arrests of members of the Texas-based extremist group Patriot Front, who authorities say were apprehended on their way to commit violence at a Pride event in Idaho over the summer.

Neidert’s hiring comes amid skyrocketing violence and hate rhetoric aimed at the LGBTQ community. Across the state and country, drag and Pride events have been increasingly targeted by far-right movements, and right-wing pundits and politicians have routinely, and falsely, depicted drag events as opportunities for children to be sexually groomed.

Neidert has also joked about the death of George Floyd, the unarmed Black man who was murdered by Minneapolis police. “George Floyd is two years sober today,” Neidert wrote on the two-year anniversary of Floyd’s killing — a reference to Floyd’s earlier struggles with drug addiction.

Neidert’s hiring was condemned by LGTBQ rights groups and lawmakers.

“It is a frustrating thing to both be appalled and not surprised,” said state Rep. Erin Zwiener, a Driftwood Democrat and member of the House LGBTQ Caucus. “And while it’s sure alarming to know that there’s someone working in my building who has called for my execution, it feels just par for the course.”

Others said Neidert’s comments — and failures by Republican leaders to call out anti-trans and homophobic language more broadly — will only normalize hateful rhetoric and violence that have already been spiking in recent years as some politicians, pundits and organizations increasingly target the LGTBQ community.

“Neidert has publicly pushed transphobic campaigns that we know spew hateful narratives that yield very real violent results,” said Adri Perez, organizing director for the Texas Freedom Network, which advocates for LGTBQ equality. “Neidert does not share the collective interest of Texans and should not be allowed to use public funds and time to push his hateful and violent ideology at our State Capitol.”

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott last year directed Child Protective Services agents to investigate families who provide gender-affirming care to transgender children — which years of research show significantly curtails their likelihood of depression, suicide and drug abuse. And, on Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office sought information on Texans who requested gender changes on their drivers licenses — raising concerns among transgender Texans that they were being monitored.

Meanwhile, ahead of Texas’ next legislative session that begins early next year, lawmakers have already filed dozens of bills targeting LGTBQ rights, including bills that would criminalize gender-affirming care for minors. Neidert’s job as a legislative director allows him a great degree of influence over legislation and what bills Tinderholt supports.

Phelan's office declined comment when asked about Neidert’s hiring. Other Republican leaders, including Abbott and Texas Republican Party Chair Matt Rinaldi, did not respond to requests for comment.

State Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, on the House floor on April 11, 2019. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

LGBTQ groups say it’s impossible to divorce ongoing rises in hateful rhetoric like Neidert’s from violence and anti-trans legislation. The number of anti-LGBTQ demonstrations has nearly tripled this year, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. Far-right groups have also been increasingly armed at such events, ACLED found.

“We’ve seen 30 bills filed that attack the LGBTQ community in some form or fashion, and we’ve definitely seen an increase in attacks,” said Johnathan Gooch, spokesperson for Equality Texas. “And it’s extremists pushing these transphobic narratives and politicians disseminating disinformation that is driving these movements to intimidate queer people in safe spaces and entertainment venues — places where people shoudn’t feel unsafe.”

Neidert’s new job is not his first foray into Texas politics. As a student at Baylor University, he led the campus chapter of the Young Conservatives of Texas, a role in which he similarly received backlash for his tweets about the LGBTQ community and the Black Lives Matter movement.

In one tweet — which prompted a petition for the group’s removal from campus — Neidert compared LGBTQ allies to child rapists and serial killers, saying that homosexuality was equally sinful.

Neidert defended the post by saying he was a Southern Baptist, and that “many congregations and denominations of Christianity still believe that homosexuality is a sin. I would not say [the tweet] is a stretch.”

According to his Facebook page, Neidert also worked as a legislative intern for state Rep. Bryan Slaton, a Royse City Republican who has pushed for children to be banned from drag events and recently filed legislation that would expand the state’s definition of child abuse to include providing gender-affirming health care under the guidance of a doctor or mental health care provider.

Slaton did not respond to requests for comment.

Campaign finance records show that before joining Tinderholt’s office, Neidert also worked on the failed House campaign of Shelley Luther, the North Texas salon owner who rose to minor prominence after she was jailed for violating COVID-19 lockdown rules. During that campaign, Luther said she was “not comfortable with the transgenders” and said she supported school choice in part because of her disappointment that trans kids couldn’t be laughed at in public schools.

Campaign finance records also show that, during the 2022 campaign season, Neidert also received $9,750 in payments from Defend Texas Liberty PAC, a fundraising group tied to west Texas oil billionaires Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks that has poured millions of dollars into far-right campaigns across the state, including those of Tinderholt, Slaton and Luther. Leaders of Defend Texas Liberty PAC did not respond to a request for comment.

Dunn and Wilks have similarly espoused extremist views on the LGBTQ community, including comparing homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality.

The two billionaires have also sought to blur the lines between church-state separation, a view that Neidert shares. He has previously described himself on Twitter as a Christian nationalist — an extreme brand of Christian politics that claims the United States’ founding was God-ordained and its laws and institutions should thus favor Christians.

“Please understand that we’re not trying to turn America into a Christian theocracy,” read one post that Neidert shared on his Facebook page earlier this year. “We’re going to do it.”

Experts say such extreme religious views would mean the death of pluralistic democracy in America. They note that there is a direct correlation between preferences for authoritarian leaders and the religious zealotry and anti-LGBTQ extremism that are frequently espoused by Christian nationalists.

Christian nationalism is predicated on the idea that there are “true Americans who deserve access to all the privileges of being an American,” said Andrew Whitehead, an Indiana University sociologist and prominent scholar of Christian nationalism. That makes adherents far more likely to accept the use of violence and oppression to enforce social — and often racial — hierarchies, he said.

“There is a comfort with authoritarian social control,” Whitehead said. “They are comfortable bringing violence to bear.”

Disclosure: Baylor University, Equality Texas and Texas Freedom Network have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

For LGBTQ mental health support, call the Trevor Project’s 24/7 toll-free support line at 866-488-7386. You can also reach a trained crisis counselor through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 800-273-8255 or texting 741741.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/12/16/texas-tony-tinderholt-jake-neidert-drag-legislature/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.