The Instagram account BrokebackPatriot had become a go-to digital den for one of the Trump movement’s most despised and embattled groups, gay conservatives, where they’d find dank memes and video updates relating to politics, pop culture, relationships and sexuality. In the eight months since its inception, the account saw a steady and meteoric rise in popularity. But on Sunday — just 250 followers short of reaching 10,000, a milestone in any social media page’s growth — @Brokebackpatriot suddenly and without explanation disappeared.
Founder David Leatherwood, which is not a porn name but his actual one, says activity on the account had been strange in recent weeks, with “likes” and interactions plummeting, describing a tactic called shadowbanning that social media companies use to suppress accounts they’ve deemed harmful or politically inconvenient.
On Sunday, out to dinner with his boyfriend, Leatherwood checked Instagram to find he was unable to log into his account. When he went to another device, he saw a message reading “User Not Found.” Instagram had also tracked his IP address and was preventing him from creating new accounts.
“I thought I’d been hacked,” Leatherwood says. He wasn’t. After two days of contacting user support and being forced to submit personal identification and photographs to Instagram to verify his identity, the Mark Zuckerberg-owned social media giant sent Leatherwood an email saying they had removed the account due to — wait for it — a terms of service violation.
As is increasingly the case with sister company Facebook, and golf buddy Twitter, Instagram did not provide Leatherwood with evidence or any information regarding which Terms of Service he had been found to violate. But Leatherwood thinks he knows the exact photograph that put his account in the crosshairs of the politically-motivated election-meddlers in Silicon Valley.
On July 4th, Leatherwood met the man who would become his boyfriend, Jeffrey Augustine. “He’s a diehard Trump supporter and he fell into my lap out of nowhere. I’d been single, alone, on the prowl for two years, and here was this guy, and he happened to live in the same city as me.” A couple weeks later, President Trump appeared in nearby Tampa, Fla. to hold a rally and Leatherwood and Augustine attended to show their support. The couple, hilariously, started the “CNN sucks!” chant at the Tampa rally that made headlines and sent CNN’s White House correspondent Jim Acosta into a tailspin, claiming he’d been harassed and berated and released a statement later the incident made him feel “like we weren’t in America anymore.” In a photo Acosta posted on social media later about being treated as a punching bag by Trump supporters at the rally, Leatherwood and Augustine are standing gleefully right behind him.
“We were standing in the same group as Bikers for Trump and Blacks for Trump and they came up to us and said, ‘we are sick of people saying we are homophobic, racist. We love you guys. Can we get a picture of you?’” The couple then posed for a photo, standing before an American flag and both in their “Make America Great Again” hats, the two gay men embraced in a passionate kiss. The photo was shared on Vice News and Fox and on Leatherwood’s Instagram page. The two were then asked to appear in a commercial, not yet released, for the new gold-plated MAGA hats where they appeared together with a rainbow flag draped around their shoulders.
“Two gay men kissing in MAGA hats is very provocative because it destroys the Left’s identity politics,” Leatherwood, 30, says. “It’s dangerous to have gay people thinking for themselves.”
In January 2016, Leatherwood, who voted previously for Obama, realized he was firmly on the Trump train. He began writing about political issues on his Facebook page, to an onslaught of harassment and hatred from people he thought were his friends. “When I came out as a conservative, it was harder than coming out as gay. Every since that day I’ve received nothing but hated and alienation from the Left, particularly the gay community. I was at a place in my life where I felt so lonely, because I didn’t know any other gay conservatives. I started the Instagram page as an outlet for these frustrations, and a place away from the people I knew on Facebook,” Leatherwood says. “I can’t tell you, I got messages from all over the world. I got messages from gay people in Saudi Arabia who were scared they were going to get murdered, and gay teenagers in America scared that people would find out they were conservative.”
Prior to being targeted for removal by Instagram, Leatherwood says he never received any suspensions or official warnings from the platform, but had two or three posts removed in the past, one of them a joke meme about Vice President Pence electrocuting gays.
“I’m very critical of Islam for the way they persecute homosexuals but I don’t go too much into that on my page, because I know that’s a hot button issue that gets people suspended,” he said. Whereas some pro-Trump social media accounts can even make Conservatives raise their eyebrows for their level of edginess, BrokebackPatriot was by all accounts very tame. The last meme he posted, on Saturday night, was an image of President Trump wearing “Thug Life” shades and smoking a joint before a Lisa Frank print background. But the account was also very personal, with Leatherwood posting video updates about his life alongside political commentary.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, brown, gay, or straight. We have to make America great for all Americans. My page was to create a place for gay conservatives to exist. And, admittedly, I love to make fun of liberals and fat-shame feminists, sorry! It’s more about exposing the ridiculousness of the state of our nation,” Leatherwood says.
President Trump, in video from the Oval Office on Tuesday, and in a series of tweets over the weekend publicly came out in support of the free speech movement and against Silicon Valley censorship, placing him, ironically, in the same camp as Bill Maher. Trump attacked Google for throttling news search results toward Left-wing outlets, and in one tweet on Aug. 24 wrote, “Social Media Giants are silencing millions of people. Can’t do this even if it means we must continue to hear Fake News like CNN, whose ratings have suffered gravely. People have to figure out what is real, and what is not, without censorship!” Many Silicon Valley watchers believe the tech companies in recent weeks have launched powerful assaults against effective pro-Trump political voices explicitly ahead of the midterm elections, such as the coordinated attack to remove Alex Jones and Info Wars across multiple platforms, including Facebook and YouTube, and Twitter’s unexplained takedown of Gavin McInnes and his group the Proud Boys.
Writing for this magazine, McInnes said of his Twitter ban, “Today, we have cat mom busybodies on Left-wing blogs scouring satire for incendiary quotes they can take out of context. They are supported by race-hustling globalists such as the SPLC, Hope Not Hate, and the ADL. They’re all Bigfoot chasers pretending Nazis lie await around every corner … Here’s what really happened. We were banned for making Trump look cool.”
Leatherwood, who only keeps a minor presence on Facebook and is not on Twitter, also thinks his account was targeted by Instagram because of the upcoming midterms, but he’s not giving up. He’s currently devising ways to get around Instagram’s block on his IP address so he can get back to posting, and has already set up a new account, @realBrokebackPatriot. “These companies have a monopoly on public discourse. There’s no hiding it. This is a direct attack on free speech meant to swing the upcoming midterm elections,” he said. “This is the reality. This is a war, not with guns but with ideas. And they are trying to silence ideas that go against their own.”
Chadwick Moore is a journalist, political commentator, and former editor-in-chief of now defunct DANGEROUS, currently working on his first book.