The people paying attention to extremism in America knew an attack like the one at Club Q was coming.
Experts who monitor the far right have watched for months as public aggression toward the LGBTQ community in general, and the transgender population in particular, has ramped up.
Drag shows across the country have, for months, been targeted by far-right extremists including Proud Boys and white supremacists. Protests and violence at LGBTQ events have surged for at least the last two years.
At those street protests, extremists have been joined by everyday American conservatives – fueled, experts say, by right-wing media. The target of their outrage: previously obscure events ranging from drag shows to children’s book readings. One industry analysis concludes conservative media has become “obsessed” with drag shows in particular.
Pundits like Tucker Carlson have devoted hours to conflating, and then denigrating, drag shows and transgender people. Articles on Fox News lament the “subversive sexualization” of children via drag shows and claim that their goal is to create a “sexual connection between adult and child.”
Meanwhile, Republican politicians like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have put opposition to transgender rights at the center of their political agendas, moving to have state agents investigate parents who seek care for transgender children or ban doctors from providing that care. And lawmakers in several states have prepared bills to essentially outlaw drag shows and further marginalize the LGBTQ community.
It’s the same pattern extremism researchers have seen again and again: The far right uniting against a marginalized community until, inevitably, that community gets attacked – usually by a man with guns.
When Donald Trump railed against immigrant communities, hate crimes against non-white people spiked and men shot up a Walmart in El Paso and a synagogue thought to be helping immigrants in Pittsburgh, killing dozens. When the far-right political machine, fueled by Trump, blamed China for the coronavirus pandemic, hate crimes against Asian-Americans soared.
Throughout history, the scapegoats were marginalized people: Black Americans, Jewish Americans, women.
And now, after more than 18 months of escalating rhetoric against the LGBTQ community from politicians, pundits and extremists, five people have been killed and 17 wounded in a Colorado Springs bar, on the weekend of Transgender Day of Remembrance, on a weekend the bar was hosting drag shows.
While officials have not yet outlined the shooter’s exact motives in the attack, they face preliminary hate crime charges, and appear from accounts of the shooting to have been determined to kill as many people as possible. A local TV station reported the shooting suspect had told their grandparents they “wanted to be the next mass shooter,” according to arrest documents related to an incident last year.
In a court filing Tuesday, attorneys said shooting defendant Anderson Aldrich is non-binary and uses “they” and “them” as pronouns, an assertion sure to complicate legal arguments about motive. The suspect will make a first appearance in court on Wednesday morning.
And whether the shooter identifies as a member of the same community that was attacked makes no difference when it comes to prosecution under federal or state hate crime laws, said Rachel Carroll-Rivas, deputy director of research and analysis at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project.
“There’s a very specific set of rules, and none of the definitions of federal or state hate crimes that could apply in this case have anything to do with the classification of a group of people the perpetrator may be from,” Carroll-Rivas said.
Whatever investigators ultimately discern about Aldrich’s motivations, for activists and researchers, the shooting takes the shape of exactly the risk they have foreseen.
“Any community that is considered a threat to the way of life of the population is then targeted as a group to be stopped,” said Marilyn Mayo, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “That, in turn, leads people to marginalize that group and then act.”
A surge in attacks on LGBTQ people
From 2020 to 2021, the number of anti-LGBTQ protests in the United States multiplied by nine.
This year, the number of those protests has again already almost tripled from last year, according to data compiled by Roudabeh Kishi at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a nonprofit that collates data on political violence and protests across the globe.
With increasing protests, there have been increased levels of political violence against the LGBTQ community, too. Kishi counted 22 incidents of anti-LGBTQ political violence so far this year, up from seven last year. And that’s not even including the Colorado Springs attack.
“Not a single trans person is surprised by what happened this weekend in Colorado,” said Sam Ames, Director of Advocacy and Government Affairs at the Trevor Project, a mental health organization for LGBTQ young people. “We spend so much of our time right now holding our breath knowing that death can be around any corner. And while it is shocking, it’s not surprising.”
Hatred and violence against the LGBTQ community is, of course, nothing new. But what concerns experts on extremism is how hate groups of several different stripes have joined forces with mainstream conservative politicians and organizations to protest against LGBTQ friendly events and venues, particularly drag shows.
The campaign against drag shows has become a unifying theme for everyone from white supremacists to adherents to the QAnon conspiracy theory, said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism.
“They’ve all converged on demonizing this particular population,” Beirich said. “The rhetoric around the LGBTQ community has been just horrific, and when you target a population like this, this is what happens.”
Right-wing media obsessed with drag shows
In recent months, right-wing media has also focused “obsessively” on drag shows, “falsely portraying them as a threat not just to children, but to civilization as a whole,” according to Media Matters for America, a left-leaning media watchdog group.
The group cited a range of examples: Segments on Fox News claiming that drag queens are part of a plot to sexualize children; a popular anti-LGBTQ TikTok account that has released the locations of drag events, mocking them and fueling outrage against them; and far-right commentators such as Matthew Walsh, a columnist and podcaster who has urged an “aggressive” approach to battle drag shows, which he likened to fighting cancer.
The vilification has exploded across social media. Colorado Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert has tweeted several times calling the organizers of child-friendly drag shows “groomers” – a term once reserved to mean the actual process of targeting a child for sex abuse. In August, Boebert tweeted: “Sending a message to all the drag queens out there: stay away from the children in Colorado’s Third District!”
In June, Parker Malloy, a former editor-at-large for Media Matters for America who has written about the rise of anti-trans attacks, told MSNBC that such rhetoric was dangerous.
“When you present the existence of LGBTQ people as a threat to children, as a threat to the country itself — that’s how it’s being framed a lot — that’s putting lives in danger,” she said.
Ames, at the Trevor Project, said the LGBTQ community is well aware of the escalating rhetoric, particularly young transgender people.
“85% of transgender youth say that they are watching these debates over their existence play out, and that it is already negatively impacting their mental health,” Ames said. “But, just as importantly, as those young people listening, the people who would do them harm are listening – they are taking their cue from the people that we are told in this culture to look to as leaders.”
An armed response
The day before the Club Q attack, a transgender storytime event in Denton, Texas, was targeted by a gang of Proud Boys and far-right attention-seekers who screamed about “groomers” and called the people attending the event pedophiles.
The far-right protesters were held in check by a phalanx of armed anti-fascists dressed in black and sporting rainbow flags. The armed group, the Elm Fork John Brown Gun Club, had shown up to protect a family friendly drag brunch in Roanoke, Texas, earlier this year. Nobody was shot at either event.
But Club Q had no such armed security. And 24 hours after the Denton storytime event, five people were murdered.
Mayo, of the ADL’s Center on Extremism, said she expects LGBTQ venues and organizations will likely start taking a leaf out of the Jewish community’s book. After decades of fatal attacks on synagogues, Jewish community centers and other facilities, the U.S. Jewish community is now home to a network of organizations that train volunteers and professional security guards to protect against hate-fueled attacks.
Ames said it’s always difficult to keep fighting after a violation against your community, but they said the only way forward is to continue to battle the forces that mean harm to LGBTQ people.
“Survival is an act of resistance. And also that survival is about more than breath, it’s about living fully as who we are and giving the next generation of people like us the protection and permission to live fully as they are,” Ames said. “We fight for ourselves and we fight the ones coming after us. And sometimes that fight is beautiful, and colorful, and sparkling and in the best kind of drag. And sometimes that fight is heartbreaking, and violent and bloody.”
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