People watching extremism in America knew an attack like Club Q was imminent.
Experts who monitor the far right have watched for months as public aggression against the LGBTQ community in general, and the transgender population in particular, has escalated.
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 been on the rise for at least two years.
In these street protests, the extremists have been joined by mainstream 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. An industry analysis concludes that the conservative media has become “obsessed” with drag shows in particular.
Experts like Tucker Carlson have spent hours confusing, then denigrating, drag shows and transgender people. Articles on Fox News lament the “subversive sexualization” of children via drag shows and claim that their aim is to create a “sexual connection between adult and child”.
Meanwhile, Republican politicians like Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have put opposition to transgender rights at the center of their political platforms, asking state officials State to investigate parents who seek care for transgender children or to ban doctors from providing such care. . And lawmakers in several states have prepared bills essentially aimed at banning drag shows and further marginalizing the LGBTQ community.
It’s the same pattern that extremism researchers have seen time and time again: the far right uniting against a marginalized community until, inevitably, that community is attacked – usually by a gunman.
When Donald Trump railed against immigrant communities, hate crimes against non-white people spiked and men shot down a Walmart in El Paso and a synagogue supposedly 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.
After:As El Paso struggles to heal, Walmart shooter rhetoric builds in GOP
Throughout history, the scapegoats have been 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 injured at a Colorado Springs bar over the weekend. end of Transgender Day of Remembrance, one weekend the bar hosted drag shows.
Although officials have yet to describe the exact motives of the shooter 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 that the suspect told his grandparents he “wanted to be the next mass shooter,” according to arrest documents linked to an incident last year.
In a court filing on Tuesday, attorneys said the defendant who shot Anderson Aldrich is non-binary and uses “they” and “them” as pronouns, a claim that will surely complicate legal arguments on the motive. The suspect will make a first court appearance 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, Rachel Carroll-Rivas said, Deputy Director of Research and Analysis at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence. Project.
“There is a very specific set of rules, and none of the federal or state hate crime definitions that might apply in this case have anything to do with classifying a group of people whose author may belong,” Carroll-Rivas said.
Whatever investigators ultimately discern from Aldrich’s motives, for activists and researchers, the shooting takes the exact form of risk they foresaw.
“Any community deemed a threat to the way of life of the population is then targeted as a group to be arrested,” said Marilyn Mayo, senior researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “That, in turn, leads people to marginalize this group and then take action.”
A resurgence of attacks against LGBTQ people
From 2020 to 2021, the number of anti-LGBTQ protests in the United States has increased ninefold.
This year, the number of such protests has again almost tripled compared to last year, according to data compiled by Roudabeh Kishi at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a nonprofit organization that collects data on political violence and protests around the world. .
With the increase in protests, there has also been an increase in levels of political violence against the LGBTQ community. Kishi has 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 offense.
“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, an LGBTQ youth mental health organization. . “We spend so much time right now holding our breath knowing that death could be around any corner. And while it’s shocking, it’s not surprising.
Hatred and violence against the LGBTQ community is of course nothing new. But what worries extremism experts is how hate groups of many different stripes have joined forces with mainstream conservative politicians and organizations to protest LGBTQ-friendly events and places, especially drag shows.
The campaign against drag shows has become a unifying theme for everyone from white supremacists to QAnon conspiracy theory adherents, said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism.
“They all converged on demonizing this particular population,” Beirich said. “The rhetoric around the LGBTQ community has been just plain awful, and when you target a population like this, that’s what happens.”
After:The Extremist Watchers: How a Network of Researchers Looks for the Next Hate-Driven Attack
Right-wing media obsessed with drag shows
In recent months, right-wing media has also “obsessively” focused 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-wing media. watch group.
The group cited a series 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 posted 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 advocated an “aggressive” approach to fight drag shows, which he likened to the fight against cancer.
Defamation has exploded on social networks. Colorado Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert has tweeted repeatedly calling organizers of kid-friendly drag shows “groomers” — a term once reserved for the actual process of targeting a child for grooming. sexual abuse. In August, Boebert tweeted, “Sending a message to all drag queens: Stay away from the kids in Colorado’s Third District!”
In June, Parker Malloy, a former editor of 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 often presented – it puts lives at risk,” she said. declared.
Ames of the Trevor Project said the LGBTQ community is well aware of the escalating rhetoric, especially from transgender youth.
“85% of transgender youth say they watch these debates about their existence unfold and it’s already having a negative impact on their mental health,” Ames said. “But, just as importantly, like these young people who are listening, the people who would hurt them are listening – they are drawing inspiration from the people we are told in this culture to look up to as leaders.”
An armed response
The day before the attack on Club Q, a transgender story event in Denton, Texas, was targeted by a gang of Proud Boys and far-right attention seekers who shouted about ‘groomers’ and called those attending the event pedophiles.
Far-right protesters were held in check by a phalanx of armed anti-fascists dressed in black and carrying rainbow flags. The armed group, the Elm Fork John Brown Gun Club, had come forward to protect a family brunch in Roanoke, Texas earlier this year. No one was shot during these events.
But Club Q had no such armed security. And 24 hours after Denton’s 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 inspiration from the book from the Jewish community. After decades of deadly attacks on synagogues, Jewish community centers and other facilities, the American Jewish community is now home to a network of organizations that train volunteers and professional security guards to protect against attacks motivated by hatred.
Ames said it’s always hard to keep fighting after a violation against your community, but they said the only way forward is to keep fighting the forces that harm LGBTQ people.
“Survival is an act of resistance. And also that survival isn’t just about breathing, it’s about living fully as 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 those who come after us. And sometimes that fight is beautiful, colorful, sparkly, and in the best kind of drag. And sometimes this fight is heartbreaking, violent and bloody.