A rapid increase in recent anti-trans and anti-gay rhetoric and protests set up violence like the overnight murders at Colorado Springs’ Club Q, political scientists and activists trying to keep their communities safe say.
Anti-LGBTQ protesters, spurred on by conservative media that claims youths are being “groomed” or “mutilated” to create larger trans communities, have targeted exactly the kinds of all-ages drag shows and Sunday brunches Club Q had promoted for Saturday night and Sunday morning, these experts say. Sunday is national Transgender Day of Remembrance for those impacted by violence and discrimination.
“It’s horrible to say, I’m not surprised,” said Harvard Kennedy School political scientist Jay Ulfelder, who helps run the national Crowd Counting Consortium that tracks actions by groups across all ideologies, and is the former research director for the federally funded Political Instability Task Force.
After latching onto COVID-19 restrictions, then Critical Race Theory, far right protesters with activist arms like the Proud Boys began targeting Drag Queen Story Hours at libraries, and medical professionals who assist in gender transitions, Ulfelder said.
Using words like “contagion” is a “classic kind of pattern in dehumanization and eliminationist rhetoric” that can eventually contribute to mass atrocities, Ulfelder said. “This idea of ‘grooming,’ and that’s a threat to my children, and I will do whatever it takes to protect my children,” he said.
Spike in anti-LGBTQ+ violence, protests and legislation
Anderson Lee Aldrich, 22, is accused in the Club Q shooting and was detained by clubgoers. Five people were killed and 19 wounded in the shooting. A law enforcement source familiar with the matter told The Colorado Sun that law enforcement has collected evidence suggesting the shooting was a hate crime.
Colorado House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo who represents House District 46 and co-founder of the Colorado LGBTQ Legislative Caucus, tweeted that the shootings constituted a “targeted and vicious attack on #LGBTQ lives last night. … The systematic targeting on our community must stop. We won’t be silenced.”
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According to a report released last week ahead of today’s Transgender Day of Remembrance, at least 32 transgender and gender-nonconforming people have been killed in the United States in 2022, the Human Rights Campaign announced. The group has documented at least 302 violent deaths of transgender and gender-nonconforming people since the LGBTQ advocacy organization began tracking such fatalities in 2013 — the same year the FBI began tracking hate crimes against transgender people.
According to the Human Rights Campaign report, this year 25 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been enacted, including 17 anti-transgender laws across 13 states. Overall, more than 145 anti-transgender bills were introduced across 34 states. “The result is a new record for anti-transgender legislation being introduced and enacted in a single state legislative session since the Human Rights Campaign began tracking legislation,” the report says.
At an October Nashville anti-trans rally prompted by right wing agitator Matt Walsh, Ulfelder said, signs included “Mutilate the mutilators” and “Doctors who mutilate children should be killed.”
At least 32 transgender and gender-nonconforming people have been killed in the United States in 2022
The Crowd Counting Consortium tracks protests and rhetoric by groups across the political spectrum, including anti-LBGTQ groups, in a database going back to 2017. The group tracks all types of speech, including messages on clothing such as hats with slogans reading “I shoot pedophiles.”
The monthly count of anti-LGBTQ protests spiked past 40 beginning in May, soon after national media voices, including Fox’s Tucker Carlson, amped up their rhetoric, the tracking shows. In addition to more gatherings of anti-trans voices, threats of violence rose, including a series of bomb threats against Boston Children’s Hospital where some trans services are offered.
“There’s sort of an intimidation and an implicit threat of violence behind groups like that, that advertise themselves as tough guys showing up to tell you that you’re a groomer,” Ulfelder said.
The Twitter account of controversial Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson was recently restored. He had previously been banned for anti-trans statements.
Federal authorities circulated an internal bulletin before the November election warning of a heated climate for potential violence based on political or cultural ideology, according to National Public Radio, which obtained the memo. The memo came near the same time as a home intruder’s assault on Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s husband in San Francisco, where the suspect allegedly repeated shouts of the Jan. 6 rioters in Congress demanding “Where’s Nancy?”
The bulletin “outlined a number of grievances that may motivate those actors, including debunked claims of widespread election fraud and polarizing social topics such as abortion and LGBTQ rights,” NPR said.
Inside Out Youth Services, serving gay and trans residents ages 13 to 24 in Colorado Springs, made a direct connection to recent anti-trans rhetoric and violence in its statement after the Club Q shootings.
“The youth we serve deserve better — they deserve to be safe from fear, threats, and violence. We call on Colorado’s leaders to step up and condemn this hateful attack and condemn the anti-LGBTQIA2+ rhetoric that fueled it,” the statement from communications manager Liss Smith said.
“Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance, when we mourn the lives of transgender people who have been killed. This mass shooting has compounded the pain already felt so keenly by our community,” the Inside Out statement said.
“You can draw a straight line from the false and vile rhetoric about LGBTQ people spread by extremists and amplified across social media, to the nearly 300 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced this year, to the dozens of attacks on our community like this one,” GLAAD national President Kate Ellis said in a statement from the media advocacy group.
Club Q has been “a pole in the storm, something to grab onto.”
Stoney Roberts was celebrating Transgender Day of Remembrance with the Transgender Center of the Rockies at Space Annet in Denver just hours before the shooting at Club Q. Along with drag performances, attendees read poetry, rapped, played acoustic music and recited the names of transgender people whose lives have been lost to violence.
“I wake up the next morning, and we’re adding to the list,” said Roberts, the southern Colorado field organizer for One Colorado, an LGBTQ nonprofit advocacy organization. “And it’s just compounding.”
Roberts, who is nonbinary, transmaculine, Black and queer, lives in Colorado Springs and used to perform drag at Club Q, said the space is one of the only places people who are part of the LGBTQ community could authentically express themselves.
I wake up the next morning, and we’re adding to the list. And it’s just compounding.
— Stoney Roberts, southern Colorado field organizer for One Colorado
“Here in the Springs, there aren’t a lot of safe spaces for queer folks,” Roberts said. “Oftentimes, we have to make our own safe spaces.”
Amid rising anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and threats to the rights of those who are part of the community, Roberts said Club Q has been “a pole in the storm, something to grab onto.”
The shooting came as a shock — but not entirely, Roberts said.
It’s “unimaginable but also very imaginable given the national landscape, given recent events,” Roberts said, adding, “it was so familiar but yet so strange.”
He sees a lot of factors playing into the increase in hateful rhetoric and violence toward his community — including a lack of education, a lack of curiosity, an unwillingness among people to educate themselves, mental health issues and some people feeling threatened by the way members of the LGBTQ community live their lives.
“Once we do fully realize our authenticity and walk in that, I feel like oftentimes it shakes other people and it forces them to look inward about who they are and how they move through the world,” Roberts said.
Boebert and other conservative Colorado lawmakers have amplified anti-trans rhetoric
Anti-trans rhetoric has been amplified by some conservative Colorado lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, who narrowly won re-election in Colorado’s GOP-leaning 3rd Congressional District, which does not include Colorado Springs.
Boebert tweeted in August that “men do not belong in women’s sports whatsoever” in response to news that Oklahoma Public Schools would mandate student athletes sign a “biological sex affidavit” after Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a law declaring sports teams be based on student athletes’ biological sex. “When Republicans take back control of the House, we need to legislate an end to this madness,” Boebert tweeted.
Last year, she described the Equality Act — which outlaws discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity — as “supremacy of gays and lesbians and transvestites.”
“(It’s) about putting them higher than anyone else,” Boebert said. “It’s not about equality.”
Scott Bottoms, who was recently elected to represent House District 15 in Colorado Springs, is the lead pastor at Church at Briargate since June 2012, and as a member what he calls the “far right” has preached anti-gay and anti-trans sentiments.
Sunday morning he sent a Facebook message that “The pain and hurt that humans can do to other humans is mind boggling. It’s will never understand how someone can kill someone. The shooting at ClubQ is an attack on the city. Please be praying for the families and friends of everyone involved.”
Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn in Colorado’s 5th Congressional District, which includes Colorado Springs, around 10:30 a.m. tweeted a short post.
“I am saddened to hear of the senseless loss of life in the shooting last night. Law enforcement and first responders are to be commended for their rapid response,” Lamborn tweeted. “All people should pray for the victims and their families.”
Nadine Bridges, executive director of One Colorado, has been the target of hatred for her identity and her support of the LGBTQ community. She received a letter in the mail this year that basically called her “a sinner and a heathen.”
Bridges said Sunday’s attack comes after her organization has been struggling to figure out how to spread more love and compassion for the human condition — a message that clashes with the words of some politicians.
“I think when we have leaders in the community who use negative attacks on vulnerable populations as a way to win political points in power, it fuels folks who may not feel seen and heard,” Bridges said. “It fuels their hatred, and it has to stop.”
She pointed to recent debates among State Board of Education members on how to educate young kids about the LGBTQ community as one example of the ways state leaders push forward hatred.
She said the sense of fear among people in the LGBTQ community is now heightened.
“We’ve had numerous transgender and particularly transgender women of color murdered in this year already,” Bridges said. “People are afraid. Our young people are afraid. Our elders are afraid.”
Roberts added that restoring a sense of safety will be the responsibility of the entire community, with people who are not part of the LGBTQ community stepping up to keep inclusive spaces safe.
“It’s up to us as a community to figure out what tomorrow looks like for us, even at a time it feels like tomorrow is not possible,” Roberts said.
“In the end, we’re all the same. In the end, we all bleed red.”
Tiana Dykes’ said their sense of security is shattered. The 19-year-old had plans to go to Club Q Saturday night but abandoned them when they ended up having to work late. Dykes, who lives in Colorado Springs and is bisexual, lost two friends in the shooting and is still waiting to hear whether some of their friends made it home.
Club Q has been a regular spot for Dykes and their friends to gather for more than a year, one they used to frequent every week before their work shifts as an assistant store manager at Hot Topic at Chapel Hills Mall started to pick up. The club became a place of refuge for them at a time when many of their family members showed them no support with their identity.
“It’s just a nice, homey place, like you never felt out of place there,” Dykes said. “Everybody made you feel welcome.”
They’re grappling with confusion and frustration and the questions of what could have happened to them had they made their way to Club Q after work.
“It hits me really hard just thinking about the possibility that if I did go I could have been part of the shooting,” Dykes said, adding, “I could have potentially been killed.”
They spent the early hours of Sunday with friends refreshing social media and news pages, desperate for updates and more information about their friends while also trying to wrap their head around the senseless act of violence.
“Stop spreading hate,” Dykes said. “It’s just pointless. In the end, we all die. In the end, we’re all the same. In the end, we all bleed red. It doesn’t matter if you kiss boys or you kiss girls or you were born a boy, and in reality you were a girl the whole time (and) you knew you were transgender. We are all the same.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated on Monday with new information from the Colorado Springs Police Department on the number of people injured in the shooting.