The recent shooting that killed five people in a Colorado Springs nightclub has brought back echoes of this nation’s past.
During the 1950s, a moral panic surrounding queer people gripped the country. It was dubbed the Lavender Scare, due to its correlation to McCarthyism and the more well-known Red Scare. The phenomenon resulted in President Eisenhower signing an executive order barring homosexuals from working for the federal government. With efforts spearheaded by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, his counsel Roy Cohn and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the federal government fired more than 5,000 government workers and, in many cases, barred them from further government service.
Seven decades later, Americans are witnessing a resurgence of this anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric by both politicians and state governments.
According to the Movement Advancement Project, a Colorado-based, non-profit that tracks anti-queer legislation, 155 bills have been introduced in state legislatures in 2022, more than any year prior. These bills include bans and restrictions on an array of issues pertaining to gender and sexuality, including Florida’s now-famous “Don’t Say Gay” bill which restricts the teaching LGBTQ+ content in schools. Of the 390 bills that have been proposed in the past 4 years, 39 have passed. While this may seem like a low success rate, the passage of any of these bills severely impacts the lives of queer people wherever they are enacted and suggests a willingness in our country to allow the degradation of civil rights amongst a vulnerable group.
These types of proposals are not limited to state legislatures anymore, either. In October, a bill sponsored by Colorado U.S. Reps. Doug Lamborn and Lauren Boebert contained language almost identical to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, such as withholding funding from any state-funded educational insitutions that “contain sexual content” — which, under the bill’s definitions, would include mentions of non-heterosexuality, and in some interpretations, having a gay or transgender teacher or staff member.
Alongside the ramp-up of anti-queer legislation, rhetoric surrounding the queer community has become more divisive. Proponents of these legislative efforts, including Rep. Boebert, have referred to their opponents as “groomers,” in an attempt to tie their opposition to child sexual abuse. Boebert has implied that drag queen story hours, events where a drag performer reads children’s books to children, were similar to sexual abuse, and claimed that the Assistant Secretary of Health, Rachel Levine (herself a trans woman) was grooming children for suggesting support for gender-affirming care.
During the 2022 midterms, Coloradans were targeted with anti-transgender mailers claiming that Biden and his allies were “indoctrinating children and wanting to perform ‘sexual experiments’ on minors.” Right-wing commentators like Tucker Carlson and influencers like Tim Pool have ridiculed the idea that their rhetoric could potentially increase violence towards the Queer Community. Pool falsely claimed that Club Q, the Colorado Springs LGBTQ nightclub that was the target of a mass shooting in November, was holding a “grooming event”. While these figures argue their rhetoric is meant to call out sexual abusers and “grooming,” they primarily hurl these claims at queer Americans, drag queens, and anyone who tries to defend those groups.
Not only is this language inflammatory, it’s also inaccurate and can play a role in inciting violence. According to the University of California, transgender individuals are 4 times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime. Furthermore, the U.S. Justice Department reported in 2014 that one in two transgender people experience sexual assault or abuse at some point in their lives, and there is no evidence that gay or trans people are more likely to commit acts of sexual abuse.
Evidence suggests that anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric can galvanize extremism.
“There is a very clear relationship between normalizing this hateful content and having extremist groups try to mobilize around that,” Sophie Bjork-James, a Vanderbilt University professor who researches hate crimes, told the Associated Press. She pointed out the relationship between anti-queer rhetoric employed by prominent figures to the activity of domestic extremists.
The professor said extremists find “potential allies” in conservatives and that anti-LGBTQ sentiment helps them build a “broader coalition among the radical right.” In contrast, queer advocates, like Boulder drag artist Venus Victrola who spoke at a recent memorial event for Club Q, have expressed heartbreak and frustration about the rise in violence. “I don’t know what about me makes you want to kill me,” Victrola told the crowd, “These spaces are safe spaces, our sanctuaries, how dare you try and take that from us.”
The recent attack in Colorado Springs has thrown a light on anti-LGBTQ+ violence and rhetoric — not just in Colorado, but across the country — that contributes to a volatile environment that has bred violence, and many in the community fear that will only continue.
While Colorado, and the nation, has undoubtedly come a long way since the Lavender Scare of the 50s, it is hard not to draw parallels between the institutionalized persecution of queer people and contemporary anti-LGBTQ+ proponents. Not only has the conversation surrounding Queer Americans taken a dark turn, but states across the country have also become bolder in their targeting of the LGBTQ+ community.
Now in the aftermath of this tragedy, Colorado and this country have to find a way to de-escalate this anti-queer campaign before more violence occurs.
Owen Swallow lives in Denver.
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