The people watching for extremism in America knew an attack like the one at Club Q was coming.
For months, pundits who monitor the far right have observed how public aggression toward the LGBTQ community in general, and the transgender population in particular, has increased.
Drag shows across the country have been attacked by far-right extremists like the Proud Boys and white supremacists for months. Protests and violence at LGBTQ events have surged in at least the last two years.
In these street protests, the extremists have been joined by ordinary American conservatives – fueled, experts say, by right-wing media. The goal of their outrage: previously obscure events from drag shows to children’s book readings. An industry analysis concludes that conservative media is particularly “obsessed” with drag shows.
Pundits like Tucker Carlson have spent hours confusing and then denigrating drag shows and transgender people. Fox News articles bemoan the “subversive sexualization” of children by drag shows, claiming their goal is to create an “adult-child sexual connection.”
Meanwhile, Republican politicians like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have placed opposition to transgender rights at the heart of their political agendas and lobbied for state agents to investigate parents who transgress want to care for transgender children, or prohibit doctors from providing this care. And lawmakers in several states have prepared bills to essentially ban drag shows and further marginalize the LGBTQ community.
It’s the same pattern extremism researchers have seen over and over again: The far right bands together against a marginalized community until that community is inevitably attacked — usually by a man with a gun.
As Donald Trump railed against immigrant communities, hate crimes against non-white people increased and men shot at a Walmart and synagogue believed to be helping immigrants in Pittsburgh, killing dozens. As the Trump-driven far-right political machine blamed China for the coronavirus pandemic, hate crimes against Asian-Americans soared.
More:As El Paso struggles to heal, the Walmart shooter’s 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 were killed and 17 injured at a weekend hosted drag show at a Colorado Springs bar over the weekend of Transgender Day of Remembrance.
Although officials have not yet spelled out the gunman’s exact motives for the attack, they face preliminary hate crime charges and appear determined to kill as many people as possible following reports of the shooting. A local TV station reported the shooting suspect told his grandparents they “wanted to be the next mass shooter,” according to arrest documents related to an incident last year.
In a Tuesday court filing, attorneys said the shooting defendant Anderson Aldrich was non-binary and used “they” and “they” as pronouns, a claim that will certainly complicate legal arguments about motive. The suspect will appear in court for the first time 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 statutes, said Rachel Carroll-Rivas, associate director of research and analysis at Southern Poverty Intelligence Law Center project.
“There is a very specific set of rules, and none of the federal or state definitions of hate crimes that might apply in this case has anything to do with the classification of a group of people that the offender might come from,” Carroll-Rivas said.
Whatever investigators ultimately discover about Aldrich’s motives, for activists and researchers, the shooting takes the form of the very risk they foresaw.
“Any community that is seen as a threat to the way the population lives is then targeted as a group that needs to be stopped,” said Marilyn Mayo, senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “That, in turn, causes people to marginalize that group and then act.”
A wave of attacks on LGBTQ people
From 2020 to 2021, the number of anti-LGBTQ protests in the US increased ninefold.
Already this year, the number of such protests has nearly tripled from the previous year, according to data compiled by Roudabeh Kishi of the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a nonprofit organization that compiles data on political violence and protests collects around the world.
As protests have increased, so has political violence against the LGBTQ community. Kishi has counted 22 incidents of political violence against LGBTQ people 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 in Colorado this weekend,” said Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at the Trevor Project, a mental health organization for young LGBTQ people. “We spend so much time holding our breath right now because we know that death can be around every corner. And while it’s shocking, it’s not surprising.”
Hate and violence against the LGBTQ community is of course nothing new. But what worries extremism experts is how hate groups of various stripes have joined forces with mainstream conservative politicians and organizations to protest LGBTQ-friendly events and venues, particularly drag shows.
The campaign against drag shows has become a unifying issue for everyone from white supremacists to supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory, said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism.
“They all agreed to demonize this particular population,” Beirich said. “The rhetoric surrounding the LGBTQ community has been just appalling, and when you target a population like that, here’s what happens.”
More:The Extremist Observers: How a Network of Researchers Searches for the Next Hate Attack
Right-wing media obsessed with drag shows
In recent months, right-wing media outlets have also “obsessively” focused on drag shows, “misrepresenting 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 number of examples: segments on Fox News that claimed drag queens were part of a conspiracy to sexualize children; a popular anti-LGBTQ TikTok account that publicizes the locations of drag events, mocking them and fomenting outrage against them; and far-right commentators like Matthew Walsh, a columnist and podcaster who has called for an “aggressive” approach to fighting drag shows, which he likened to fighting cancer.
The slander has exploded on social media. Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert of Colorado has tweeted several times calling organizers of kid-friendly drag shows “groomers” — a term once reserved for the very process of assaulting a child for sexual abuse. In August, Boebert tweeted, “I’m sending a message to all the drag queens out there: stay away from the kids in Colorado’s 3rd Ward!”
In June, Parker Malloy, a former editor-in-chief of Media Matters for America who has written about the rise in anti-trans attacks, told MSNBC that such rhetoric is dangerous.
“If you portray the existence of LGBTQ people as a threat to children, as a threat to the country itself — that’s often portrayed — you put lives at risk,” she said.
Ames of the Trevor Project said the LGBTQ community is well aware of the escalating rhetoric, particularly young transgender people.
“85% of transgender youth say they are watching these debates about their existence and that it is already having a negative impact on their mental health,” Ames said. “But just as importantly as the young people who listen, the people who would harm them listen – they align themselves with the people recommended for us in this culture as leaders.”
An armed response
The day before the Club Q attack, a transgender Storytime event in Denton, Texas, was attacked by a gang of Proud Boys and far-right attention-seekers, who yelled for “groomers” and labeled the event’s attendees as pedophiles.
The far-right protesters were held at bay by a phalanx of armed anti-fascists in black and rainbow flags. The armed group, the Elm Fork John Brown Gun Club, emerged earlier this year to protect a family-friendly drag brunch in Roanoke, Texas. No one was shot at either event.
But Club Q had no such armed security. And 24 hours after the Storytime event in Denton, five people were murdered.
Mayo, of the ADL’s Center for Extremism, said she expects LGBTQ venues and organizations to likely start reading the book of the Jewish community. After decades of deadly attacks on synagogues, Jewish community centers, and other facilities, the US Jewish community is now home to a network of organizations that train volunteers and professional security guards to protect against hateful attacks.
Ames said it’s always difficult to keep fighting after his community has been violated, 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 is about more than breath, it’s about living as we are and giving the next generation of people like us the protection and permission to live as they are.” said Ames. “We fight for ourselves and we fight those who come after us. And sometimes that fight is beautiful and colorful and sparkly and in the best kind of drag. And sometimes that fight is heartbreaking, violent and bloody.”