In the hours after the shooting, investigators did not say what led someone to open fire Saturday night in a Colorado gay bar, killing at least five people and injuring 25 others. But LGBTQ advocates across the country believe a surge of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and laws is at least partially to blame.
“When politicians and pundits keep perpetuating tropes, insults, and misinformation about the trans and LGBTQ+ community, this is a result,” Colorado Rep. Brianna Titone (D) tweeted Sunday.
Titone, Colorado’s first openly trans legislator, and the chair of the state’s LGBTQ legislative caucus, said anti-LGBTQ lawmakers, including one of her colleagues, have used hateful rhetoric to directly incite attacks against LGBTQ people.
Though the most recent FBI data shows the number of hate crimes against LGBTQ people remained relatively flat between 2008 and 2020, an independent analysis by the research group Crowd Counting Consortium shows that right-wing demonstrators have increasingly mobilized over the past year against the LGBTQ community.
Already this year, armed protesters and right-wing groups such as the Proud Boys have used intimidating tactics to disrupt drag-related events in Texas, Nevada and Oregon, as well as other states. Children’s hospitals across the United States are facing growing threats of violence, including bomb threats, driven by an online anti-LGBTQ campaign attacking the facilities for providing care to transgender kids and teens. And in October, a man attacked a transgender librarian in Idaho before yelling homophobic slurs and attempting to hit two women with his car. Idaho is one of 18 states that does not have hate crime protections for LGBTQ people, though many local law enforcement agencies still track those crimes.
Jay Brown, senior vice president of programs, research and training for the Human Rights Campaign, said Americans can’t, and shouldn’t, separate those acts of violence from state-sanctioned efforts to limit LGBTQ rights.
“We’ve seen more than 340 anti-LGBTQ bills filed this year alone,” Brown said. “We’ve seen a huge increase in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric online and by politicians, and we’ve seen real threats.”
In Colorado, for instance, Brown noted that Republican lawmaker and gun-rights activist Lauren Boebert has criticized drag in recent months, and in August, she warned “all the drag queens out there” to “stay away from the children in Colorado’s Third District!” Boebert has used slurs to describe transgender people, and she called the Equality Act gay “supremacy.” She also helped promote the idea that people who support LGBTQ adolescents are “groomers.”
“The level of fear that the community is feeling is real,” Brown said. “And many of our elected leaders actually bear some responsibility for creating a level of discourse that feeds that fear.”
On Sunday evening, Boebert expressed sympathy for the victims. “The news out of Colorado Springs is absolutely awful,” she tweeted. “This morning the victims & their families are in my prayers. This lawless violence needs to end and end quickly.”
Other lawmakers, including Titone and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, said Boebert’s words were disingenuous.
“You spreading tropes and insults contributed to the hatred for us,” Titone tweeted. “There’s blood on your hands.”
Brown, an out trans man, said he feels particularly devastated because Sunday is Trans Day of Remembrance, an annual observance of transgender people who have been hurt or killed as a result of transphobia. Last year was the deadliest on record for trans people, and already this year the Human Rights Campaign has recorded another 32 violent deaths of transgender and nonbinary people.
According to Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, the executive director of the National Center of Transgender Equality, a quarter of those violent deaths happened in Texas and Florida. Those states have proposed dozens of anti-trans laws and regulations in the past two years or put in place anti-trans policies, such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s order to investigate parents for child abuse if they provide gender-affirming care for their children.
“Anti-trans legislation, fearmongering, and disinformation put the trans community and trans lives at risk,” Heng-Lehtinen tweeted.
As of early Sunday evening, authorities had not yet confirmed the identity of the Colorado Springs victims, but online users have reported that at least one was transgender.
Though Colorado has long been one of the country’s most LGBTQ-friendly states, recent attacks have escalated to a point where advocates say no place feels safe. Right-wing groups have, in fact, increasingly turned their attention toward liberal states.
Sunday morning, just hours after the attack in Colorado Springs, Chaya Raichik, a Brooklyn real estate investor who runs Libs of TikTok, a Twitter account with 1.5 million followers, targeted a Denver nonprofit for supporting young people who want to perform drag.
Erin Reed, a transgender activist and legislative researcher, said Raichik’s tweets have directly led to anti-LGBTQ demonstrations in Idaho, California and other states. Proud Boys have attempted to force their way into events in those states soon after Raichik tweeted about them, Reed noted on Twitter.
“We don’t know for sure what motivated the (Colorado Springs) shooter or what they were targeting. But we do know what motivates Chaya Raichik. We know she has seen these events and said, ‘Yes, more,’ ” Reed tweeted on Sunday. “Every trans person who follows this has been warning this would happen. And here we are.”
Joshua Thurman, 34, who was inside Club Q at the time of the shooting to celebrate his upcoming birthday told reporters Sunday that he was still trying to make sense of what happened. “You felt like you had to come up into our safe space and shoot us up,” he said of the alleged perpetrator. “You’ve harmed is us in a way that I don’t know how we bounce back from this. What can we do? We can rebuild. We can come together. We can do vigils. We can raise money, but that’s not going to bring back those five people.”
Later, at a vigil for the victims at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, Taylor Oliver, 29, one of the attendees said, “These tragedies are causing people in the LGBT community to develop a habit of checking in on their friends. There’s almost an etiquette to checking in with your friends. Every single one of my friends, in other countries too, when something happens, it’s like the polite thing to do is to make sure my friend isn’t dead.”
Jessie Entwistle, of Colorado Springs, who was also at the vigil said he was in Orlando not long after the 2016 massacre at the Pulse night club, “so this all feels very familiar in a really sad way.”
“It feels like, ‘When is it going to happen to me?’ As opposed to thinking, ‘This kind of thing will never touch me.’ ”
Ari Schneider contributed to this report from Colorado.