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The right exploits Nashville shooting to escalate anti-trans rhetoric

Community members visit a memorial at the school entrance after a deadly shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville. (Cheney Orr/Reuters)

Conservative commentators and Republican politicians unleashed a new wave of anti-trans rhetoric following Monday’s shooting at a Nashville Christian school that killed six people, escalating a broader backlash to the rising visibility of transgender people in public life.

The attempts on the right to connect violence to transgender people come even though transgender people are rarely the perpetrators of mass shootings, which are overwhelmingly carried out by cisgender men, according to criminal justice experts. And trans people are more likely to be victims of violence than cisgender people, multiple studies have shown.

In Nashville, the shooter’s gender identity and motive remain unclear: police initially said the shooter Audrey Hale was a 28-year-old woman, and then later said Hale was transgender, citing a social media profile in which Hale used masculine pronouns. The Post has not yet confirmed how Hale identified.

At a vigil on March 29 in Nashville, Police Chief John Drake spoke about the emotional toll of the Covenant School shooting that killed six people. (Video: Reuters)

The data is clear: There is no ‘clear epidemic’ of transgender mass shooters

Nevertheless, Fox News host Tucker Carlson featured a photo of the shooter superimposed with the words “Trans Killer” on his Tuesday show. The chyron read: “We are witnessing the rise of trans violence.”

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) speculated on Twitter, as well as during a congressional hearing Wednesday, that hormone treatment may have played a role in the shooting, even though there is no evidence the shooter was on hormone therapy.

And former president Donald Trump on Wednesday, without evidence, also connected the Nashville shooting to hormone therapy and “the anger that was caused” during an interview with conservative talk radio host John Fredericks. Trump said he banned transgender people from serving in the military because “the amount of drugs they have to take is so incredible,” even though research and surveys show most transgender people do not undergo hormone therapy.

Studies examining the effects of testosterone therapy on aggression in transgender men have produced mixed results, with one review of scientific literature finding impacts on aggression would be short-term and concluding that more research is needed because available studies lack randomization and rely on self-reporting.

The attacks against transgender people and gender-affirming care come at a precarious time for trans rights in America.

“This has fit into their existing narrative presenting trans people as dangerous criminals, presenting gender affirming care as inherently dangerous, and it’s very alarming to see them turn this up to 11,” said Ari Drennen, a trans woman who monitors anti-trans rhetoric in conservative media as LGBTQ program director for Media Matters of America, a liberal watchdog group. “I didn’t really think it was possible to escalate from implying we are pedophiles, but we are seeing this escalate into people calling trans people violent terrorists.”

Kentucky lawmakers pass major anti-trans law despite pleas from legislator whose trans son died by suicide

At least 38 transgender people were killed last year and 50 were slain in 2021, according to tracking by the Human Rights Campaign. As #TransTerrorism trends on Twitter this week, LGBTQ advocates expressed concerns that anti-trans rhetoric in the wake of the Nashville shooting, which killed three children, will buoy a blitz of anti-trans bills in state legislatures to restrict access to gender-affirming medical care for both minors and adults.

At the Colorado Capitol, a resident testifying Tuesday against a bill to offer legal protections to out-of-state visitors seeking gender-affirming care invoked the Nashville shooter to contend that children “being manipulated by the transgender movement are confused and angry.”

While appearing Tuesday on Laura Ingraham’s prime time show on Fox News to discuss the Nashville shooting and “hate crimes” against Christians, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) criticized gender affirming care as mutilating children, adding: “All of this goes back to the fact, Laura, that we’ve got to get the facts here in this shooting, we’ve got to prevent this from happening again, we’ve got to tell the truth about what happened in Nashville.”

Others argued that the public focus should be on trans people, rather than guns.

Donald Trump Jr. on Monday night tweeted: “maybe, rather than talking about guns we should be talking about lunatics pushing their gender affirming bulls--- on our kids?” He followed up with a Tuesday tweet that said “there’s a clear epidemic of trans/non-binary mass shooters.”

The Washington Post’s Fact Checker found no epidemic of transgender mass shooters and gave Trump’s claim four Pinnochios, a designation reserved for “whoppers.”

Washington Post documentary: Masculinity and gun culture

Conservative commentator Matt Walsh, one of the most fervent anti-trans activists on the right, called the “gender ideology movement” the “most hateful and violent movement in America” on a Wednesday podcast episode entitled “Christian children murdered by trans mass shooter.” On Monday night he tweeted that “left wing trans extremists are violent, dangerous people.”

Since 2006, 96 percent of 340 mass killings involving a single shooter were committed by men, according to a Washington Post analysis of a database maintained by Northeastern University, the Associated Press and USA Today.

“This is a cisgender male phenomenon, by and large,” said Eric Madfis, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Washington at Tacoma, who has studied the gender dynamics of school shootings.

Madfis says researchers are interested in how masculinity influences shooters who are women or transgender. But transgender perpetrators of mass killings remain rare.

“You can’t use it to stigmatize and punish a whole community,” Madfis said. “This is not a good-faith effort at trying to address school shootings and mass shootings. This is a cynical, bigoted attack.”

Right-wing activists have previously blamed mass shootings in Highland Park, Ill., and Uvalde, Tex., on transgender people, without evidence. Conservatives also noted that defense lawyers identified the suspect in a mass shooting at an LGBTQ club in Colorado Springs last year as nonbinary, and a friend described a person who killed three in Maryland in 2018 as transgender.

Researchers say the other instances are not reason to suggest transgender people are more prone to violence than cisgender people. The Pew Research Center estimates 1.6 percent of the U.S. population identifies as trans or nonbinary.

LGBTQ organizations said the increased bigotry is putting trans people at greater risk.

“We know that the onslaught of rhetoric against our community is directly harming the mental and emotional health of our community,” Ash Orr, a spokesperson for the National Center for Transgender Equality, said in a statement. “There is a vocal minority of people who try to stoke fear of what they don’t understand, who label trans people as ‘other’ and tell us we don’t belong. Because of this, trans people, especially trans women of color, face very real threats and violence.”

Why so many mass shooters are angry young men

Studies show transgender people are disproportionately likely to be victims of violence.

Transgender people are four times more likely than cisgender people to be the victims of crimes including rape, sexual assault, and aggravated or simple assault, according to the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, a think tank that focuses on LGBTQ issues. The study relied on the 2017 and 2018 National Crime Victimization Survey, a comprehensive source of data that includes gender identity.

“It is a consistent finding that trans people have a high prevalence of experiencing violent victimization,” said Jody Herman, a senior scholar at the Williams Institute and co-author of the study.

A recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll of transgender and nonbinary adults, the largest nongovernmental survey of U.S. transgender adults to rely on random sampling method, showed the risks of violence they face. One in 4 trans adults say they have been physically attacked because of their gender identity, gender expression or sexual identity, and more than 6 in 10 (64 percent) say they have been verbally attacked.

Rebecca Stotzer, who has extensively studied violence against transgender people, said her research challenged stereotypes that trans people are mostly attacked by intimate partners.

“Violence can come from all sources in a transgender person’s life, from families, friends, acquaintances and strangers,” said Stotzer, a professor at the University of Hawaii’s Thompson School of Social Work and Public Health. “And it is lifelong.”

Ariana Cha, Casey Parks and John D. Harden contributed to this report.

The Nashville school shooting

What we know: The Nashville shooter fired 152 rounds into the private Covenant School during a rampage that killed six people, which has unleashed a new wave of anti-trans rhetoric. Released Nashville police bodycam footage shows officers confronting the shooter, and 911 calls capture the horror of the shooting. Experts say the police response in the Nashville school shooting was the “exact opposite” of the the Uvalde massacre response.

The victims: Three 9-year-old children, who were students at the school, and three adult staff members — the head of the school, a substitute teacher and a custodian — were killed. Here’s everything we know about the victims.

Who is the Nashville shooter? Police identified the shooter as Audrey Elizabeth Hale, 28, of Nashville. Hale was transgender, according to the police chief. Before the shooting, Hale warned a friend of “something bad” in Instagram messages. A motive is currently unknown.