Just hours after a gunman opened fire in an LGBTQ nightclub late last weekend, Colorado Congresswoman Lauren Boebert offered her prayers for the five people killed and the dozens of others wounded in the assault.
“The news out of Colorado Springs is absolutely awful,” the Republican lawmaker wrote on Twitter early Sunday. “This morning the victims & their families are in my prayers. This lawless violence needs to end and end quickly.”
Boebert’s sympathetic words were a far cry from the incendiary language she often uses to denounce members of the LGBTQ community.
A report in August that documented a surge in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric on social media by politicians and other public figures named Boebert as one of the worst offenders.
The conservative congresswoman has claimed that transgender youth are used “for horrific sexual ‘research,’” described federal legislation to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity as “dangerous” and “disgusting,” urged Americans to “take your children to church, not drag bars,” and mocked gender nonconforming and transgender people by joking her preferred pronoun is “patriot.”
Police in Colorado Springs have yet to cite a motive for the deadly shooting in the Club Q nightclub, which was planning to host a drag brunch on Sunday to mark Transgender Day of Remembrance. But court records show authorities intend to file murder and hate-crime charges against the gunman, Anderson Lee Aldrich, 22.
Aldrich's defense team said in court documents filed late Tuesday that the suspect is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns.
Whatever Aldrich’s motive, gay-rights activists and their allies say the inflammatory language that politicians and other public figures frequently use to denigrate members of the LGBTQ community creates a hostile environment that fuels anti-gay stigma, promotes radicalization and, in a worst-case scenario, can lead to the kind of deadly violence seen at the Club Q.
“We have been drawing a direct line between the two things, and others should be connecting the dots as well,” said Jay Brown, senior vice president of programs, research and training at the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group.
“If you’re a politician or media figure who sets up the LGBTQ community to be hated and feared – not because any of us ever harmed you but because you find it useful – then don’t you dare act surprised when this kind of violence follows,” he tweeted Monday.
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‘Unprecedented and dangerous’
Hateful language against the LGBTQ community has soared as politicians on both the federal and state levels and members of the conservative media have pushed laws targeting transgender athletes, gender-affirming health care and family-friendly drag shows.
While gays and lesbians have long been targets for abuse, the transgender community in particular has come under attack recently as conservatives try to strip away their protections against discrimination.
The August report by the Human Rights Campaign documented “an unprecedented and dangerous” anti-LGBTQ misinformation campaign this year. Anti-LGBTQ language surged across social media platforms by over 400% following passage of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, which forbids schools from providing instruction or engaging in discussions on sexual orientation with younger students.
The inflammatory content, which often included slurs such as “groomer,” “predator” or “pedophile” to describe LGBTQ people, was largely driven by a small group of politicians and their allies to rile up extreme members of their base ahead of November’s midterm elections, the report said.
The report named Boebert, Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, activist and “Libs of TikTok” founder Chaya Raicheck and Christina Pushaw, press secretary for Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, as among the most prolific offenders.
Colorado state Rep. Brianna Titone, the state’s first openly transgender lawmaker, called on Boebert to resign following the deadly rampage at Club Q.
“Thanks for the ‘thoughts and prayers’ but that does nothing to offset the damage that you directly did to incite these kinds of attacks on the LGBTQ+ community,” Titone tweeted. “You spreading tropes and insults contributed to the hatred for us. There's blood on your hands.”
Ben Stout, a spokesperson for Boebert, declined to respond directly to Titone. Stout insisted Boebert isn’t anti-gay and “trying to attack the gay community,” but opposes “grooming” and “forcing ideology” onto children.
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Violence ‘not happening in a vacuum’
Other politicians and conservative media pundits also have ramped up their anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.
Ultra-conservative Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., spread the baseless claim on Twitter that the gunman who killed 19 children and two teachers in an elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in May was a transgender woman.
Social media influencer Dylan Mulvaney, who has documented her male-to-female transition on TikTok, was castigated by conservatives when she interviewed President Joe Biden at the White House in October and asked him whether states should have a right to ban gender-affirming health care.
“I don’t think any state or anybody should have the right to do that,” Biden said. “As a moral question and as a legal question, I just think it’s wrong.”
"Dylan Mulvaney, Joe Biden, and radical left-wing lunatics want to make this absurdity normal,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., wrote on Twitter.
Greene denounced Mulvaney as “a fake woman” and proclaimed that “the Democrat’s (sic) war on women is real, but the war on kids is evil.”
Greene also has claimed that straight people face extinction as more people identify as transgender and ridiculed the transgender daughter of Rep. Marie Newman, D-Ill., as “confused” and “your biological son.”
While mass shootings like those at Club Q and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., in 2016 are the most high-profile violent attacks on the LGBTQ community, other reports of harassment and intimidation are more common.
Nearly one in five hate crimes is motivated by anti-LGBTQ bias, according to a separate report by the Human Rights Campaign, which said 32 transgender or gender non-conforming people have been killed as a result of violence in 2022 alone.
“The violence is really not happening in a vacuum and is linked directly to anti-LGBTQ extremism,” said the HRC’s Brown, who is transgender.
Members of the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, crashed a drag queen story hour at the San Lorenzo Library in California in June and hurled homophobic insults as the performers read stories to preschoolers and their parents in an exercise intended to promote compassion and diversity. One of the perpetrators wore a T-shirt with a drawing of an assault-style weapon and the caption: “Kill Your Local Pedophile.”
Later that same month, a man with a gun showed up outside another drag queen story event in Sparks, Nevada, causing children and parents who were leaving to run back inside to safety.
Children’s hospitals in Boston, Seattle, Chicago and Washington, D.C., have been harassed online and faced death threats for providing gender-affirming care to young patients.
Stephanie Vigil, a Democrat elected in November to the Colorado state House district that includes Club Q, said she’s not surprised by the nightclub shooting.
“Some of the hatred and contempt for LGBTQ people has been really mounting in recent years, so it just felt more like this was coming, eventually,” she said. “… I think a lot of people around the city are just sort realizing that the threat has been there – they were kind of sleeping on it and didn't realize how serious it could get.”
But there were clues.
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Hate crimes on rise in Colorado
Colorado Springs, the state's largest predominantly conservative city, is some 70 miles south of Denver. It's home to the Fort Carson military base and the U.S. Air Force Academy.
The city has been growing at a double-digit rate since 1930, census data show. The majority of voters rejected a ballot question to allow sales of recreational marijuana within city limits earlier this month.
While other states have passed laws targeting the transgender community, Colorado has resisted. Democrats control both chambers of the state legislature. Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat who is openly gay, called the onslaught of anti-trans legislation "un-American."
An evangelical religious organization that brings in tens of millions of donations, Focus on the Family, is headquartered in Colorado Springs. The group has advocated against gay rights for decades. But after the Club Q shooting, the group's president, Jim Daly, took to Twitter to denounce "this senseless violence" and said it "exposes the evil and wickedness inside the human heart."
Between 2018 and 2020, the latest year for which there is FBI data, hate crimes in Colorado more than doubled to 281 incidents, with the state on a generally increasing trend for the last five years, said Jeremy Shaver, senior associate regional director for the Anti-Defamation League’s Mountain States Region.
Hate crimes against LGBTQ individuals are the second most common hate crime in Colorado after race, ethnicity and national origin, Shaver noted.
“These reports are simply those that were made to law enforcement agencies in Colorado and then passed along to the FBI, so that’s part of our challenge,” Shaver said. “We anecdotally have heard for a while and have believed that hate crimes are underreported in Colorado and most of them go underreported."
Shaver coordinates the coalition Hate Free Colorado, of which the Anti-Defamation League is a member. In late September, the group released a statewide survey it commissioned on hate crimes experienced by Coloradans.
The group found that nearly three in 10 adults surveyed – equivalent to an estimated 1.25 million Coloradans, or 28% – said they had been targeted with verbal harassment, property damage, and/or physical injury within the last five years. Only 18% of those surveyed and who said they had been targeted reported the incident to the police.
The main reasons people didn’t report the crimes were variations on lack of trust or faith in the police and that no one will do anything or take it seriously.
Police did "NOTHING," according to a respondent who reported that, while walking a dog, a neighbor had thrown rocks at the victim and used an anti-gay slur, according to a summary of the survey results. They "did not even offer to file a report."
About 90% of the incidents involved verbal harassment, while fewer than 15% involved physical injury, the study found.
One third to one half of transgender and gender-diverse Coloradans experienced a hate crime or incident, and those who identify as LGBTQ+ are more than 1.5 times likely to experience a hate crime compared to heterosexual Coloradans, the study found.
Those who had multiple marginalized identities were even more likely to experience hate crimes. For example, nearly six in 10 LGBTQ+ people of color between the ages of 18 to 24 experience such an incident, Shaver said.
A group of law enforcement and community groups has worked for years to improve hate crime laws in the state, Michael Dougherty, district attorney for Boulder County, told USA TODAY.
In June 2021, the Colorado legislature passed a new law doing away with the requirement that a person could be prosecuted for a hate crime only if they targeted someone based on actual or perceived protected characteristics like race, religion, sexual orientation, Dougherty said.
Instead, the state lawmakers adopted language that allowed for a perpetrator’s mixed motive, that the intent to intimidate or harass another person is “in whole or in part” due to those actual or perceived characteristics, he said.
“The challenge with that is not everyone who commits a crime explains in advance or even after the fact why they did it,” Dougherty said. “And there’s not always one reason why someone commits a crime.”
For example, the motives of Pulse nightclub shooter Omar Mateen, who was fatally shot by police after killing 49 people, remain somewhat murky after early media reports suggested he had been targeting the LGBTQ+ community at the gay club rather than any downtown Orlando nightclub. At one point, Mateen said the shooting was "triggered" by the killing of an Islamic State leader in an airstrike in Iraq the previous month.
Under the Colorado law, sexual orientation includes a person’s “transgender status.” The bill received support from all the District Attorney Offices in the state of Colorado, Dougherty said, because of the importance of doing right by victims and ensuring justice for anyone involved.
The change, which has been in effect now for more than a year, has been a “positive step,” Dougherty saidand the office has been working cases that match the new, lower threshold.
Shaver said it’s important to remember the real people and the real lives impacted by hate crimes.
“We can talk about stats, we can talk about the numbers, we can talk about the reports,” he said. “But it’s critical to know that when an incident happens – particularly what happened at Club Q in Colorado – a sense of safety, belonging inclusion, purpose is destroyed, and that impacts an individual’s quality of life.”
Contributing: The Associated Press
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Colorado Springs shooting comes after swell in Anti-LGBTQ rhetoric