Even before police announced hate crime charges against Anderson Lee Aldrich, the 22-year-old man accused of orchestrating a massacre at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs over the weekend, it was obvious to queer and trans people that the nation’s latest mass shooting was yet another form of the anti-trans and homophobic violence that has been escalating in U.S. society, both structurally and interpersonally, as lies about our lives reach a fever pitch in the right-wing media.
The suspect, reportedly wearing tactical gear and wielding an AR-15-style semiautomatic assault rifle, chose a busy Saturday night to enter Club Q in Colorado Springs and quickly open fire, leaving at least five people dead and many more wounded. Officials said more lives would have been lost, but brave patrons managed to confront and subdue the suspect before police arrived, including a father and military veteran named Richard Fierro and another patron who turned high heels into a weapon. In a Facebook post, Club Q said the community is “devastated” by the “hate attack.”
The next day, November 20, was Transgender Day of Remembrance, an annual day of mourning for those who have been murdered as a result of transphobia that is often observed as a celebration of trans life. Club Q was scheduled to celebrate trans lives and resilience with a drag brunch featuring a “variety of gender identities and performance styles,” according to a flyer posted to the club’s Facebook page. Drag brunches and Transgender Day of Remembrance are two unrelated LGBTQ traditions, but both drag shows and trans people recently have become objects of misinformation-fueled obsession among right-wing media figures. A wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation, harassment and terror has followed.
From Colorado Springs to the White House, Club Q is described as a safe space for everyone — gay, straight, trans, bi, queer, nonbinary and otherwise. The club is a beacon of freedom in a conservative part of Colorado where people can let loose and be themselves. More than a bar, Club Q is a “secondary home” for members of a tight-knit scene. Any queer who has lived in smaller cities or conservative areas knows how precious and central to the community such a place can be.
Immediately after the attack, New Mexico-based writer and artist Pascal Emmer reflected on social media about his own experience of the tight-knit queer community in Colorado Springs. “I was a queer teenager in Colorado Springs in the late 90s,” wrote Emmer in a private post that he invited Truthout to publish quotes from. “Growing up there, the first queer community I had consisted of people much older than me. … Amidst a city that hated them, they loved and defended each other fiercely.”
Now, Club Q is the latest site of a horrific mass shooting by a young man who, like too many others before him, is widely suspected to be under the influence of conspiracy theories that bubble up from dark corners of the web before going mainstream on Fox News.
Emmer argued that the attack should be understood not as a mass shooting by a “lone wolf” with an individualized motive, but rather as a “murder carried out by an angry white man who has the backing of institutions made of thousands like him” and who is carrying out anti-trans and homophobic violence that “is structurally enacted at every level of government.” He added:
Colorado Springs is the perfect crucible for white supremacist militarism to flourish. It has four military bases, including one inside a hollowed-out mountain. It’s been headquarters to … Christian fundamentalist groups since the 70s. Conversion therapy was widely practiced there until it was recently banned in CO.
The shooting came after the right-wing media obsessed about drag shows for months, with popular propagandists falsely portraying performers as a threat to children if not all of Western civilization, according to an analysis by Media Matters for America.
Club Q was hosting a drag performance the night of the attack. Aldrich would only have needed to check Club Q’s Facebook page to know that an “all ages drag brunch” was scheduled for Transgender Day of Remembrance, and it will be of no surprise if the date of the massacre were chosen in a deliberate attempt to silence and terrorize LGBTQ people who observe this day across the country.
Transgender Day of Remembrance traces its roots to November 1999, when trans women organized vigils online, in San Francisco, California, and in Boston, Massachusetts. Rita Hester, a Black transgender woman, had recently been stabbed to death in her Boston apartment. Over the next decade, grassroots celebrations of Transgender Day of Remembrance popped up in cities such as Cleveland, Ohio, and eventually spread across the world.
Transgender Day of Remembrance is now observed annually to commemorate the lives of people who died as a result of anti-trans discrimination and violence. This day of healing, vision and remembering is also called Transgender Day of Resilience, and people celebrate trans joy and the many ways queer people come together to care for each other in a world where zealots and reactionaries still want us to hide behind closed doors — or worse.
LGBTQ people are at disproportionate risk of experiencing violence and mental trauma, with homeless queer youth and Black and Brown transgender women historically facing extreme levels of violence and discrimination. At least 32 trans and gender-nonconforming people have been killed in the United States this year alone, according to human rights groups. That number may increase as we learn more about the lives lost at Club Q.
Drag was an iconic and largely uncontroversial feature of LGBTQ culture just a few years ago, but nowadays videos of armed standoffs between anti-fascist activists and right-wing extremists outside of daytime, family-friendly drag shows regularly circulate online.
For this we can blame the coordinated right-wing attack on queer and trans lives — an attack waged collectively by right-wing political leaders, judges, school board members, militia members, and many others — who then disingenuously seek to deflect blame when the people who take their messaging seriously turn out to be violent gun fanatics with insecure masculinities. The politicians, pundits, social media personalities and publishers who have created the fever pitch of anti-trans rhetoric in the U.S. must be held accountable.
The attack did not occur in a vacuum. Across the U.S. and the world, mass shooters have targeted Black people, Jewish people, Muslims, immigrants and LGBTQ people after indulging in extremism and conspiracy theories online.
“America’s toxic mix of bigotry and absurdly easy access to firearms means that such events are all too common, and LGBTQ+ people, BIPOC communities, the Jewish community, and other vulnerable populations pay the price again and again for our political leadership’s failure to act,” said Kevin Jennings, CEO of Lambda Legal, in a statement after the Club Q mass shooting.
Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other civil rights groups are busy fighting a wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation introduced in red states across the country, with many of the bills targeting trans youth and, more recently, drag performances.
The people of Colorado Springs are suffering in unimaginable ways, and the trauma of the Club Q shooting is also a ubiquitous source of anger and anguish for all of us who have faced homophobic or transphobic harassment and attacks. We know that anti-LGBTQ terror is deliberate and harms the most vulnerable among us, even if the mainstream gay rights movement spent too many years ignoring the issue.
Anti-LGBTQ violence is inevitable when straight cis men, fearful of losing unearned power and sexual access to women in an increasingly queer society, are told over and over again that trans and queer people are hiding something dangerous or hoarding social capital that used to be reserved for them. As transgender activists have argued for months, liberals and progressives must forcefully challenge anti-trans and anti-queer narratives, legislation, policies and street forces on the right, or people will continue to be harassed and harmed. Indeed, violence against trans people in particular is clearly on the rise.
Violence and trauma will remain inseparable from queer and trans life as long as powerful pundits and politicians can claim with impunity that queer and trans people are somehow deceitful or simply do not exist. Until then, we have no choice but to remain alert in public and in our own spaces, and to protect each other in fierce and unimaginable ways.
As Emmer wrote:
Queer and trans people and allies at Club Q knew exactly what to do because their lives depended on it. They helped each other find safe shelter in dressing rooms. They defended each other, running toward the shooter to disarm him and risking their own lives to save more people’s lives. They cared for the wounded. They responded as a communal organism when the stakes were highest.
This violent attack could have happened on any one of our gatherings across the country on Sunday. This is why we must continue to gather together to remember and to celebrate, to sing and to dance and to attend drag brunches in support of each other and our various cultures and identities. It’s a means of building community, it’s a means of survival, and we will never be silenced.