The massacre recently at Club Q, an LGBTQ club in Colorado Springs, Colorado, was at once shocking and entirely predictable, like terrorist attacks on synagogues and abortion clinics.
Police are still investigating the motive behind the shooting, in which five people were killed and at least 18 others wounded. But we know that the suspect is facing hate crime charges and that the attack took place in a climate of escalating anti-gay and anti-trans violence and threats of violence.
We also know that, in recent years, the right has become increasingly fixated on all-ages drag shows, part of a growing moral panic about children being “groomed” into gender nonconformity. Club Q hosted a drag show Saturday night and had an all-ages drag brunch scheduled for Sunday. Perhaps we’ll learn something in the coming days that will put these murders, which took place on the eve of Transgender Day of Remembrance, into a new light, but right now, it seems hard to separate them from a nationwide campaign of anti-LGBTQ incitement.
During the early years of Donald Trump’s administration, conservatives downplayed the contempt for homosexuality and gender nonconformity that had once been central to their movement, foregrounding racial resentment instead. Opposition to gay marriage had become a political loser, and it was hard to pose as champions of wholesome family values while enthusiastically supporting a thrice-married libertine who’d made a cameo in soft-core porn. But in recent years, as growing numbers of kids started identifying as trans, the puritanical tendency on the right has come roaring back, part of an increasingly apocalyptic worldview that sees the erosion of traditional gender roles as a harbinger of national collapse.
Chris Rufo, the entrepreneurial activist who made critical race theory into a major political issue, shifted his focus to “gender ideology” in public schools. Lawmakers began to target pro-LGBTQ teachers and to accuse anyone who opposed them of being “groomers.” When Florida was debating legislation restricting classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ press secretary wrote on Twitter, “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children.”
The language of “grooming” recapitulated old homophobic tropes about gay people recruiting children, while also playing into the newer delusions of QAnon, which holds that elite liberals are part of a sprawling satanic child abuse ring. Conservatives hoped to turn this conspiracy theory into political power; according to the Human Rights Campaign, Republicans and Republican-aligned groups spent at least $50 million on anti-LGBTQ ads in the midterms.
Drag queens have been a particular obsession of those who believe that children are being lured into changing their gender or sexual orientation. “The drag queen might appear as a comic figure, but he carries an utterly serious message: the deconstruction of sex, the reconstruction of child sexuality, and the subversion of middle-class family life,” wrote Rufo in an essay about Drag Queen Story Hour, a public event series in which drag queens read to children and lead singalongs.
All over the country, Drag Queen Story Hours have been targeted by Proud Boys and other demonstrators, some heavily armed. In August, Republican congresswoman Lauren Boebert tweeted a photo of a flyer for a Drag Queen Story Hour at a Colorado public library with the words, “Sending a message to all the drag queens out there: stay away from the children in Colorado’s Third District!” The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh described drag events involving kids as a “cancer” and wrote that “just like cancer, stopping it is not a gentle or a painless process.”
It’s been clear for some time that there are people willing to act on such ideas. Just last month, a man in a red baseball cap firebombed a Tulsa, Oklahoma, doughnut shop that had hosted a drag event. According to The Tulsa World, the vandal “left a note on a neighboring business that contained Bible verses and hateful rhetoric.”
Now that a mass shooting has drawn attention to the danger of the right’s dehumanizing language, many of those who have demagogued about trans kids and drag queens are painting themselves as victims. “The quest by the Democratic leadership and media to link a horrifically evil shooting at a Colorado gay club to anyone who doesn’t support a progressive social agenda is ongoing and terrible for the country,” tweeted writer and podcaster Ben Shapiro. It was an attempt to frame any call for tolerance and responsibility as intellectual bullying.
There are, I believe, legitimate debates over questions like when puberty blockers should be prescribed or gender-confirming surgeries performed on minors. But people who hurl baseless accusations of child abuse are not engaged in a debate. Their project is one of demonization in the service of domination, akin to the anti-abortion extremists who put doctors’ faces on “Wanted” posters. They’ve been screaming that drag events — like the brunch that should have happened at Club Q on Sunday — are part of a monstrous plot to prey on children. They don’t get to duck responsibility if a sick man with a gun took them seriously.
Follow Michelle Goldberg on Twitter: @michelleinbklyn.