How Anti-LGBTQ Rhetoric Foreshadowed a Deadly Shooting
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
Happy Thanksgiving. Even in the worst of times, there's something to be thankful for. I learned this years ago when my large family initiated a family tradition suggested by my niece: go around the table and say what you're thankful for. At first I was pretty snarky. Not so much anymore. Every year we suffer losses. But when you don't focus on what's good, you can forget what to cherish and what to protect. The New York Times noted there'd be lots of empty seats around holiday tables this year, in part because this was a bad year, a bad month for mass shootings.
NEWS REPORT This Thanksgiving, the community in Chesapeake, Virginia, is still grappling with the loss of six lives inside a Walmart Tuesday night.
NEWS REPORT Six people were shot and killed inside of that store. Police say the suspected gunman was also an employee at the store and then turned the gun on himself.
NEWS REPORT In Virginia, the suspect accused of killing three UVA football players and injuring two other students was arraigned in court today. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's one of those issues where reality is so unfathomably divorced from the political rhetoric, it's hard to breathe. Fact: guns and hate are killing the soul of the nation. Take last Saturday.
NEWS REPORT But we begin this hour with the latest on the mass shooting at a gay club in Colorado Springs.
NEWS REPORT A 22-year-old suspect in custody today after police say he opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle in an LGBTQ nightclub. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Robert Fierro, who served three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, was at Club Q with friends and family to watch his daughter's friend perform. He dragged the gunman down, pistol whipping with the assassin's gun and then called for medics. Reliving the nightmare of combat:
ROBERT FIERRO This whole thing was a lot. My daughter and wife should have never experienced combat in Colorado Springs and everybody in that building experienced combat that night — not to their own accord, but because they were forced to. They had to live with this now through whatever – it's a lot for any human man. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Tucker Carlson on FOX News.
TUCKER CARLSON So the most obvious question is why did Anderson Lee Aldridge shoot 30 people? And the truth is, we don't know. We do know he was clearly a troubled person. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Troubled enough, we learned, to threaten their own mother with a homemade bomb last summer. Someone whose parents dabbled in drugs and crime. Someone who, according to their lawyers, used they/them pronouns, now. Someone who spoke disparagingly of gays like their father. So with all that, ‘for the love of God,’ say the right wing pundits – ‘don't let the woke-ists dishonor the memory of the five victims by speculating on why they were singled out for murder.’
TUCKER CARLSON These were human beings. They were Americans. They were not props in a larger ideological war. And to reduce them to that is wrong. That's exactly what many politicians are doing right now. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Carlson again, 3 minutes after scolding others for politicizing the dead.
TUCKER CARLSON Children's Hospital in Boston, one of the most famous hospitals in the world, has admitted performing double mastectomies on children for no medical reason at all. There is no scientific justification for sexually mutilating kids. Is pointing that out an attack on gay people. Of course it is not an attack on gay people, period. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's just say that he didn't know that trans-affirming surgeries are not performed on minors, with very rare exceptions. Let's assume he was somehow ignorant of the alarmingly high rates of suicide, especially among trans youth — rates that increase if they lack the support of their families and communities. Take a breath and assume Tucker doesn't hate, quote, “gays.” He just really cares about the children. The focus of right wing politicians and media on hospitals offering gender-affirming health care has compelled the Children's Hospital of Boston, the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, the Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C., the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and the Vanderbilt University Medical Center to beef up security in the wake of rising threats of violence, bomb scares, and attacks on clinicians and staff. Fox News:
FOX NEWS The Democrats message going into the midterms is ‘Let's neuter your son. He's going through a phase, so cut it off. It's wrong not to. The drag shows, sex changes, and 45 pronouns are now a part of American foreign policy.’ [END CLIP]
FOX NEWS There is a sort of far-left LGBT activist contingent that will stomp over the blood of these dead bodies in order to push their agenda. Whether it is a gun control agenda, whether it is an agenda to bully and shame the people that are speaking up against drag queen story hour, against the sexualisation and grooming of children that is coming from these far left….
FOX NEWS Why do they do this? I mean, why do they play this game? Well, because they know that they can't defend their positions otherwise. They want the kids at the drag shows. They want them in the sex change clinics. But they dare not defend either stance out loud. They can't. So instead, they resort to the worst kind of emotional manipulation. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Apparently, Matt Walsh is emotionally manipulated by the sight of blood. But even before Club Q was sprayed with bullets in Colorado Springs, the intensity and volume and vehemence of the rhetoric left some in the LGBTQ community, reporters included, reflecting on a previous tragedy in 2016 — the massacre at Pulse, a gay nightclub in downtown Orlando.
NEWS REPORT That mass shooting leaves 50 people dead, 53 others wounded.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And they were just waiting for another violent inflection point.
JO YURCABA So my colleagues and I have talked about “When is the next Pulse going to happen?”
BROOKE GLADSTONE Jo Yurcaba is a reporter for NBC Out the LGBTQ+ section of NBC News.
JO YURCABA When I was talking to people in Colorado Springs, for example, Parker Gray, who is a trans man who's lived there for about five years, he said something that really struck me. He said, “When you have a community that is constantly vilified, that experiences violence, you can feel when a tragedy is coming.” He told me that the climate there has just been getting increasingly hostile for LGBTQ+ people, in part due to things that are being said at school boards related to, you know, any topic that touches on the LGBTQ+ community or just using the correct pronouns for transgender students. But it's also due to the national climate where we've seen more than 200 anti-LGBTQ bills filed this year and a wave of them over the past two years, and the majority of those targeting trans people in towns like Colorado Springs because it's also next to a military base, it's already more conservative. And so then when you have this national rhetoric coming and influencing that, he said it made him feel less safe going out to a place like Club Q.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And he wasn't the only one.
JO YURCABA No, he's not the only one. I've spoken with a number of people there now who say that they felt the same. I spoke to a trans woman named Elizabeth who said that she had eggs thrown at her. She was attacked after the Uvalde shooting. When there is a false conspiracy theory going around on the Internet that the shooter in that case was a trans woman. But she said, you know, she feels similarly that Colorado Springs isn't very safe. And for her, the case is particularly troubling because she actually moved to Colorado from Texas, hoping to find a more accepting environment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's dig into the nature of Colorado and Colorado Springs for a minute. Lauren Boebert is one of Colorado's congressional representatives. She's been way out in the extreme over her disdain for gay rights.
LAUREN BOEBERT It's kind of like what we've been seeing on the national news when a common athlete decides he feels pretty and wants to be a girl, then he can go and beat girls and win national championships. Where is the equality in this legislation for the young girls across America who have to look behind their backs as they change in their school locker rooms. Just to make sure there isn't a confused man trying to catch a peek. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Colorado Springs, where this shooting happened, not only hosts a military base, but also one of the largest mega-churches in the country. I don't know if that's relevant. The city was even called “the evangelical Vatican” at one point. So talk to me first about the environment in Colorado Springs.
JO YURCABA From what I've heard from people there, it really feels like a small town. And as someone who's lived near a military base because my parent was in the military, you just know that it feels much different than anywhere else. It feels like there's this strange underlying current of conservatism of what you'd think of as traditional American values. And then there's also, like you mentioned, the religious environments. That it's home to a large church, and there are actually four anti-LGBTQ hate groups located in Colorado. And so all of that comes together to make a place like Colorado Springs hostile for LGBTQ people. I actually spoke to a poet named James who wrote a poem about Club Q in 2019, and he told me that, you know, being from there, it just never felt like you could really be yourself out in public. We've also heard from people, you know, who say that they're afraid to hold hands with their partner out in public. And so that's why Club Q is really — places like that are so important for the LGBTQ community.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Naturally, the school board has been involved. They always seem to be. The vice president of the Colorado Springs District 11 Board of Education posted transphobic memes on social media. He later apologized. And in Colorado Springs, a transgender girl was kicked out of the homecoming dance because she wore a dress.
JO YURCABA Yeah, and these are a couple of the incidents that people have said have contributed to this climate feeling less safe. We're hearing similar things happening in Texas, in Florida, where the parental rights and education bill or the "Don't Say Gay" bill was passed. So this Colorado Springs is really an example of what we're seeing nationwide too.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The state has a kind of liberal reputation. It was among the first to legalize marijuana in ‘75. Colorado had the first county clerk to issue gay marriage licenses. It has some of the best legal access for transgender and non-binary people to update their gender markers on identity documents. And in fact, the Board of Education finalized and improved more inclusive K through 3rd grade social studies standards that will allow mention of the LGBTQ community. So I wonder whether the collision of human rights and far-right politics may have had something to do with this.
JO YURCABA Outside of just the biggest cities in the U.S., you're seeing a huge backlash to LGBTQ people gaining more rights or trans people being able to use the correct bathrooms in school. So what's happening is there are these little bubbles where LGBTQ people feel safe, but as soon as you get out of those cities, you're in communities where this disinformation being spread by the wave of legislation that we're seeing is really taking hold, and people are pushing back on the movement for inclusion and for more rights for LGBTQ+ people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You mentioned Parker Gray, who can pass as a cis man. He knows that other people don't have that luxury and they fear walking down the street. And I think many people who may think, oh, well, ‘trans is now a familiar word. People aren't invisible anymore. They're fighting for their rights’ may not realize that 2021 was the deadliest year on record for trans people.
JO YURCABA Yes, exactly. I think that some people, especially living in larger cities, think that trans people would be safer because we have so much more visibility. There are actors like Laverne Cox, Elliot Page, openly trans people who have a lot of visibility. But what's happening is that in response to that, there's been significant pushback from the far right and from people, you know, after marriage equality who think that LGBTQ rights has kind of gone too far.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The narratives that we hear, the anti LGBTQ narratives tend to be about how people in that community are dangerous groomers, so they pose a threat both to children and to the culture — that kind of thing. I'm just wondering where they're hearing these narratives, where they're coming from, and what news sources are propagating them. Is it still purely the province of niche right-wing media, or has it begun to filter out?
JO YURCABA Yeah, I think it's absolutely started to filter out. You mentioned Lauren Boebert earlier, and a report earlier cited that she, along with nine other politicians, are driving rhetoric that labels LGBTQ+ people as grooming children. So it's coming from these people who have huge platforms, national platforms, and then the media is reporting on that. And so their messages are getting spread that way. But then we're also seeing increased coverage of, for example, gender-affirming medical care for minors and advocates. And people I speak to every day have told me that what really troubles them is coverage, for example, in The New York Times that paints gender affirming care for minors as something that is debatable, as something where the medical community is split 50/50 and doesn't agree on it, when in reality that isn't accurate. All relevant major medical associations believe that this is necessary care and life saving care. And so this like false narrative in some media sources that's painting it as you know, there's a debate can be really troubling and dangerous.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So when The New York Times reports on something like this, there are people who legitimately have concerns in certain instances. I mean, is that not true?
JO YURCABA Yeah, no, that's absolutely true. And there are doctors who definitely don't agree with providing gender-affirming care to minors, but they're absolutely in the minority. I've spoken to, you know, dozens of doctors who provide this care, who say that it's been provided for decades, it's backed by research, and that there really isn't a 50/50 type of debate within the medical community. And what's happened is that the small number of people who disagree with it has been distorted by religious groups, by far-right groups, and played up to make it seem like it's more significant.
BROOKE GLADSTONE For a long time, commentators have characterized mass murders, especially committed by white people, not as a as a mounting threat, but as lone wolves. They're mentally ill. But step back and look at the phenomenon as a whole and maybe a different picture emerges. If they're mentally ill, then it's a national illness of hatred. And you see it normalized through outlets on the radio and TV and the Internet. What do you think, NBC reporter, is the role of media in perpetuating violence against LGBTQ communities? Is it offering a megaphone? Is it funneling that rage? You can't not report on it. That would be a journalistic crime.
JO YURCABA Katie Barnes at ESPN said something to me one time where they were like, you know, I cover all sides of the story. But you also have to clearly show readers, you know, what side has more support for it and what is grounded in science versus, you know, misinformation or religious extremism. And so I think that that is our job. We just need to accurately show, you know, where are these different motivations coming from, why are certain groups supporting different politicians, to really show people how this has come to be rather than just to sort of paint it as ‘there's like a large percentage of people who oppose gender affirming care and a large percentage who support it,’ which isn't an accurate picture. And we also need to give voice to the people who are actually affected. You know, I speak to doctors and trans people all the time who say that they're just shocked by the number of articles that come out that don't quote a single trans person when they're about the health care that trans people receive. So I think centering those voices is also critically important.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So where do you think this hatred begins? Let us assume that simply by becoming visible, which is a human right, puts the trans community at risk. So that said, does it begin with the politicians? Does it begin with the media? Is it just a propensity towards fear of others and the human soul?
JO YURCABA Mm hmm. I did an interview with Heron Greensmith, a professor at the Boston University School of Law, and this was months back, about growing anti-trans sentiment and the wave of anti-trans bills and really the root of them. And they told me that all of this is connected to incredibly well-funded religious groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Family Research Institute, and that their influence as a result is really powerful. And, I mean, if you take a look at all of the bills attempting to ban gender-affirming medical care for trans minors in the country, the majority of them are titled Save Adolescents from Experimentation Act or the SAFE Act. They all have almost that exact same name. Their text is almost identical, and that's because they've been put together by the same religious groups and passed to Republican legislators in those states. Researchers have said to me that this is a coordinated effort with those groups, and that's where a lot of this is coming from.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Jo, thank you very much.
JO YURCABA Thank you. Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Jo Yurcaba is a reporter for NBC news where they cover LGBTQ+ issues. Coming up, an original OTM exposé of right wing talk radio. This is On the Media.
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