Some right-wing media figures and influencers have doubled down on the use of inflammatory rhetoric against the LGBTQ community after Saturday night’s shooting at a Colorado gay club that killed five people.
The rhetoric reflects what LGBTQ advocates have been warning about for months, specifically false claims that children are being sexualized or “groomed” by LGBTQ people and events. The Colorado shooter’s motive is unknown, but prime suspect Anderson Lee Aldrich faces five counts of first-degree murder and five counts of bias crimes that cause physical harm, more commonly known as hate crimes. Aldrich’s first court date is scheduled for Wednesday.
On Monday night, Fox News host Tucker Carlson condemned the shooting and focused on the suspect’s reported history of making a bomb threat in 2021. However, three minutes into his nearly 15-minute monologue, Carlson’s show featured a graphic caption, “STOP SEXUALIZING KIDS. On Tuesday night, Carlson received a guest who said shootings would continue to take place “until we end this evil agenda targeting children.”
Alejandra Caraballo, a clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, said the repeated messages from Carlson and others have opened the door to violence against LGBTQ people.
“Basically, the way they mitigate support for this type of violence is to make it appear morally justified in the minds of people who believe it,” Caraballo said. “They do this by constantly portraying LGBT people as pedophiles and carers, and so people feel morally justified in engaging in this violence.”
Some well-followed social media accounts that have routinely and misleadingly associated LGBTQ people with sexualizing children have done so in recent days as well.
Tim Pool, a conservative internet personality with 1.4 million followers on Twitter, targeted the Club Q venue where the shooting took place.
“We should not tolerate pedophiles fostering children,” Pool tweeted. “Club Q had a grooming event. How do you prevent the violence and stop the grooming?” Pool appeared to be referring to Sunday drag brunches for all ages hosted at the venue.
Ari Drenn, the LGBTQ program director at Media Matters, a progressive watchdog organization, called Pool’s tweet a false and “insanely dangerous and irresponsible statement.” Drenn, who follows media narratives about LGBTQ people, said that even in her “worst nightmare scenario” she didn’t predict the reactions to the mass shooting in Colorado.
“So many of these people seem to have stepped into territory where they are very committed to people taking matters into their own hands,” Drenn said.
Libs of TikTok, a prominent conservative social media brand founded by Chaya Raichik, which has 1.5 million followers on Twitter and focuses on the LGBTQ community, continued its usual practices on the platform Sunday and Monday and published videos and posts by LGBTQ creators with smaller followers and opening them up to harassment and criticism. In a post on Sunday, the account focused specifically on Colorado and highlighted a nonprofit organization that hosts events for kids interested in drag.
Matt Walsh, a prominent conservative YouTuber known for his criticism of LGBTQ people, released a video Tuesday titled “Why The Left Is So Desperate To Expose Children To Drag Queens.” Walsh, who has 1.9 million YouTube subscribers, called the shooting “tragic” but doubled down on his attacks on drag queens. “Is it that hard not to crossdress in front of kids? Is the compulsion that overwhelming?” he asked in the video. “If it’s causing so much chaos and violence, why do you insist on doing it?”
Carlson, Raichik, Walsh and Pool did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD, said the ongoing demonization of LGBTQ people by conservative media figures has taken its toll.
“Nobody holds them accountable for all the misinformation they spread, but then we have to prove we’re not what they say we are,” Ellis said.
At least one Republican politician has also targeted LGBTQ people on social media in the wake of the shooting. On Monday Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., posted a video on her recently restored personal Twitter account criticizing trans people.
“The left wants you to believe that you can make your gender whatever you want,” she said. “They want kids to learn in school that they can change their gender any way they want!”
A Greene representative responded to a request for comment from NBC News by asking, “Are you suggesting that chromosomes can be altered?”
The LGBTQ community faces a wave of threats and violence.
In a recent study from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University San Bernardino, researchers found that reporting of hate crimes against LGBTQ people in major cities increased by 51% in 2021.
Ellis said LGBTQ community leaders have seen “a dramatic increase” in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. She said over 344 anti-LGBTQ laws were proposed in this legislative session “to solve problems that never existed”.
“They use all this language, ‘grooming,’ ‘pedophiles,’ it’s mostly about kids and kids,” Ellis said. “Meanwhile, so many in our community are parents and have children and are trying to protect our children.”
Broader anti-LGBTQ sentiment has emerged on social media, researchers say.
Jeremy Blackburn, an assistant professor of computer science at Binghamton University in New York who studies online extremism, found that use of the term “grooming” on social media increased by 100% as of March compared to early 2022.
On Twitter, use of the anti-gay swear word “fa—-” has increased significantly over the past seven days, according to data studied by a team of researchers from the Center for Strategic Communication at Montclair State University and monitors social media. Use of the word “groomer” on Twitter saw even greater growth, with data showing the word was mentioned almost as often in the past two days as in the past two weeks combined, the researchers noted.
Caraballo noted that the rising anti-LGBTQ discourse on social media was met with the reversal of bans on Twitter, where she said major anti-LGBTQ accounts that have been banned in the last five years are being restored and “taken up by were left off the leash”.
“This is a ‘break glass’ moment for social media,” Caraballo said. “This is preparing some very violent people to commit shocking acts of violence, and it’s all being shared on social media and on Fox News, on Tucker Carlson.”