This story originally appeared in Tennessee Lookout.
Over the past year, Wendy McCown-Williams has noted how heated political discussions about the transgender community have impacted her business.
McCown-Williams, a transgender woman, has owned a gay bar in rural Tennessee for six years and welcomes everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or political leanings. Drag shows are common at their Bar Temptation – often used to raise funds for charities.
But in recent months, the McCown-Williams store in Cookeville, Tenn., has been the target of harassment.
“I’ve been at this location for six years, but over the last year I’ve had more disgusting emails and vile comments on my bar page,” she said.
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And after the recent shooting at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado that killed five people, McCown-Williams wonders if running a gay bar in rural Tennessee is worth it.
“I don’t know if I could live with myself if something happened,” she said.
Targeted violent attacks have left some owners of LGBTQ-friendly businesses fearing for the safety of employees and customers.
Armed security is now on guard most nights at DRUS Place in Memphis.
The increased security at DRUS Place was a reactionary response to the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando that killed more than 40 people. More exits have been added; New windows improved the field of vision for employees, who were trained to be aware of their surroundings at all times.
“So (safety) is really nothing new to us,” said DRUS Place owner Tami Montgomery.
“It’s unfortunate that this is the world we live in, but the safety of our employees and customers is all that matters. We will do everything we can to ensure that we continue to do everything,” said Montgomery.
At Temptation, McCown-Williams discussed with her staff increased security measures following Saturday’s mass shooting in Colorado Springs.
Patrons will no longer be allowed to bring large bags and additional cameras will be installed, McCown-Williams said. Staff will also undergo additional safety training, she said.
But these measures may not be enough to prevent “people from coming to shoot,” she noted.
Last Saturday night, a man armed with two guns entered Club Q in Colorado Springs and immediately opened fire, killing five people and injuring at least 19 others. The shooting suspect had evaded Colorado’s “red flag” gun laws despite a 2021 incident in which he allegedly threatened his mother with a homemade bomb, according to AP News.
Among the dead was a Memphis native, the Commercial Appeal reported.
Violence against the LGBTQ community could be a direct result of political attacks on transgender youth, drag shows and LGBTQ people in general, advocates said.
Following the Colorado shooting, the Tennessee Equality Project and Tennessee Equality Project Foundation on Tuesday called on Tennessee lawmakers to withdraw legislation targeting the LGBTQ community.
“Sen. Jack Johnson, Rep. William Lamberth and Sen. Janice Bowling could play important roles in protecting LGBTQ businesses and patrons by withdrawing their discriminatory laws, Executive Director Chris Sanders said.
“The Tennessee Baptist Convention could help by reversing its recently passed resolution attacking gender-affirming care for transgender youth, drag shows, and LGBTQ people in general. There’s a lot of hatred to relax, but we’d love to speak to anyone who wants to reverse the damage their rhetoric and actions are causing,” Sanders said.
In recent months, Tennessee politicians have introduced legislation aimed at banning gender-affirming grooming for transgender youth and introduced legislation to criminalize some drag show performances.
In October, Vanderbilt University Medical Center temporarily halted gender-affirming surgeries on patients under the age of 18 after being criticized by both Republicans and the Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh.
Walsh then held a rally to protest gender-affirming care of transgender youth and was supported by Tennessee lawmakers including Sen. Marsha Blackburn.
As a result, McCown-Williams said she wasn’t surprised the LGBTQ community had been targeted.
“Verbal trash angered people,” she said.
The investigation into the Colorado Springs shooting is ongoing and the full picture of the shooter’s motives has yet to emerge.
But McCown-Williams believes conservative lawmakers targeting the transgender community are also a factor. Her bar’s social media page often reflects far-right talking points.
“Hide your children,” wrote one commenter, echoing false accusations from the transgender community.
“I think if they’re not careful, they’re going to end up with people going to these events and influencing people,” McCown-Williams said.
“These people didn’t wake up one day and decide that drag shows that have been around for decades are grooming kids,” she said. “For artists, this is a way to make a living. Can you imagine someone disagreeing with your job and making laws because they don’t like it?”