Colorado Springs shooting: The latest in a transnational, upward trend of anti-LGBTQ hate

By: Elise Thomas

22 November 2022

Sunday’s fatal mass shooting targeting an LGBTQ+ club in Colorado Springs on Transgender Day of Remembrance is a tragedy, but not a surprise. As researchers of hate and extremism in multiple countries, my colleagues and I have seen a dramatic spike across the board in recent months in violent rhetoric, hate speech, threats and hostile fixation targeting LGBTQ+ communities in the US and around the world. This spike is evident across a broad spectrum of extremist communities– from the far right to Islamist extremists, to white nationalists and COVID-19 conspiracy theorists. While formal charges have yet to be filed, the Colorado Spring’s suspect is likely to face murder and “bias-motivated” charges in connection to the attack. The alleged gunman– Anderson Lee Aldrich– is likely just the latest materialisation of an extremist turning to real-world violence, leaving 5 dead, and 17 wounded. And it is, sadly, unlikely to be the last.

This spike in anti-LGBTQ+ hate being seen around the world tracks a parallel rise in rhetoric from right-wing politicians, media and illiberal strongmen who seek to stoke fear and antagonism about ‘gender ideology’, to demonise trans people and to frame the very existence of LGBTQ+ families as an attack on ‘traditional values’.

These conversations are taking place against a broader geopolitical backdrop in which a range of far-right and authoritarian political leaders and actors are wielding homophobia and transphobia for political ends. From the self-destructive aggression of Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia to Hungary’s rapid descent into autocracy under Viktor Orbán and the democratic collapse of Turkey, illiberal leaders have weaponised homophobia and transphobia into a cudgel for a broader attack on democratic rights and freedoms.

It’s happening in Western democracies too. We’ve seen it with the victory of Giorgia Meloni in Italy, the steady advance of the far right in France, and, of course, the sprawling state of ideological division and stochastic violence left in the US in the wake of the Trump administration, as well as on the rocky road to the 2024 Presidential elections. Homophobia and transphobia, sometimes wrapped in the euphemisms of ‘traditional values’ or ‘traditional families’, has played a significant role in the rise of these political movements.

Homophobia or transphobia are, of course, not new developments on the right of politics. However, the prominence which anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric has come to hold in so many mainstream and fringe movements is a new and profoundly concerning development. In Colorado the crimes are ‘bias-motivated’. In some places they’re hate crimes. In others they might be called terrorism. Regardless of what we name these actions, the hatred of LGBTQ+ people is likely at the core of an act that ended 5 lives just last weekend, and continues to affect the lives of those targeted in different ways around the world.

Violent words become violent action

Violent rhetoric is translating into violent action. Statistics across multiple countries reflect huge rises in homophobic and transphobic hate crimes. In the UK, homophobic attacks have doubled in four years based on Home Office statistics and attacks on transgender people have risen by 56% in the last year alone.

Against the backdrop of increasingly aggressive and derogatory rhetoric aimed at LGBTQ+ people by right-wing politicians in the US, including some with strong links to conspiracy groups such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, this year has seen surging violence targeting LGBTQ+ people, families and events. According to NGO The Human Rights Campaign, 2021 was the deadliest year on record globally for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals.

Across the broader global context, 2021-2022 has seen a significant spike in recorded hate crimes across LGBTQ+ people in multiple countries. Earlier this year, the EuroPride event in Serbia was briefly cancelled due to mass protests by far-right groups, biker gangs, football hooligans and religious nationalists. Serbian authorities stated that they could not guarantee the safety of the EuroPride given the number of credible threats of violence made against it. The march did eventually take place, guarded by over 5,200 police officers.

In the US, the UK and other countries around the world, far right and fringe groups have repeatedly targeted LGBTQ+ events with protests, particularly drag queen story hours. In June 2022 a gunman in Oslo killed two people and injured 21 in an attack on a gay club on the day of Oslo’s Pride march. In October 2022, a gunman in Slovakia killed two people outside an LGBT club; social media posts showed he held homophobic and anti-Semitic views.

The Colorado Springs attack is the latest in this pattern of violence targeting LGBTQ+ people and communities – but is unlikely to be the last.

The concurrent rise in both rhetorical and physical attacks on LGBTQ+ people and communities from many different corners of the world and of the internet is not a coincidence. Anti-LGBTQ+ hate is rapidly metastasising into a web of connective tissue between diverse forms of illiberalism and extremism, through shared narratives, content and rhetoric.

We don’t yet understand these dynamics well, and we need to

First and foremost, lives depend on it, as the Colorado Springs shooting has so violently demonstrated this week. Anti-LGBTQ+ animosity directly generates, and indirectly contributes to, harm to millions of people around the world and undermines basic democratic liberal principles of equality, tolerance and freedom of expression.

Secondly, for extremism researchers, tracing those narrative and content streams could be like contrast dye in a CT scan – helping to show the nature of the system it runs through. The Petri dish of the online environment and media ecosystem of the 2020s is rapidly reshaping not only the nature of extremist movements, but also the ways in which different extremist communities and movements interact with one another and with formal political parties and leaders.

Anti-LGBTQ+ hate highlights how the extremist and disinformation landscape is changing

Over the early years of the COVID-19 pandemic, amid a huge spike in conspiracy theories and disinformation, new information pathways developed between a range of fringe and extremist communities online. New transnational communities sprung up around conspiracy theories about the virus and the vaccines; pre-existing conspiracy theory communities like QAnon and Sovereign Citizen and anti-vaccine groups evolved and blended into the new cohort; far-right extremists capitalised on widespread frustrations, anxieties and distrust to insert increasingly overt antisemitic and white-nationalist twists to conspiratorial narratives; social media influencers built careers around conspiracy theories and fringe media empires found opportunities to reach new audiences.

These transnational networks – and the groups, influencers and cottage conspiracy media industries which feed off them – have in many cases outlasted their original raison d’être (purpose). The vaccine mandates and health restrictions which they evolved to mobilise against, and which used to be a source of energy and engagement for them, have largely faded away. They need a new source of fuel for their content and a new cause to rally people to protests – and for many, anti-LGBTQ+ hate appears to be it.

This is taking place against a broader geopolitical backdrop in which a range of far right and authoritarian political actors are wielding homophobia and transphobia for political ends.

Putin’s war on LGBTQ+ communities

The connection between transphobia, hyperventilated rhetoric about ‘gender ideology’ and attacks on the liberal democratic order was powerfully illustrated when Russia’s Putin gave a speech on 30 Sept announcing the greatest forcible annexation of territory in Europe since the Second World War.

In his speech, Putin treated the annexation as little more than prologue for a long, rambling diatribe on the evils of the West. He railed against “perversions that lead to degradation and extinction… that there are various supposed genders besides women and men, and to be offered a sex change operation” being imposed on Russia.

This tirade was building on over a decade of work by Putin and his administration to frame geopolitical competition between Russia and the West as a clash over ‘traditional values’, in a thinly-coded reference to acceptance and rights for LGBTQ+ individuals and communities. These so-called ‘culture war issues’ are an inextricable part of the Russian government’s strategy for pushing back, both at home and abroad, against the appeal of liberal democracy.

In 2022, the ‘culture war’ is also built into Russia’s narrative strategy in the literal war.  The role of homophobia and transphobia in Russian propaganda about the invasion of Ukraine is second only to its wild claims that the government in Kyiv is composed of Nazis (and, in a sign of how logically incoherent Russia’s propaganda has become, sometimes the two are even combined). As the war in Ukraine grinds on, at home the Russian government continues to pass a series of increasingly draconian legislation aimed at repressing, silencing and marginalising LGBTQ+ Russians.

Anti-LGBTQ+ hate in the Western populist toolbox

In Western democracies the dynamics play out differently, but remain closely linked to attacks on liberal democratic principles. It is no coincidence that many of the political leaders and parties at the forefront of anti-LGBTQ+ fearmongering are also leading the attack on democratic systems.

Orbán’s and Florida (US) Governor Ron DeSantis’s administrations offer a striking example of how these layers weave together in practice.

Stoking homophobia and transphobia has been a key component of Orbán’s political strategy. Orbán, like Putin, has fashioned himself as a champion of ‘traditional values’ and a bulwark against the degradations (as he characterises it) of liberal approaches to gender, sexuality and diverse families. He has used this as justification for imposing restrictions on democratic rights and freedoms for all Hungarians. Hungary, which EU legislators recently condemned as “no longer a full democracy,” has now been referred to the European Court of Justice over its anti-LGBTQ laws passed in 2021.

Orbán has also been actively working to export his model of democratic erosion via homophobia and transphobia as part of a broader international influence campaign, in particular targeting American conservative and far-right audiences. In a revealing speech at the 2022 CPAC conference in Texas in August, Orbán urged his American counterparts on the political right to “take back the institutions.” He told the audience that “in Hungary, we had to build not just a physical wall on our borders… but a legal wall around our children to protect them from the gender ideology which targets them.”

Earlier in the year, DeSantis (who is widely anticipated as a contender for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2024) appears to have already tried to put Orbán’s advice to build a ‘legal wall’ into practice. Reportedly inspired by the Hungarian government’s earlier anti-LGBT legislation, DeSantis signed the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill into law in March 2022 (sparking a fight with Disney in the process). The law bans public school teachers from “encourag[ing] classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels.”

LGBT groups have attempted to challenge the law in the courts, on the basis that it violates the constitutionally protected rights of free speech, equal protection and due process of students and families (in October the case was struck down by a judge on the basis that the plaintiffs failed to show they had legal standing, but the groups are able to file a revised lawsuit).

The political discussion around the Don’t Say Gay bill sparked a huge rise in online hate speech and anti-LGBTQ+ slurs, according to a report from the Centre for Countering Digital Hate and The Human Rights Campaign. It also played a central role in the emergence of a new conspiracy theory narrative, the inherently homophobic and transphobic ‘Groomer’ conspiracy narrative.

The language of ‘groomers’ was reportedly part of a deliberate strategy by DeSantis and his team to appeal to conservative and right-wing American constituencies by baselessly inferring a connection between Democrats, LGBTQ+ communities and paedophilia.

Intentionally or not, the language appears to have been a clear dogwhistle to conspiracy theory groups, particularly groups descended from QAnon and Save The Children movements. These conspiracy theories are based in part around the belief that a cabal of Democrats and other high-profile left-wing figures are harvesting the blood of children. This in turn ties back to older conspiracy theories including the Satanic Panic and the antisemitic blood libel conspiracy theory.

The ‘Groomer’ narrative has subsequently bounced around the world, amplified through the complex transnational fringe networks which evolved during the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been adopted and adapted by far-right and white nationalist groups, conspiracy theorists, Islamist extremists and others.

What this example illustrates is the interconnected and highly transnational nature of illiberal political forces and fringe and extremist communities in 2022. Within a matter of months, ripples from legislation passed in Hungary have contributed, via a circuitous route, to legislation and political conspiracy theories in the US, far-right protests and targeted harassment in the UK and anti-LGBTQ+ mobilisation in the Middle East.

LGBTQ+ rights are the canary in the coalmine for democratic liberalism

Anti-LGBTQ+ hate and the purposes it fulfils for illiberal and extremist actors is not a fringe issue. It is not something which affects only a small minority of people.

Combatting queerphobia matters, in an intense and personal way, for LGBTQ+ communities, but it also matters for everyone who is committed to the values of liberal democracy. It matters to everyone who is concerned by the rise of extremist movements, and to everyone who wants to live in societies which are free, safe and fair. In short, it should matter to everyone.