119%. In the six months since Elon Musk took over Twitter in October 2022, tweets mentioning the hateful ‘grooming narrative have jumped 119%. This bigoted portrayal shared by extremists claims that LGBTQ+ people are “pedophiles” who are “grooming” children in order to abuse them. Social media and online platforms have increasingly become breeding grounds for hate speech and extremist ideologies, and these trends have shown to be more and more true as it involves the LGBTQ+ community. Yet, these trends are not isolated to a virtual world. Violence against the LGBTQ+ community manifests itself in mass shootings like the Club Q massacre last November killing five, as well as numerous physical and property assaults on members of the community.
These attacks come at a time where anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric is running rampant in political discourse as well. Over 435 pieces of legislation targeting LGBTQ+ rights are currently being tracked by the ACLU, including over 100 bills introduced in 2023 alone. These are laws aimed at banning drag shows and transgender health care, in addition to providing employers with legal justifications for terminating employment of members of the LGBTQ+ community. Restrictive legislation and increased violence create a heightened sense of vulnerability and anxiety across the LGBTQ+ community, leading many members to ask the question, “Am I safe?”.
Even as attitudes of the American public have become increasingly accepting of the LGBTQ+ community, so too has the desire of politicians and extremists alike to silence them. This mobilization has given rise to online hate-speech and violence campaigns, notably on Twitter and far-right chat rooms like Gab. Twitter claims to be committed to, “combating abuse motivated by hatred, prejudice or intolerance”, but has no opposition to the $6.4 million in ad revenue they generate from accounts spreading anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric. This does not even encapsulate the whole of it, for this revenue comes directly from just five mainstream campaigns. There are countless Twitter users who post slurs referencing “groomers” and “pedophiles” on a daily basis. Extremism researcher Rita Katz said that in her 25 years of work in the field, she has never seen calls for violence to the LGBTQ+ community of the magnitude which she is now.
Club Q. Pulse nightclub. Hundreds of assaults on LGBTQ+ individuals and threats to pride parades and community centers. Calls for violence against LGBTQ+ individuals are not confined to Twitter and secure chat-rooms; the trajectory of online hate speech amplifies the threat of physical danger and violent assaults to the LGBTQ+ community.
Just a few weeks back, six people were shot and killed at The Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee. This is yet another incident of senseless violence targeted against America’s schools. Shortly after news developed of this deadly assault, police identified the shooter as transgender. Anger at the incomprehensible acts of any school shooter, regardless of identity, is understandable and completely justifiable. However, the fact that the Nashville shooter was transgender has sparked a broader outrage senselessly directed towards transgender communities across America that were already facing hate, bigotry, and threats of violence.
The obsession with the shooter’s gender identity is not one which we’ve seen in other instances of mass casualty, suggesting that transphobia is at play. Within 10 minutes of identifying the shooter as transgender, the hashtag #TransTerrorism was already trending on Twitter. This was coupled with Republican lawmakers echoing similar sentiments across their social media platforms, suggesting that the shooter’s gender identity influenced the attack. This fuels a dangerous, false narrative that transgender people are violent killers of children.
Because of this unfortunate backlash, fear is permeating through transgender communities across America, especially in Tennessee. Transgender activist Kim Spoon lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, and feels that, “More blood’s going to be shed, and it’s not going to be shed in a school”. Transgender drag performer Denise Sadler has similar fears and has begun hiring armed guards as protection for her drag shows. Performers like Sadler are already struggling to reckon with the fact that Tennessee lawmakers propose banning drag performances across the state, infringing upon not just people’s identity, but also their livelihood. Rather than uniting us in shared grief from the Nashville attack, these narratives further fracture societal divisions and spread hateful rhetoric against trans people.
As legislators continue to target LGBTQ+ communities across the country, hope lies in the hands of community-based organizations. The Campaign for Southern Equality works to provide Southern LGBTQ+ communities with grassroots activists and response training, as well as necessary resources for LGBTQ+ services.
The McCain Institute is proud to partner with students in leading the fight against targeted violence in its various forms, including targeted violence against the LGBTQ+ community. For example, as a part of the Fall 2022 Invent2Prevent student-innovation competition, students from the University of Houston created Trans4Nation, an organization that combats the growing disrespect, discrimination, and violence toward the transgender community through empathy, opportunity, and support. Their internet and social media campaigns provide resources across Houston’s LGBTQ+ community, in addition to their community-building efforts such as drag-brunch. Students from Iowa State University put forth a similar campaign offering support across their local community.
Like all else that is worth fighting for, protecting LGBTQ+ individuals from acts of targeted violence against them will not come easily. However, there is room to be optimistic. In the face of growing violence and targeting of the LGBTQ+ community, it is these community-oriented solutions that will allow us to combat hate and offer hope for a better tomorrow.
Steven Blum is a junior fellow with the Preventing Targeted Violence program at the McCain Institute at Arizona State University. He is a senior at American University’s School of International Service majoring in international relations with a focus on human rights and a minor in international business.