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Why extremism experts say it's worth discussing the Colorado shooting suspect's pronouns

New information from the alleged shooter’s online presence and former neighbor has led to skepticism among some extremism experts about the suspect being nonbinary.
Photo illustration of people mourning at a memorial for the victims of the Club Q shooting, a silhouette behind a Pride rainbow flag, mouse cursors, computer glitches, and a distorted silhouette.
Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images

Attorneys for the alleged gunman in the deadly shooting at an LGBTQ club in Colorado said in court filings the suspect is nonbinary and uses “they” and “them” pronouns. This revelation has raised more questions than answers about the attack and the person police have charged for it.

These questions, along with new information about the suspect’s alleged connection to a racist and antisemitic “free speech” website, have led experts in online extremism and LGBTQ advocates to raise concerns that the suspect’s claim could be an effort to further harm the queer community.

Anderson Lee Aldrich, 22, allegedly entered Club Q in Colorado Springs just before midnight on Nov. 19 and opened fire, killing five people and injuring 17 others. Four days later, in one of several court documents filed by the public defenders representing Aldrich, a footnote stated that Aldrich is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. 

Aldrich was charged Tuesday with 305 criminal counts, including first-degree murder and bias-motivated crimes. In court appearances this week, Aldrich’s lawyers and District Attorney Michael Allen used he/him pronouns for Aldrich, but Aldrich’s attorneys referred to their client as “Mx. Aldrich,” using a gender-neutral honorific. 

It’s unclear whether the public defenders were accidentally using he/him pronouns for Aldrich, and their office has not returned a request for comment. A spokesperson for the district attorney’s office said, regarding the suspect’s pronouns, “The defendant will be identified as the defendant throughout proceedings,” but declined to comment further on both legal teams using he/him pronouns for Aldrich in court.

The situation has put LGBTQ people in a difficult place: Some have felt forced to invalidate the suspect’s gender identity and others have defended it, while noting that a nonbinary person could be capable of harboring anti-LGBTQ hatred.

Mourners gather at a memorial outside Club Q on Nov. 25, 2022, in Colorado Springs.Parker Seibold / The Gazette via AP

Online extremism experts say the suspect could be trolling — which is when someone makes an inflammatory or disingenuous remark meant to provoke — and that the discord and confusion created among the queer community and right-wing pundits could be intentional. Xavier Kraus, who said he lived next door to the suspect and the suspect’s mother from August 2021 to September 2022, said he believes the claim that Aldrich is nonbinary is “a total troll on the community, and a total troll on the system.” Aldrich, he said, never used they/them pronouns with him or mentioned being nonbinary.

Kraus said he and the suspect — public records show they lived one door away from each other in a Colorado Springs apartment complex — were close friends until a few months ago, when the two had a falling out. Aldrich made racist and homophobic statements, including saying they “hate faggots,” Kraus alleged, but Kraus said he was afraid to confront the suspect because Aldrich was “a very angry person” who owned guns.

“I think it’s an insult to those people that are actually going through personal struggles with their own sexuality and their own personal identity,” Kraus said of the suspect identifying as nonbinary. Kraus said he believes Aldrich knows there’s no “getting out of it,” so Aldrich is “going to make it as much of a show and a mockery and just confusing for everybody involved.” 

Kraus added, “That definitely seems like Andy, 100%.”

Jared Holt, senior research manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a global nonprofit combating online extremism and disinformation, said he was “immediately skeptical” of the Colorado suspect’s assertion. 

That skepticism only grew this week after NBC News reported that the FBI is looking into two websites connected to the suspect. One of the websites, which Kraus said Aldrich created in the spring or early summer, is a forum-type “free speech” site where people have anonymously posted racist and antisemitic memes, language and videos. 

A video on the site’s homepage advocates for killing civilians as a way to “cleanse” society, and it celebrates Brenton Tarrant, an Australian white supremacist who was sentenced to life in prison without parole for killing 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019. In one part of the video, there is an image of a wall that reads “Free Tarrant,” along with two other mass shooters, and “Race War.” A laughing face spins in the middle of the screen, next to the wall, and a message at the bottom reads, “We do a little trolling LOL.”

Holt said the site reminds him of 4chan, a forum website that became popular in the early 2010s. People can post anonymously on the site, and it has become a home for violent extremists.

“Chan culture is notorious for trolling — for provoking people and making them mad for no reason — and finding joy in being offensive or making a mockery of people,” Holt said. “If the suspect was plugged into chan culture enough to try to start a spin off of it, that tells me that they were pretty deep in what I would describe as bad internet.”

The suspect’s involvement in that side of the internet “points more toward the possibility that the suspect invoked nonbinary pronouns as a means to get one last insult in on the LGBT community,” Holt said. 

There is also an offensive article about Aldrich on Encyclopedia Dramatica, an extremist, racist and homophobic version of Wikipedia that describes itself as a “troll archive.” The article has been on the site since 2015 and is laced with personal attacks against Aldrich. 

Encyclopedia Dramatica praises those who kill gay and transgender people, and the site gave Aldrich a higher “score” on its mass shooter ranking because Aldrich “targeted fags.”

A moderator for the site — which has been tied to at least two terror attacks over the last five years — told NBC News that Aldrich has been a contributor since 2015. While the moderator declined to comment on the Club Q shooting, the entry about Aldrich was updated on Nov. 22, just days after the shooting, with the sentence, “It wasn’t our fault, we swear!”

Alejandra Caraballo, a clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, said Aldrich’s alleged presence on the site provides more evidence that Aldrich is aware of and likely has engaged in trolling in the past. 

For someone to have a page dedicated to them on Encyclopedia Dramatica, she said, “indicates that is someone who is deeply, deeply online and in online culture, and so they would know that this kind of trolling tactic would be effective after a shooting.” 

NBC News has not confirmed the veracity of the claims on Aldrich’s Encyclopedia Dramatica page, and it is unclear who contributed to the page’s contents. 

Tyrice Kelley, center right, a performer at Club Q, is comforted during a service at All Souls Unitarian Church in Colorado Springs, on Nov. 20, 2022.
Tyrice Kelley, center right, a performer at Club Q, is comforted during a service at All Souls Unitarian Church in Colorado Springs, on Nov. 20, 2022. Parker Seibold / The Gazette via AP

Some social media users have speculated that the footnote from Aldrich’s attorneys could be part of a larger strategy aimed at defeating the hate crimes charges, which typically lead to harsher sentences for those who are convicted. If Aldrich is LGBTQ, so the argument goes, how could Aldrich have been motivated by hate for a community that they belong to?

However, Jeff Wolf, managing partner and criminal defense attorney at Wolf Law in Denver, said Aldrich’s public defenders likely included the footnote simply because they wanted their client to be “referred to as they should be.” He added that he doesn’t believe the attorneys would’ve included the footnote if they thought Aldrich was lying.

“Because of the ethical guidelines on attorneys about what we file with the court, we can’t file something that we believe is knowingly false,” Wolf said. 

He added that the suspect’s gender identity doesn’t mitigate the hate crime charges anyway.

“Even if you identify as the same group, you could have still committed a crime because of either self hate or hate of the community that didn’t accept you or that you couldn’t join because of your family,” Wolf said. 

While the suspect’s identity may not affect the hate crime charges, it has already been used by the right to create doubt that the recent wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation, bigoted language and attacks on drag performers has emboldened people who might want to harm LGBTQ people.

On his Nov. 23 show, Fox News host Tucker Carlson criticized a reporter whom he alleged connected the Club Q shooting to rhetoric that the suspect could’ve heard on Fox News. Carlson said the reporter alleged that Aldrich “was inspired by hatred for the nonbinary community that he learned on this show.”

“Well, actually, it turns out we discovered last night, that Anderson Lee Aldrich is — drum roll, please — part of the nonbinary community. He doesn’t hate them. He is one,” Carlson told his audience. 

A representative for Carlson did not return a request for comment.

Holt said the response from Carlson is another part of why he believes it’s worth questioning the suspect’s claim.

“I think it’s worth confronting the folks online who have gotten a lot of attention for themselves and made a lot of money for themselves instigating anti-LGBT hate for the last couple of years and were very quick to grab this assertion from the alleged shooter’s defense counsel and just kind of ran with it to sort of wash their hands of the matter and change the conversation,” he said. 

Caraballo described the different potential effects of the suspect’s identity as a Kobayashi Maru, which is a training simulation in “Star Trek” where there are no winning outcomes. 

Regardless of whether the suspect is being sincere, Caraballo said, the suspect’s claim could allow anti-LGBTQ activists and pundits to spread the false idea that nonbinary and trans people are unstable and dangerous. And if Aldrich is lying, those pundits could also use it as a reason to refuse to recognize self-identification in other contexts, such as in prisons, when trans women request to be housed with women. 

“I think it’s a slap in the face when the people who don’t believe nonbinary people even exist all suddenly take this at face value and then immediately use it to further harm the community,” she said.

The best course of action is to take the suspect’s assertion “in stride” and use they/them pronouns for Aldrich, while at the same time keeping in mind the suspect’s alleged crimes, past and the impact that this kind of troll could have on the LGBTQ community, according to Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate. 

“When a racist troll trolls a Black person, they’re seeking to make them exit that space, feel unsafe and leave, and, therefore, voluntarily abrogate their right to to speak out freely and equally in communal spaces,” he said. “In this instance, they’re trying to make people say, ‘Well, maybe we should rethink self-identification.’ And I think it’s absolutely crucial that we don’t play the troll’s game.”