Some right-wing media figures and influencers have doubled down on the use of inflammatory rhetoric against the LGBTQ community in the wake of Saturday night’s shooting at a Colorado gay club that killed five.
The rhetoric mirrors what LGBTQ advocates have warned about for months, most notably false claims that children are being sexualized or “groomed” by LGBTQ people and events. The Colorado shooter’s motive is unknown, but the primary suspect Anderson Lee Aldrich is facing five counts of first-degree murder and five counts of bias-motivated crime-causing bodily injury, more commonly known as hate crimes. Aldrich's first court appearance is scheduled for Wednesday.
On Monday evening, Fox News host Tucker Carlson condemned the shooting, focusing on the suspect’s reported history of making a bomb threat in 2021. Three minutes into his nearly 15-minute monologue, however, Carlson’s show displayed a graphic reading “STOP SEXUALIZING KIDS.” On Tuesday evening, Carlson hosted a guest who said shootings would continue to happen "until we end this evil agenda that is attacking children."
Alejandra Caraballo, a clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, said that the repetitive messaging from Carlson and others has opened the door for violence against LGBTQ people.
“The way they soften up the support for this kind of violence is essentially by making it seem morally justified in the minds of people who believe this,” Caraballo said. “The way they do this is by constantly painting LGBT people as pedophiles and groomers, and so people feel morally justified in carrying out this violence.”
Some well-followed accounts on social media that have routinely and misleadingly associated LGBTQ people with sexualizing children continued to do so in recent days.
Tim Pool, a conservative internet personality with 1.4 million followers on Twitter, targeted the venue, Club Q, where the shooting happened.
“We shouldn’t tolerate pedophiles grooming kids,” Pool tweeted. “Club Q had a grooming event. How do prevent the violence and stop the grooming?” Pool appeared to be referring to all-ages drag Sunday brunches that were being hosted at the venue.
Ari Drennen, the LGBTQ program director at Media Matters, a progressive watchdog organization, called Pool’s tweet a false and “insanely dangerous and irresponsible thing to say.” Drennen, who tracks media narratives around LGBTQ people, said not even in her “worst nightmare scenario” did she predict the responses to the Colorado mass shooting.
“So many of these people seem to have crossed over into territory where they’re very comfortable advocating for people to take matters into their own hands,” Drennen said.
Libs of TikTok, a prominent conservative social media brand created by Chaya Raichik that has 1.5 million followers on Twitter and focuses on the LGBTQ community, proceeded with its usual practices on the platform Sunday and Monday, republishing videos and posts from LGBTQ creators with smaller followings and opening them up to harassment and criticism. In one post Sunday, the account focused on Colorado specifically, highlighting a nonprofit that hosts events for kids interested in drag.
Matt Walsh, a prominent conservative YouTuber known for his criticism of LGBTQ people, published a video on 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 to not crossdress in front of kids? Is the compulsion that overwhelming?” he asked in the video. “If it’s causing this much chaos and violence, why do you insist on continuing to do it?”
Carlson, Raichik, Walsh and Pool did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of the LGBTQ advocacy GLAAD, said the ongoing demonization of LGBTQ people by conservative media figures has taken its toll.
“No one is holding them accountable for all of the misinformation they’re spreading, but then we need to prove we’re not what they say we are,” Ellis said.
At least one Republican politician also targeted LGBTQ people on social media in the wake of the shooting. On Monday, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., published a video on her recently reinstated 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 in school to learn that they can change their gender to whatever they want!”
A representative for Greene responded to a request for comment from NBC News by asking, “Are you suggesting that chromosomes can be changed?”
The LGBTQ community has faced a wave of threats and violence.
In recently published research from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University San Bernardino, researchers found that reports of hate crimes against LGBTQ people in major cities increased by 51% in 2021.
Ellis said leaders in the LGBTQ community have “seen a dramatic uptick” in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. She said over 344 anti-LGBTQ bills have been proposed this legislative season “to solve problems that never existed.”
“They use all of this language, ‘grooming,’ ‘pedophiles,’ it’s mostly around kids and children,” Ellis said. “Meanwhile, so many in our community are parents and have kids and are trying to protect our kids.”
Broader anti-LGBTQ sentiment has been growing on social media, according to researchers.
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% beginning in March compared to the start of 2022.
On Twitter, the use of the anti-gay slur “fa----” had a notable increase in the past seven days, according to data reviewed by a team of researchers at the Center for Strategic Communication at Montclair State University, which studies and monitors social media. Use of the word “groomer” on Twitter saw even greater growth, with data showing almost as many mentions of the word in the past two days as in the past two weeks combined, the researchers found.
Caraballo noted that rising anti-LGBTQ speech on social media has been met with the rolling back of suspensions on Twitter, where she said major anti-LGBTQ accounts that were suspended in the past five years have been reinstated and “let off the leash.”
“This is an ‘In emergency break glass’ moment for social media,” Caraballo said. “This is priming some very violent people to do shocking acts of violence, and this is all being pushed on social media and on Fox News, on Tucker Carlson.”