Survivors of a deadly attack at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs and other advocates told a U.S. House panel Wednesday that political rhetoric and policy fights dehumanize LGBTQ people and contribute to such violence.
Democrats and Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee largely sympathized with the survivors, but drew different conclusions about the root issues and what should be done next. Republicans said Congress should focus on rising crimes against all victims, pledging to make the issue a priority when they take control of the House next month.
Two survivors of the Nov. 19 Club Q attack and the club’s founding owner testified about the shooting, which they said in addition to the physical harm it caused shattered the sense of safety and community the club represented to the LGBTQ community. Five people were killed in the attack, and 17 others suffered gunshot wounds.
“Club Q was a second home and safe space not just for me, but for all of us,” one survivor, James Slaugh, said.
“Outside of these spaces we are continually being dehumanized, marginalized and targeted. The fear-based and hateful rhetoric surrounding the LGBTQ+, especially around trans individuals and drag performers, leads to violence. It incites violence.”
The club has received “hundreds of hateful comments” since the shooting last month, founding owner Matthew Haynes said. He read a sample, which included anti-gay slurs, praise of the shooter and wishes that more LGBTQ victims had died.
Despite the ongoing hate, the survivors said they would persist.
“Hateful people want to drive us back into closets and live our lives in fear,” Slaugh said. “But we cannot be afraid. No bullets will stop us from being proud of who we are or will injure the support and love that exists in our community.”
Part of the fault for anti-LGBTQ violence lies with politicians who seek advantage in diminishing LGBTQ people, witnesses told the panel.
Haynes was at the White House on Tuesday to see President Joe Biden sign into law a bill to protect same-sex marriages, he said. The joy and pride he felt at the signing was undercut by the knowledge that 169 House Republicans voted against the measure, he said.
“You as a leader sent a clear message: It is okay not to respect the basic human right of loving who you love,” Haynes said of the House members who voted against the measure. “We are being slaughtered and dehumanized across this country in communities you took oath to protect. LGBTQ issues are not political issues. They are not lifestyles, they are not beliefs, they are not choices. They are basic human rights.”
The enactment of a controversial state law in Florida this year to restrict teachers from discussing LGBTQ issues was one example of a threat to LGBTQ people by making their existence a matter of policy debate, witnesses said.
“The debate over the humanity of LGBTQ people is making life harder and less safe for people, especially in the state of Florida,” Brandon Wolf, a survivor of the 2016 attack at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida, said at the Wednesday hearing.
Olivia Hunt, the policy director for the National Center for Transgender Equality, said 85% of transgender youth reported that “public debates about their civil rights” had negative psychological effects.
Democrats on the panel largely agreed with witnesses that political rhetoric contributed to an atmosphere of violence against LGBTQ people.
“We currently live in an unsafe America for LGBTQ people,” committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, said. “The horrific attack at Club Q is yet one more avoidable symptom of a larger epidemic plaguing our nation: a culture of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and violence from politicians and political extremists.”
Wolf, who is an LGBTQ rights and gun safety advocate, named “right-wing extremism” as contributing to anti-LGBTQ violence, a characterization some Republicans on the panel objected to.
Republicans refocus on broader crime
Left-wing extremism also led to violence, as in the case of the 2017 shooting targeting Republican House members at a baseball practice that left Louisiana Republican Steve Scalise badly injured, Republicans on the panel said.
“We are hearing a lot about right-wing extremism and violence,” Georgia Republican Jody Hice said. “Obviously, violence of any type is a poison, as is left-wing violence.”
Ranking Republican James Comer of Kentucky, who is in line to become the panel’s chairman in January, said there has been rising violence against Asian Americans, Jewish Americans, Christians and other groups.
“It’s easier to blame Republicans than have a serious discussion about the rise of violent crimes across the nation, including this individual’s horrendous crimes at Club Q in Colorado,” Comer said. “Instead, we should be focused on the alarming rise in violent crime across our country today — crimes that target all races and ethnicities.”
Comer and other Republicans did blame Democrats, though, for championing policies they said weakened police.
They referred to the “defund the police” movement that some activists pursued in 2020. While many cities did not lower police department funding, anti-police rhetoric and restrictions on police activity have led to more crime, Wisconsin Republican U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman said.
“This police hatred, where police have to be so careful about what they do and as a result they become passive policemen, is one of the reasons why not just in Milwaukee but around the country we’ve seen an increase in the number of murders,” Grothman said.
Charles Fain Lehman, a public safety researcher at the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, said that 50,000 to 80,000 more police officers should be hired across the country to reach the level of policing before the Great Recession.
But LGBTQ advocates said the problem of anti-LGBTQ violence should be seen as a distinct issue from general rises in crime.
Although LGBTQ people are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of sexual abuse, they are often framed as dangers, Hunt said.
That is particularly true of a recent uptick in the misuse of the word “groomer,” which has been co-opted by anti-LGBTQ people to describe transgender people as predators and used as a rationale for denying rights to them, she said.
“This misuse of terminology has become part of a political discourse around trans people, and is invoked as a reason to further restrict our rights in the name of protecting children,” Hunt said. “This same rhetoric has subsequently been used as justification for violent anti-LGBTQ activism.”