Colorado Springs: Far-Right Influencers Made LGBTQ People Into Targets
The mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs, which saw a 22-year-old man charged with hate crimes and murder on Monday, came after years of intensifying anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, acts of violence and intimidation, and discriminatory legislation from far-right individuals and groups, including powerful Republican politicians.
These actors have made LGBTQ Americans into targets: of hateful social media posts that direct harassment, threats, and attacks at schools, hospitals, and individuals; of abuse, intimidation, and violence from hate groups; of laws that limit their care or censor information about gender and sexuality.
Anti-LGBTQ influencers channeling hate
A cluster of online influencers have ramped up bigoted and conspiracy-laced messaging in the last two years, directing hostile attention at drag shows, businesses, Pride festivals, children’s hospitals, and other places where LGBTQ people come together or receive care.
Many such peddlers of fear and disinformation about LGBTQ people – including the Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh, his boss Ben Shapiro, and Candace Owens – took to Twitter in the wake of the shooting to attack “the left” and “Democrats” for drawing the obvious link between months of heightened anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and homophobic and transphobic murders. The attack, which killed five people and injured 25, took place on the eve of the Transgender Day of Remembrance, though it’s unknown if the shooter chose the date on purpose.
For her part, Chaya Raichik greeted news of the mass shooting in Colorado with a post on Twitter directing her followers’ attention to a youth-oriented LGBTQ nonprofit in that state and two state representatives who had expressed support for it.
Since early 2021, Raichik has posted a stream of transphobic and homophobic messages on platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Substack, and far-right favorite, Gab, under the pseudonym “Libs of TikTok.” Her typical operating procedure involves spotlighting LGBTQ users of the platform TikTok, especially trans people, and targeting them individually for mockery and abuse.
She helped popularize the anti-LGBTQ slur, “groomer,” which falsely equates non-heterosexual sexualities and non-cisgender gender identities with pedophilia. The “groomer” smear also plays into a conspiracy theory that underpins the propaganda of Raichik and other like-minded influencers: that LGBTQ people and their sympathizers have entered mainstream institutions to prey on children, recruit them to “transgenderism” and divide them from their families.
Raichik has also branched out into anti-Black racism, with tweets denying that George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, mocking the death of Ma’Khia Bryant, and taking pains to deny the existence of systemic racism. She has directed outrage towards schools offering racially inclusive curriculums.
Originally, Raichik used her platform to single out LGBTQ people and school teachers with inclusive approaches to education, many of whom would subsequently receive harassment and death threats. But her online schtick has evolved to encompass campaigns against school districts, libraries and hospitals.
Hospitals and medical workers across the country have been subject to harassment and even bomb threats after being targeted in posts from Raichik and others including Matt Walsh. In June, members of the Proud Boys hate group attacked a Drag Queen Story Hour event at a San Lorenzo, California public library after Raichik highlighted it. Alameda County Sheriff’s Office investigators reportedly said that Libs of TikTok had caused the attack.
Later that month, more Proud Boys tried to break into a bar that was scheduled to host a drag event after Raichik alerted her followers to the event.
Also in June, Hatewatch reported that Raichik had posted about a Pride event in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, days before police thwarted an attempted disruption of the event by white nationalist hate group Patriot Front.
Security experts have described Raichik's output as "stochastic terrorism," by which they mean that her hateful rhetoric is calculated to promote violence in some proportion of her followers.
Her posts frequently contain false information. Raichik has presented fake curriculum materials as if they were real and presented covert recordings of uninformed responses from non-medical hospital staff as if they represented treatment policies at the facility.
Her habit of spreading hate and disinformation has seen Raichik briefly suspended from the platforms she is active on, including Twitter. Since Elon Musk acquired the platform, however, Raichik has availed herself of the opportunity to purchase a "blue check," and has even engaged in ableist banter with the new proprietor.
Raichik tried hard to maintain her anonymity as the author of the hate account, but the Washington Post unmasked her in April, noting that Raichik's "content is amplified by high-profile media figures, politicians and right-wing influencers."
Raichik has been a guest on the Joe Rogan Experience, and her content has been promoted by far-right media figures and influencers including Tucker Carlson, Glenn Greenwald, Jesse Watters, Laura Ingraham and Donald Trump Jr.
Her tweets frequently form the basis of content pushed out by right-wing media - from items on Carlson's Fox News show to dozens of articles in so-called " pink slime" junk news sites.
More disturbingly, Raichik and other anti-LGBTQ influencers have shaped policy by encouraging divisive campaigning and mustering support for anti-LGBTQ laws.
DeSantis dances to Raichik's tune
In March, Christine Pushaw, press secretary to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, defended the state's so-called "Don't Say Gay" bill with anti-LGBTQ smears accusing people of "grooming" children.
The bill, which DeSantis signed into law later that month, would prevent teachers from discussing gender and sexuality in any way with children in kindergarten through third grade. Critics have pointed out that the rule would prevent children with LGBTQ parents from participating in age-appropriate activities like making family trees. The bill also allows state intervention on any discussion of gender and sexuality in public schools through high school.
Also in March, Pushaw credited Raichik's account with having "opened her eyes" to conspiracy-minded views on schools' approaches to gender and sexuality in the classroom.
This was evident in scores of interactions between Pushaw and Raichik on the platform stretching back to June 2021, at the beginning of Raichik's focus on anti-LGBTQ campaigning.
Florida’s law is just one of many recent pieces of state-level legislation across the U.S. targeting LGBTQ people, and especially trans people. Five other states have passed laws that censor classroom discussion of gender and sexuality, and four more require parents to be notified ahead of such discussions.
Eighteen states, meanwhile, have passed laws banning trans women and girls from competing in K-12 girls and women's sports. Some of these laws also ban their participation at the college level.
In Arizona and Arkansas, gender-affirming care for trans youth is banned, and in Alabama providing such care is a felony crime. Other states, including Texas, have attempted to pass similar laws. The American Academy of Pediatrics laid out their best practices for gender-affirming care in 2018, highlighting in particular that such care improves mental health outcomes for trans youth, especially in contrast to “conversion” models of intervention. Contrary to persistent disinformation from right-wing reactionaries, such care never includes surgical or chemical castration.
As far back as 2016, many states attempted to pass so-called “bathroom bills” mandating that public restrooms in state-owned buildings could only be used by people according to the sex assigned on their birth certificates. Three states – Alabama, Oklahoma and Tennessee – still have such laws on their books. Missouri and South Dakota, meanwhile, prohibit schools from adding LGBTQ-specific provisions to schools’ nondiscrimination policies.
Anti-LGBTQ hate on the campaign trail
In 2022, encouraged by political operatives like Christopher Rufo, many Republicans made "anti-woke" messages targeted at LGBTQ people the centerpiece of their midterm campaigns.
In practice, this meant an unprecedented volume of demonizing anti-trans ads, funded by well-heeled PACs like the American Principles Project, a creature of far-right billionaire Richard Uihlein.
Anti-trans political ads did not stop on Election Day. On Monday, Herschel Walker’s campaign released an ad whipping up fear about trans girls and women competing in sports according to their gender identity, which referred to them as “biological males.” Walker has been delivering regular anti-trans stump speeches during his effort to unseat Sen. Raphael Warnock in Georgia, where the candidates now face a runoff.
Some commentators suggested that the GOP has employed this strategy to mobilize white Evangelical Christian voters, so that they would turn out in sufficient numbers to neutralize the backlash against the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which overturned 50 years of legal precedent safeguarding access to abortion.
Rufo, a Gig Harbor, Washington based far-right propagandist and a fellow at the hard-right Manhattan Institute, was initially prominently involved with the conservative campaign to demonize critical race theory (CRT), which the right used as a proxy for all forms of inclusive education.
In August, Rufo explained to the New York Times that he had advocated for Republicans to pivot from anti-CRT campaigning to attacking LGBTQ-inclusive curriculums. He told the newspaper,"The reservoir of sentiment on the sexuality issue is deeper and more explosive than the sentiment on the race issues."
Days before that profile was published, Rufo appeared alongside DeSantis at the signing of the Stop W.O.K.E. Act, which bans workplaces and schools from teaching that any person is privileged due to their race or sex and was the culmination of DeSantis's multi-faceted public fight with the Disney corporation.
Many commentators - including some Republicans - have attributed the GOP's failure to generate a "red wave" election to the malicious anti-LGBTQ messaging Rufo recommended. Based on the lukewarm outcome, such rhetoric either did not resonate with, or repelled voters around the country.
That rhetoric did pay off for DeSantis, however, who won almost 60% of the gubernatorial vote, led his party to large majorities in both houses in the legislature, and helped elect a slate of hand-picked school board candidates who were also running on platforms that opposed inclusive curriculums.
His successes have seen DeSantis touted as a possible 2024 election candidate, raising the prospect that the use of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and policy as political tactics will continue on the national stage.
Anti-LGBTQ Hate in Colorado
In Colorado, meanwhile, far-right figures – including Republican politicians – also actively spread smears, conspiracy theories, and falsehoods about LGBTQ people in the months leading up to Saturday’s mass shooting.
Not long after she was first elected to the House of Representatives, Lauren Boebert, the far-right Republican congresswoman for Colorado’s 3 rd District, responded to the passage of the federal Equality Act with transphobic remarks claiming trans people would spy on “young girls” in school locker rooms.
Boebert – who has embraced the QAnon conspiracy theory, hurled Islamophobic slurs at a fellow congresswoman, and amplified Donald Trump’s false claims about a stolen 2020 election – narrowly won re-election this month.
Colorado Springs, where the shooting took place, has itself has long been a hub for the Christian Right, which for decades has pumped out anti-LGBTQ propaganda in the name of a narrow and exclusionary definition of family.
In the 1990s, Colorado Springs’s Focus on the Family led the fundamentalist charge in support of Amendment 2, a Colorado ballot measure that banned municipalities from including LGBTQ people in their anti-discrimination policies. Though the initiative passed in 1992, in 1995 the Supreme Court found that it violated the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
More recently, evangelical churches have reportedly advocated for fundamentalist candidates in school board elections, but still manage to retain their nonprofit status despite prohibitions on electioneering.
The SPLC’s hate map lists four anti-LGBTQ hate groups in the state, with two – the Family Research Institute and the Pray in Jesus Name Project – headquartered in Colorado Springs. The state also plays host to active chapters of other hate groups who have taken violent or disruptive actions against LGBTQ people, like the Proud Boys and Patriot Front.
Since the nadir of Amendment 2, Colorado has evolved to boast one of the most progressive policy slates for LGBTQ rights in the country.
But more liberal laws have not made the state immune from the right-wing moral panic sweeping the country.
Proud Boys attempted to disrupt Denver drag shows as early as 2019. Denver-based drag performers told reporters this year of a new atmosphere of confrontation and hostility at child-friendly performances around the state.
Now five are dead, at least 25 are injured, and an unknown number are traumatized for life by an act of violence primed by conspiracy thinking and hateful propaganda.
Photo by Helen H. Richardson/Media News Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images
For more resources, visit ONEColorado. If you were affected by the attack and need to access mental health resources, community support or you'd like to get in touch with law enforcement as a victim or witness, visit coloradosprings.gov/clubq. Finally, if you would like to donate to help the victims of the tragedy, visit Colorado Healing Fund.