Two survivors of the Nov. 19 attack on a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado, told members of Congress on Wednesday that they believe the shooting was the result of escalating anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.
They testified during the House Oversight Committee’s hearing on “The Rise of Anti-LGBTQI+ Extremism and Violence in the United States,” which occurred amid a nationwide wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation and an increase in hate crimes targeting LGBTQ people in major cities.
The committee heard from Michael Anderson and James Slaugh, two survivors of the shooting at Club Q, which left five people dead and 17 others injured after a gunman entered the club and opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle.
Anderson, who was bartending at the club that night, attributed the violence, in part, to “hate speech” coming from people in power, and he had a message for them.
“To the politicians and activists who accuse LGBTQ people of grooming children and being abusers: Shame on you,” he said. “As leaders of our country, it is your obligation to represent all of us, not just the ones you happen to agree with. Hate speech turns into hate action, and actions based on hate almost took my life from me at 25 years old. I beg you all to consider your words before you speak them, for someone may use those words to justify action — action that may take someone’s life.”
James Slaugh, who was shot in the arm during the attack, said rhetoric that threatens to restrict what sports transgender people can play, what bathrooms they can use and the legitimacy of LGBTQ people’s marriages and families is connected to the shooting.
“The hateful rhetoric we’ve heard from elected leaders is the direct cause of the horrific shooting at Club Q,” he said. “We need elected leaders to demonstrate language that reflects love and understanding — not hate and fear.”
Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, an LGBTQ media advocacy organization, said in a video message to the committee that the group has been tracking and reporting on “dangerous conditions for LGBTQ Americans.”
So far this year, states have considered more than 300 anti-LGBTQ bills, 20 children’s hospitals that provide gender-affirming medical care to minors have received bomb threats, and there have been nearly 150 attacks on LGBTQ events, Ellis said.
A GLAAD poll released last month found that 48% of LGBTQ people fear for their safety in the current political environment. That number was higher, at 72%, for transgender respondents.
“Why is this happening? It starts with candidates and politicians who deliberately spread disinformation and anti-LGBTQ inflammatory political messaging,” Ellis said, adding that slurs targeting queer people have surged online in recent months.
In the month after the Florida Senate passed the Parental Rights in Education bill, or what critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, on March 8, tweets mentioning the LGBTQ community alongside slurs such as “groomer,” “pedophile” and “predator” increased 406%, according to a report conducted by the LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign and the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate.
“This behavior is all exacerbated when bad actors have easy access to assault weapons,” she said. “There is a direct line from dangerous words to violent behavior for the LGBTQ community.”
Anderson and Slaugh, as well as Club Q founding owner Matthew Haynes, also called on Congress to take action to restrict access to assault weapons. Anderson specifically asked the committee to reinstate an assault weapons ban that lapsed in 2004. A 2019 study published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, among others, found that mass shooting deaths were reduced while the ban was in effect, and another found that a similar ban could have helped prevent some in the years since.
Haynes said he knows that the Colorado Springs community has been in the “thoughts and prayers” of many people, but that thoughts and prayers “are not changing the rhetoric of hate.”
He said that, though Club Q has received a lot of support, he has also received hundreds of hateful comments. He read two of them to the committee, and both included homophobic slurs. In one, the author said the shooter was “doing God’s work.”
He added that he attended the signing of the Respect for Marriage Act on Tuesday. The bill provides some federal protection for same-sex married couples, and Haynes said the event was the “first joy and pride” he has felt since the shooting. However, he said the 169 members of Congress who voted against the legislation sent him a message that “it is OK to disrespect and not support our marriages.”
“We are being slaughtered and dehumanized across this country in communities you took oaths to protect,” he said. “LGBTQ issues are not political issues. They are not lifestyles. They are not beliefs. They are not choices. They are basic human rights.”
The suspect accused of the Club Q shooting has since been charged with 305 criminal counts, including first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, first- and second-degree assault and bias-motivated crimes.
Though Anderson, the only bartender to survive the Club Q attack, said he will not forget the sound of rapid gunshots that he heard on Nov. 19, he still had a message of hope for LGBTQ people.
“To my fellow LGBTQ community, events like this are designed to discourage us from speaking and living our truth,” he said. “They are designed to scare us from living openly, courageously and proudly. We must not succumb to fear. We must live prouder and louder than ever before.”