In July 1920, the editorial page of The Washington Progress, a North Carolina newspaper, took up the problem of lynching and laid the blame squarely on Black people. The editorial offered a pro forma nod to legal respectability by acknowledging that “lynching is deplorable and cannot be approved.” But this show of condemnation was made merely to allow the editorialists to write that Black people were the root cause of lynching because there were too many cases where a ”white woman” was attacked by “a brute of a negro.” According to the editorial, “The negroes might as well realize this fact once for all. If the best element of the colored people will [choose to,] they can aid in stamping this crime out to retain the good feeling that now exists between the races. No matter how much lynching be deplored if this thing continues the crime of lynching will multiply.”
Sarah Churchwell quoted this editorial in her 2018 history Behold, America, noting that it shows how lynching was used to reinforce white supremacy. Lynching may have existed outside the law, but it upheld the racist status quo. Though the supporters of white supremacy frequently deplored the transgression against legal authority, they remained willing to use violence both to smear the Black victims of lynching and to terrorize the survivors. Lynching was no mere act of passion carried out by its perpetrators alone. It was an act of social violence that served racists who would never personally dirty their hands by tying a hangman’s noose.
On November 19, a gunman opened fire at Club Q, an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colo. The shooter killed five people and injured 25 before he was brought down by patrons. Mass shootings, including those motived by homophobia and transphobia, have become all too common in 21st-century America. What made the Club Q shooting a new development was the way the extreme right reacted to the incident. It abandoned the customary calls for thoughts and prayers accompanied by expressions of sympathy for the victims. Instead, the rhetoric on the right called to mind the lynching culture of the late 19th and early 20th century. The victims were blamed for their own deaths and injuries, with repeated suggestions that the very existence of gay and trans people in public spaces is the provocation that caused the crimes.
The alleged shooter, Anderson Lee Aldrich, came from a homophobic background. After Aldrich’s arrest, his father, Aaron Franklin Brink, told a reporter from CBS, “They started telling me about the incident, a shooting involving multiple people. And then I go on to find out it’s a gay bar. I said, ‘God, is he gay?’ I got scared, ‘Shit, is he gay?’ And he’s not gay, so I said, ‘Phhhewww…’” The implication is that being gay is worse than being a mass murderer.
Brink might be dismissed as an isolated bigot, but his scorn for the victims was echoed by many prominent figures on the right. Jenna Ellis, a lawyer who has served as adviser to Republican politicians Donald Trump and Doug Mastriano (who recently lost his bid to become governor of Pennsylvania), issued a statement saying that the “five people killed in the nightclub that night, there is no evidence at all that they were Christians. Assuming they have not accepted the truth and affirmed Christ as the lord of their life they are now reaping the consequences of having eternal damnation.”
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Matt Walsh, host of a show for The Daily Wire, suggested that the alleged problem of children attending drag shows was the root cause. “According to the left, the drag queen-child combination has become dangerous,” Walsh claimed. “They say it’s a ‘lightning rod’ for violent backlash.” He added, “But even by their version of events, if it’s causing this much chaos and violence, why do you insist on continuing to do it? If according to you, it’s like putting people’s lives at risk, if the effort to have men cross-dress in front of children is putting people’s lives at risk, why are you still doing it? Is it that important to you?”
On his nightly show on Fox News, Tucker Carlson featured Jaimee Michell, founder of an anti-trans group called Gays Against Groomers who blamed what she called the “evil agenda” of gender-affirming care for young people. According to Mitchell, “the tragedy that happened in Colorado Springs the other night was expected and predictable. We all within Gays Against Groomers saw this coming from a mile away. And sadly, I don’t think it’s gonna stop until we end this evil agenda that is attacking children.”
The victim blaming of Ellis, Walsh, and Michell should be seen as not just bigotry but also implicitly a threat. The right is trying to create a new lynching culture, with LGBTQ people as the target. The lynching culture of Jim Crow America had both a legal and an extrajudicial side. The legal side was all the laws that affirmed white supremacy. The extrajudicial side was the actual lynching, which was often winked at by the police and respectable society.
In 21st-century America, the right-wing push to reinforce heteronormative cultural domination has both a legal side and an extrajudicial side. The legal side can be seen in the anti-gay and anti-trans laws passed by governors like Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas. The illegal side comes from hate crimes like the Club Q massacre. The right-wing media cheers on the legal side of the homophobic and transphobic push, while also whitewashing the hate crimes or using them as a pretext to blame the victim.
As in the the early-20th-century fight against lynching, many centrist liberals are showing a deplorable tendency to equivocate in defense of human rights. On Friday, The New York Times ran an editorial on the dangers of political violence, with this penultimate paragraph:
A scene in Roanoke, Texas, this summer gave a chilling preview of what that future might look like if violence from the right begets violence from the left, in a country deeply divided and with far more guns than people. A group of armed right-wing demonstrators turned up to protest a drag queen brunch only to find another group of people, dressed in black and holding military-style rifles. The second group called themselves the Elm Fork John Brown Gun Club and reportedly took it upon themselves to provide security for the event. The local police separated the two groups and made no arrests, but this kind of confrontation is not a sign of healthy democratic debate.
The editorial seems to suggest that there is some equivalence between groups trying to defend the rights of drag queens to peacefully enjoy brunch and those who want to chase drag queens (and indeed all LGBTQ people) from public spaces. There is no such equivalence. Fighting the lynching culture of Jim Crow America required a recognition that the real problem was white supremacy. Fighting the new lynching culture means being no less forthright in condemning homophobia and transphobia.