US right exploits Nashville school shooting to marginalize trans people

Right encourages hate towards trans community to avoid focus on gun control – but not everyone is fooled

By Chrissy Stroop  Published 4-5-2023 by openDemocracy

A protest at the Tennessee Capitol for stricter gun laws in the state. Photo: Shannon Watts/Twitter

 So far in 2023, there have been 90 incidents of gunfire at primary and secondary schools in the US. The most recent happened on 27 March at the Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee, a small private Christian school with classes ranging from preschool through to sixth grade (up to 12 years old). The Nashville shooter slaughtered six innocent victims, including three nine-year-olds, before being killed by the police.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, it was the 130th mass shooting of the year, meaning that mass shootings are currently occurring at a rate of about 1.5 per day in the so-called “land of the free”.

As usual, instead of considering serious gun reform, US conservatives are muddying the waters, trying to get the public to focus on anything but the fact that guns are the main problem here. Gun violence recently surpassed motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of death for young people in the US, but instead of doing something about that, Republicans are pushing hateful narratives about members of groups they don’t like, notably Democrats and trans people.

None of this is normal, and it is beyond unacceptable. Yet, because the US political system has baked-in advantages for white conservative Christians, giving them disproportionate power, these dynamics continue. There is no clear, immediate means of effectively disrupting them, so it can be difficult to remain hopeful.

Social media attacks

It has been difficult for trans people to respond to the violence because it quickly emerged that the 28-year-old shooter was a former student at the school who identified as a transgender man. With a trans person getting attention for committing such a heinous act, it seems awkward to point out how this gives the vast majority of trans people who would never do such a thing yet more reasons to fear for our own lives. The statement is true, but if trans people make it, we risk accusations of painting ourselves as the main victims of this crime when, of course, the primary victims are those who were killed and their surviving loved ones.

As soon as the news emerged that the shooter was transgender, right-wing trolls on social media predictably began painting a picture of a vengeful trans person bent on killing Christians, and to project this view onto the broader trans community. In any case, the police have not released the shooter’s manifesto and no motive has been released to the public. A fake manifesto made the rounds on social media, as did fake memes to bolster the emerging phoney right-wing narrative that transgender Americans have become increasingly “radicalised” and “violent”.

On the day of the attack, I was accused by a Christian troll (one who has been plaguing my Twitter mentions for years despite a block) that I was “conspicuously absent during this major news story about a Christian school being subject to a massacre” and that I “can’t muster up any empathy when it’s one of your own at trigger [sic] and pointing it at your enemies”.

In truth, I’ve been much quieter on Twitter in the last year than previously largely because my depression has flared up in response to current depressing events, among them the increasingly hostile, anti-trans climate we’re facing in the US.

While I am critical of anti-LGBTQ Christian denominations such as the Presbyterian Church of America to which the Nashville school belongs, and of the dogmatic, authoritarian, right-wing evangelical approach to education I experienced growing up, it’s absurd to suggest that any civilians going about their daily lives are “my enemies”. I cannot fathom how anyone is capable of doing violence to children, let alone gunning them down in cold blood.

But, fundamentally, I should be under no special obligation to say such things publicly simply because I’m a transgender atheist who grew up evangelical – no more than everyday Muslims should have to loudly disavow terrorism in the name of Islam after every Islamist terrorist attack.

For a member of a socially dominant group to place that burden on a member of a marginalised group is to further ‘other’ the latter group. The bigots and trolls screeching these demands know exactly what they’re doing.

Still, some local media outlets have handled the issue with impressive sensitivity. And many Americans, including many Tennesseans, clearly see through the right’s attempt to exploit a tragedy in order to further marginalise and target trans folks for what it is.

Nashville resident Anna Caudill, who lost her friend Katherine Koonce in the attack and has spoken to the media in its aftermath, has consistently and admirably pushed back against the anti-trans attacks on Twitter, even while grieving the loss of life. Anna is a fellow ‘exvangelical’; she remains a Christian, but fully accepts and supports LGBTQ rights and equality.

When I reached out to her for comment, she told me: “I’m trying to direct most of my posts and currency in this moment on Twitter to naming how the monetised anti-trans talk is a device to distract voters from acting on the convictions they express in polling around assault weapon bans.”

Speaking of gun control advocacy in Tennessee, I was deeply impressed by the thousands of protesters – including many parents and schoolchildren – who occupied the state capitol on 30 March, demanding that state legislators enact sensible gun regulations. Tennessee is so lax in this regard that it does not even require a concealed carry permit for handguns for people aged 21 and older.

Those peaceful protesters clearly weren’t buying the right-wing narrative that the problem is trans people, rather than unregulated access to guns. And most of the US public surely won’t buy the narrative that Tennessee Republicans tried to establish afterwards – that the protest was an “insurrection” like the 6 January insurrection in Washington, DC. Such false equivalence and whataboutism is a typical authoritarian tactic, and it is transparent.

At times, I find the situation in the US almost hopeless, and I’m tempted to fall into despair. The country’s political system will not be stopping mass shootings any time soon, which means more children and other innocent victims will die. Trans people like me will also continue to be victimised by violence and state persecution.

But when I look at the faces of those teens standing up to cops and legislators in footage of the Tennessee protest, they give me hope for the future in spite of myself, and help me find the will to keep fighting for a just, democratic American future.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence

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