Fear pervades trans community amid focus on Nashville shooter's gender identity

Shortly after news broke Monday of a fatal shooting at a private Christian Nashville elementary school, police said the suspect was transgender. This detail, according to trans people in the state, has poured fuel on an already combustive environment that has led many of them to fear for their safety.

Police say Audrey Hale, who was killed by responding officers, fatally shot three 9-year-old students and three staffers at The Covenant School. Though police have said there is no known motive for the shooting, some conservatives have blamed the shooting on the suspect’s gender identity.

Within 10 minutes of police saying that the suspect was transgender, the hashtag #TransTerrorism trended on Twitter. Around the same time, Republican lawmakers — including Sen. JD Vance, R-Ohio, and conservative firebrand Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. — insinuated in social media posts that the shooter’s gender identity played a role in the shooting. And by Tuesday morning, the cover of the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post read: “Transgender killer targets Christian school.”

“We are terrified for the LGBTQ community here,” Kim Spoon, a trans activist based in Knoxville, Tennessee, said. “More blood’s going to be shed, and it’s not going to be shed in a school.”

Denise Sadler, a drag performer who is transgender, said she had already hired four armed guards before Monday’s shooting to secure a drag show she is hosting at a gay bar in Nashville this weekend. Following the anti-trans rhetoric spawned by the shooting, Sadler said she is now planning to hire eight.

“You don’t know if [the shooter’s gender identity] is going to trigger a community of people who already hated us to come and try to shoot us to prove a point,” Sadler said. “At the end of the day, there’s a lot of hurt going on, there’s a lot of anger going on, there’s a lot of confusion going on.”

During a news conference Tuesday, Nashville Police Chief John Drake said a motive for the shooting was still unknown. The day prior, however, his response when asked if Hale’s identity was connected to the motive left the door open to speculation.

“There is some theory to that,” Drake said. “We’re investigating all the leads.”

It is also unclear how police knew that the suspect was transgender.

Trans men are assigned female at birth and identify as men, while trans women are assigned male at birth and identify as women. When asked Monday whether Hale was a trans man or trans woman, Drake said “woman,” though Hale’s LinkedIn account and interviews with those who knew Hale indicate otherwise.

Bill Campbell, the headmaster of The Covenant School from 2004 to 2008, said Hale attended the school as a child in 2005 and 2006 and identified as female during that time. As an adult, though, it appears Hale may not have identified as female. Hale’s LinkedIn page, which has since been removed, states that Hale used “he” and “him” pronouns. And a friend of Hale’s, Averianna Patton, who said Hale messaged her shortly before the shooting, said Hale signed the message “Audrey (Aiden),” using Hale’s given name along with a traditionally male name.

Aislinn Bailey, the acting president of Tri-Cities Transgender, a trans-led support and advocacy group based in Johnson City, Tennessee, said her initial reaction to news that the suspect was transgender was fear.

“I knew that as soon as anyone mentioned that, it was immediately going to become the center focus instead of what should be the focus, and that’s gun violence in this country,” Bailey said.

She condemned the choice by police to release information about the suspect’s gender identity when they did not appear certain about it.

“I think it was unethical and highly suspect that information like that, which they had to have known could cause backlash on the trans community — releasing information like that without it being verified, that’s unconscionable as far as I’m concerned,” Bailey said.

She added, “We were already fearing for our lives. Now, it’s even worse.”

Over the last several years, historic numbers of bills targeting LGBTQ people have been introduced in state legislatures across the country, including in Tennessee’s. This year, state lawmakers filed more than 400 such bills — more than half of them targeting trans people specifically — according to the American Civil Liberties Union and a separate group of researchers who are tracking the flow of legislation.

So far this year, Tennessee lawmakers passed two bills targeting LGBTQ people: A first-of-its-kind law that will criminalize some drag performances takes effect Saturday, and another that will ban gender-affirming care for the state’s minors becomes effective July 1.

Nathan Higdon, the chief financial officer of Knoxville Pride Center, is helping organize protests against the new drag law in Nashville and Knoxville this weekend. Higdon said that while he and other organizers are “scared s---less” that the conservative backlash over the shooter’s suspected gender identity will prompt violence, they’re going forward with the events as planned.

“The people who hate us are always going to hate us,” Higdon said. “We can’t not do these things. We just can’t not show up.”

Threats and attacks of violence directed at the LGBTQ community have spiked recently, with drag performances becoming a particularly popular target.

Last year, there were at least 140 incidents of protests and threats directed at drag events, which have deep roots in the queer community, according to the LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD.

Just last week, one man was arrested and another was left bloodied as dozens of people protested a Drag Story Hour event in New York City, and on Sunday, an Ohio church alleged on its Instagram account that it had been vandalized with Molotov cocktails after advertising that it would be hosting a Drag Story Hour event in April.

Jace Wilder, the education director for the Tennessee Equality Project, a Nashville-based LGBTQ advocacy group, said the suspect’s gender identity “does not change the horror of what they did no matter their reasoning.”

“It is unfair and inappropriate to ask trans people to speak on this person and the lives they took,” Wilder said in a message to NBC News. “We, just like all other Tennesseans, are mourning. There is no politics I could possibly care about right now when children are dead. End of story. I pray and will stand with the families of all the victims and for peace for our community and I hope we can all show up for them and each other in this time.”

CORRECTION (March 30, 2023, 11:40 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the suspect’s first name in a message sent to a friend. It was "Audrey (Aiden)," not "Aubrey (Aiden)."

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com