Details about the Nashville shooter's gender identity sow confusion and disinformation

The gender identity of the suspect in this week’s Nashville school shooting has become one of the central storylines in a horrific tragedy that left six people dead, including three 9-year-old students.

Just hours after the shooting at The Covenant School, authorities disclosed that they believed that the suspect, Audrey Hale, who was fatally shot by police, was transgender.

But there is still, days later, confusion and misinformation about how exactly Hale identified and whether Hale’s gender identity had anything to do with the motivation behind the massacre.

Some on the far right rushed to blame the shooting on the suspect’s gender identity, while some on the left pointed to an already combustible political environment in which transgender people have become a frequent target of right-wing lawmakers and pundits.

Hours after saying on Monday that Hale was transgender, Nashville Police Chief John Drake told NBC’s Lester Holt that police “feel that” Hale “identifies as trans, but we’re still in the initial investigation into all of that and if it actually played a role into this incident.”

Drake did not say why police believe Hale was transgender. As of Thursday afternoon, six people who knew Hale told NBC News that Hale did not directly come out to them as trans or talk about gender identity. It is not uncommon, however, for trans people to come out to only certain people in their lives — or not come out at all: A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll released this month found that more than 1 in 10, or 12%, of trans or gender-nonconforming people reported that they haven’t told anyone they are trans. And not all people who are trans identify as a trans man or a trans woman; some may identify as nonbinary, meaning they identify as neither exclusively male nor exclusively female.

In response to a question Monday about whether Hale was a transgender man or a transgender woman, Drake said “woman.” Though if Hale were transgender, that wouldn’t be accurate, because transgender women are assigned male at birth and identify as women.

Hale was assigned female at birth, according to public records. Bill Campbell, the former headmaster of The Covenant School, who knew Hale as a child, said Hale was a female student in 2005 and 2006, when Hale would have been about 10 or 11 years old.

“I’ve looked back in my annuals, and I do remember her as a former student,” Campbell said of yearbooks he has from those years. “She was just one of our young ladies.”

However, later in life, it’s unclear if Hale identified as female. Hale’s LinkedIn account, which has since been removed, said Hale used the pronouns “he” and “him.” A friend of Hale’s, Averianna Patton, said Hale messaged her shortly before the shooting and signed the message “Audrey (Aiden).” Hale’s website, which has since been taken down, linked to an Instagram account where Hale used the name Aiden. That said, using different pronouns and a different name doesn’t necessarily mean someone is transgender, and some trans people’s identities are fluid or change over time.

Samira Hardcastle, who attended high school with Hale, said that “people just assumed that she was gay.” After high school, Hardcastle didn’t talk to Hale but did follow Hale on social media.

“She didn’t come out saying she was transgender or that she identified as a male,” Hardcastle said of Hale’s social media posts. She added that Hale began using a different name on social media “in the last year or two maybe.”

In response to a request from NBC News regarding how police know Hale is transgender, among other questions, Nashville officials said their leadership will use the most available information when identifying a person by gender, and that they are consistently referring to Hale as a woman who has also used male pronouns and went by a different name as well.

So far, police have not released any information connecting Hale’s gender identity to a motive for the shooting, though they continue to investigate. Still, Hale’s gender has become a central focus of political discussion and public conversation.

One reason could be that shootings perpetrated by trans people and cisgender — nontransgender — women are considered by experts to be extremely rare. The Violence Project, a nonpartisan research center that tracks mass shootings, recently found that 98% of mass shooters from 1996 to this past January were men.

Another reason for the focus on gender identity could be the current political and cultural environment. State lawmakers have filed more than 400 bills so far this year that target LGBTQ people — and particularly trans youths — according to the American Civil Liberties Union and a separate group of researchers who are tracking the flow of legislation. In the last three years, 18 states have banned transgender student athletes from playing on the school sports teams that align with their gender identities, and nine states have prohibited transition-related medical care, such as puberty blockers and hormone therapy, for minors.

A 'disinformation ecosystem'

Imara Jones, the creator of the podcast “The Anti-Trans Hate Machine,” the second season of which focuses largely on how the Christian-Nationalist movement spreads disinformation about transgender people, said the recent legislative focus on trans people combined with the lack of information about Hale’s identity has created a breeding ground for the spread of false information.

She noted that neither Hale’s parents nor the college Hale attended have publicly released any information about Hale’s identity.

“What I do know is that there’s a ready-made disinformation ecosystem that is ready to amplify and distort these particular conversations,” she said.

Even before authorities said Hale was transgender, users on extremist websites spent hours sharing their hopes that the shooter was trans or nonbinary, the primary targets of hate and harassment campaigns by the infamous extremist site 4chan over the last year.

When police said the shooter was transgender, the site immediately began posting threats against the LGBTQ community, vowing “revenge” and sleuthing for hints of ties to larger LGBTQ organizations in social media profiles online, though no such ties have been reported so far.

Speculation and memes about the shooter’s gender identity spread across Facebook and Twitter, with talking points about violence perpetrated by trans people quickly filtering to mainstream voices under the hashtag #transterror.

An influencer for the conservative PAC Turning Points USA, who has 1.4 million followers on Twitter, tweeted out a list of four mass shootings, including this week’s in Nashville, that he said were carried out by trans or nonbinary people since January 2018. Twitter’s CEO Elon Musk responded to the tweet with an exclamation mark.

One of those four shootings — which were among 2,800 mass shootings tracked in the U.S. since 2018 — occurred at a gay nightclub in Colorado in November by a suspect who authorities say ran a Nazi website online and posted anti-LGBTQ screeds, including a picture of crosshairs trained on an LGBTQ flag. The suspect’s lawyer said the suspect identifies as nonbinary, though some online extremism experts believed the suspect might have been trolling.

Speculation and disinformation about the Nashville shooter’s gender identity was not relegated to social media and extremist websites. On Tuesday, for example, Fox News host Laura Ingraham suggested that medications for mental illness or hormones like testosterone led to the suspect’s actions, even though police have not released any information about medication the suspect may have been taking.

Conservative provocateur Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., also suggested the suspect was medically transitioning and that gender identity played a role in the shooting.

“How much hormones like testosterone and medications for mental illness was the transgender Nashville school shooter taking?” Greene speculated. “Everyone can stop blaming guns now.”

Jones said those who support legislation that restricts trans rights will use the speculation and disinformation about Hale’s gender “to further the political and policy violence against our community — which is what the disinformation is designed to do in the first place."

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