After the horrific shooting at a school in Nashville on Monday, a group of prominent conservative lawmakers and commentators have released statements using the shooter’s purported trans identity to reinvigorate their ongoing efforts to erode trans rights.
The comments follow a statement from Nashville police that the shooter identified as transgender. “We’re still in the initial investigation into all of that and if it actually played a role into this incident,” Nashville Police Chief John Drake told reporters.
The Republicans who have spoken out on this subject have used reports of the shooter’s identity to call for bans on medical services like gender-affirming care, which GOP bills have already barred for youth in states like Tennessee, Mississippi, and Utah, and to make transphobic statements aimed at animating their base. Their comments have served to simultaneously reinforce their support among Christian conservatives and other anti-trans constituencies, and to try to shift conversation away from discussion of gun reform.
Far-right lawmaker Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), for example, questioned whether hormone therapy and “medications for mental illness” were tied to the attack, despite there being no information that the shooter was using either. Right-wing commentator and founder of Turning Points USA Charlie Kirk and Donald Trump Jr. both also claimed that access to gender-affirming care is a bigger problem than firearms.
How much hormones like testosterone and medications for mental illness was the transgender Nashville school shooter taking?— Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (@RepMTG) March 27, 2023
Everyone can stop blaming guns now.
Those Republicans’ quick pivot to anti-trans attacks gave them a hook to elevate and reaffirm the anti-trans policies that the GOP has pushed in the last year, academic and political experts tell Vox. Those policies — and continued access to firearms — are priorities for the party’s base, which includes far-right and Christian conservative voters. Focusing on the shooter’s identity also enables the GOP to put the attention on something other than guns.
“My guess is that this tragic story is being used to further the ultraconservative narrative that transgender people are a dangerous threat to the public,” says Jennifer Mercieca, a communications professor at Texas A&M who has studied Republicans’ use of anti-trans rhetoric. “Statistically, that narrative is untrue, but this is a salient example that has propaganda value for the extreme right who would much rather focus on the gender identity of the shooter rather than the fact that guns are too easy to access.”
The rationale behind these Republican statements
The rhetoric Greene and others have used relies on the same misinformation that is the foundation for Republican efforts to block gender-affirming care and medical assistance for trans people: the idea that trans Americans are threats to children and dangerous in general.
As Vox’s Nicole Narea and Fabiola Cineas have explained, there’s been a surge of anti-trans bills both introduced and passed by GOP state legislatures in the last few years. These measures include proposals that restrict youth access to hormonal therapies and surgeries and that penalize doctors who would administer them. Such bills are predicated on the incorrect idea that children need to be protected from both trans people and the possibility of transitioning because it would be harmful to them, despite major medical organizations describing such treatments as “medically necessary care.”
Additionally, Republicans have continued to advance “bathroom bills” that limit trans people’s access to “multi-user restrooms, locker rooms, and other gender-segregated spaces.” Those supporting bathroom bills have said they protect women and children from assault, Narea and Cineas explain, although research shows that people using restrooms aligned with their gender identity is not tied to crimes committed in these spaces. Legislation that tries to bar trans athletes from competing in sports also centers heavily on the myth that trans women pose a threat to cis women in these fields.
There’s significant support for trans rights among the American public, with 64 percent of people supporting laws that would protect trans people from discrimination, according to Pew. There is also solid backing for some of the Republican proposals, however, with 58 percent of people believing that trans athletes should compete on teams that match the sex they were assigned at birth. And among certain Republican base voters, including evangelical voters who are members of the religious right and a key GOP demographic, anti-trans sentiments are especially animating.
Republicans “have an interest in keeping the base riled up about one thing or another, and when one issue fades, as with same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage, they’ve got to find something else,” Dartmouth University professor Randall Balmer, who has studied evangelical voters, previously told PBS. “It’s almost frantic.”
Anti-trans rhetoric has proved particularly motivating for this group because of how it touches on some of the core religious tenets evangelicals support, says Sophie Bjork-James, an anthropologist who studies the religious right at Vanderbilt University.
“Trans issues in particular challenge … biblical concepts of gender,” says Bjork-James. “Evangelicals tend to believe that men and women have very different qualities that are innate in us. I think there’s a huge interest in maintaining a gender binary because it really does provide a foundation for their theology and their everyday lives.”
Aligning themselves with these voters’ beliefs has provided strong electoral returns for Republicans. According to early exit polls from the 2022 midterms, 83 percent of white evangelical voters backed the GOP.
The focus on the shooter’s identity also enables Republicans to deflect from the main problem behind mass shootings: guns. As Narea has noted, data and research suggest that limiting access to guns — particularly assault weapons — would reduce mass shootings and firearms deaths.
However, the GOP isn’t interested in regulating guns any further. Both in Congress and in Tennessee, more aggressive forms of gun control are stalled or unlikely to move at this point because of Republican opposition. GOP lawmakers have long been reluctant to take more aggressive steps on this issue due to fears of backlash from their own voters, as well as financial support they’ve received from groups like the National Rifle Association.
“Rather than honestly addressing the epidemic of gun-related violence, the loss of innocent lives, and mental health issues, these people do whatever they can to change the subject,” says Republican strategist Chip Felkel, of conservatives’ anti-trans statements.