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A shooting over a Pride flag underscores the threat of Republican anti-LGBTQ rhetoric

The shooting highlights growing fears of anti-LGBTQ violence amid a surge in hostile GOP policies.

A Pride flag flies against a blue sky, in a 2023 Liverpool parade.
An uptick in anti-LGBTQ policies and rhetoric has raised concerns about violence targeting members of the community.
Peter Byrne/PA Images/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Laura Ann Carleton, 66, a California business owner, was shot and killed last weekend after a gunman tore down an LGBTQ Pride flag hanging outside her store and shouted homophobic slurs. Since then, law enforcement has revealed that the gunman — who was killed in an encounter with police — also posted numerous anti-LGBTQ posts on social media accounts they believe are affiliated with him.

These statements included a post that described LGBTQ inclusion as a “cancer” and one that contained a photo of a burning Pride flag. Although police have not tied the killing to any specific posts featuring politicians, the attack also comes as Republicans have ramped up their anti-LGBTQ commentary and legislation, including measures like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which prohibits the discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in schools, and legislation in at least 22 states targeting gender-affirming care for trans youth.

In May, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report noting that the threat of violence toward LGBTQ people was intensifying as more policies were being directed at members of the community. Now, the California shooting has only highlighted concerns about violence toward the LGBTQ community in the wake of conservatives’ heightened rhetorical and legal attacks on its members.

“Threats against the LGBTQ+ community and our allies have evolved from violent rhetoric on social media and from anti-equality political leaders to, now, real-world violence — and let’s be honest, no city, state or person is immune from this brutality,” Kelley Robinson, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, a group that advocates for LGBTQ rights, told Vox in a statement.

Carleton did not identify as LGBTQ herself, but she was a supporter, according to a local LGBTQ organization in her town of Lake Arrowhead, California. In addition to hanging a Pride flag, she included a section of rainbow-colored merchandise in her Cedar Glen store. Her children have called for police to investigate the shooting as a “hate crime,” though law enforcement has not yet indicated how it will proceed.

A surge of anti-LGBTQ harassment has followed an increase in hostile policies

This year, Republican attacks on LGBTQ rights have increased significantly, with GOP lawmakers across the country introducing twice as many bills limiting the rights of the community as last year, according to a CNN analysis. That’s included legislation that condemns drag performers in numerous states, bills restricting which sports teams trans youth can join, and bills that ban books dealing with LGBTQ issues.

[Related: North Carolina is the latest in a wave of states passing anti-trans laws]

These efforts are in part a response to Republicans having successfully overturned Roe v. Wade and severely rolled back abortion rights. Without abortion fights to galvanize their base, particularly evangelical voters, many of whom have been reluctant to back gay marriage and trans rights, the GOP has moved to other culture war issues such as education and LGTBQ rights to cement support.

Anti-LGBTQ issues have taken front seat in the Republican presidential primary, for instance, with candidates like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis boasting about how harsh his policies are and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley falsely blaming trans youth for causing self-harm among their peers. These views have also taken hold outside lawmaking as well, fueling violence directed at Pride merchandise at Target stores and a widespread boycott of Bud Light because of a social media campaign with a trans influencer. And Pride flags in particular have recently been at the center of multiple attacks as online extremist groups have urged their followers to “destroy” them.

Advocates fear that restrictive policies, boycotts, and the hateful rhetoric that accompanies them could ultimately fuel more violence. The Anti-Defamation League and GLAAD, a group dedicated to advocating for LGBTQ people, documented 101 incidents of verbal harassment, vandalization, and assault directed at LGBTQ people in the first three weeks of June — Pride Month — in 2023, over double the amount they recorded in the same timeframe last June, per the New York Times. From 2020 to 2021, hate crimes against LGBTQ people also rose 70 percent, according to a Marshall Project analysis of FBI data. And that data set only tells part of the story, due to incomplete reporting by police — so the number of crimes is likely higher.

“From the rise of fatal violence against transgender and gender nonconforming people over the past decade, the loss of five innocent lives at Club Q in Colorado Springs, to the ruthless murder of O’Shae Sibley for vogueing at a gas station, we are seeing an escalation of hateful words turning into vicious, senseless attacks that has escalated into a nationwide state of emergency for the LGBTQ+ community,” says Robinson.

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