American queer socialist Keegan O’Brien explains the context of the attack, and the kind of radical LGBTQ movement that now needs to be built.
rs21 would like to extend a special thanks to the artist Jen White-Johnson for letting us use the artwork including with this piece. White-Johnson can be found on Instagram at @jtknoxroxs and on the web at jenwhitejohnson.com.
Refuge in an Unaccepting World
Daniel Davis Aston, a 28-year-old trans man, was a bartender at Club Q. He loved poetry and the arts. According to friends, his handsome smile and warm, charming energy were contagious. Earlier this year Aston moved from Tulsa, Oklahoma back to Colorado Springs to be closer to family and begin his medical transition. Like so many trans and queer people, he sought refuge and found it – in Club Q, Colorado’s Spring’s only LGBTQ nightclub and home to the city’s close-knit, vibrant queer community. In a cruel and unaccepting world, gay bars have a rich, long-standing history, serving as a second home for trans and queer people migrating to cities in search of greater social freedom and autonomy that urban life often provides. Queer bars offer a space to let your guard down and simply be yourself, free from the humiliating stares and judgment of the outside world. For so many of us, walking into our first queer bar or club is a memory we cherish and carry with us years later; cemented in our consciousness as the moment we finally realize we aren’t alone.
On November 20, Transgender Day of Remembrance, Anderson Lee Aldrich walked into Club Q and within a matter of seconds, unleashed a marauding storm of bullets from their high-powered assault rifle, killing five people and critically injuring another twenty five. Raymond Green Vance (22), Daniel Davis Aston (28), Ashley Paugh (35), Derrick Rump (38), and Kelly Loving (40). We have an obligation to know their names. Each one of them was a beautiful, complex human being with their own unique story, their own community of friends, lovers, and family who knew them intimately, loved and cared for them. The trauma of Saturday night’s shooting will echo far beyond those who were violently ripped away. The indescribable emotional pain and heartache that comes from losing a loved one to murder, the constant state of fear and hypervigilance that results from having your sense of safety and belonging shattered, the accumulated rage and bitterness at a world that allows this level of depravity, carries on for a lifetime in those who survived the carnage, and everyone that knew and loved the victims.
Contextualising the horror
On the night of Saturday 12 June 2016, I celebrated pride weekend. I was 27; shirtless, drenched in sweat and laughing, arms around friends – my girls, my sisters – dancing away the night to a soundtrack of gay anthems. We were packed into the basement of a raunchy, yet quintessentially iconic, gay bar in Boston, known for its racy, oiled up go-go dancers, foul-mouthed drag queens, and laughably cheesy, yet weirdly hot 80s porn that played on the bar’s TVs. That same night, 49 LGBTQ people, mostly Latinx people of color, were murdered and 53 critically injured when a homophobic mass murderer walked into Pulse Nightclub in Orlando and unloaded a barrage of bullets with his high-powered, automatic assault rifle. When I woke up the next morning, checked my phone, and saw the news, I froze; my heart sank in a state of utter shock. The carnage and horror was unfathomable. I was unable to wrap my head around it. The impact on LGBTQ people was devastating and permanent. I wrote an article shortly after attempting to understand the roots of the violence in Orlando. Six years later, here we are again.
Homophobic and anti-trans violence are long-standing and present features of American society, a product of institutionalised and structural oppression endemic to capitalism’s regulation of gender and sexuality, most intensely experienced at the intersections of class and race. Yet in the past 15 years, the struggle for LGBTQ equality has seen meaningful gains, measured in leaps and bounds compared to previous decades, in cultural visibility and formal laws. Set against this social and political backdrop, the anti-LGBTQ massacre at Pulse marked a distinct and qualitative turning point in the scale and intensity of violence and destruction directed against trans and queer people. Colorado Springs builds on this grotesque horror, signaling the growth of a violent, ever more confident far right. These devastating events remind us that even our most sacred spaces, the bars and clubs that make up the foundation of our community, the places where we build friendships, meet lovers, and form bonds that shape the trajectory of our lives, are possible targets in today’s landscape of political polarisation and an emboldened reactionary right.
Colorado Springs has a particularly dark and unique history of homophobia and bigotry. The city is located in El Paso County, home to three of the country’s five military command bases. In 2016, Trump won 58% of the county’s vote. Colorado Springs houses the national headquarters for Focus on the Family, the notorious right-wing Christian hate group that considers LGBTQ people to be living in sin. For decades, it has been one of the most influential forces in the anti-LGBTQ movement. Beginning in the 1980s, and through the 2000s, Colorado Springs became a key organising base for the religious right and a hub for anti-gay think tanks. Conservative Christian families migrated to the city en masse, and the city’s population grew rapidly, with evangelical and fundamentalist churches opening in large numbers. The Christian right became a dominant force in local and statewide politics, earning Colorado its reputation as the ‘Hate State’ by LGBTQ activists in the 1990s. In 1992, due to the efforts of evangelical groups – most of them based in Colorado Springs – Colorado passed Amendment 2, a statewide referendum that prohibited the state from passing anti-discrimination laws. Although the policy was subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court in 1996, the amendment successfully heralded Colorado Springs as a key frontier in the war against LGBTQ people. Much has changed in Colorado over the past decade. The LGBTQ community has grown, anti-discrimination laws have been passed, and most of the evangelical churches and civic groups of the 90s and 2000s have shut their doors, but the shadows of the past hang ominously over the present.
In 2022, 238 pieces of anti-LGBTQ legislation have been introduced in state and municipal legislatures across the United States, the highest number in decades. To put this in perspective, 2017 saw only 41 proposed bills. There is a full-scale war being waged by the far right and Republican Party establishment against LGBTQ people, and trans and gender non-conforming people are in their crosshairs. Reactionary attacks have included physical disruptions of drag queen story hours by Proud Boys and alt-right thugs; a conservative media-manufactured panic around bathrooms and trans women and girls’ participation in sports; and Texas, Florida, and other Republican-dominated state legislatures’ dystopian laws authorizing a full-scale assault on young trans people’s basic right to exist and on their families who affirm them.
This is the social context for the horror and carnage that unfolded in Colorado. These realities are interconnected. Colorado is the inevitable outcome of this hate-fueled political ecosystem, and a harbinger of the proto-fascist terror and violence yet to come.
As Eric Maroney details, the increasing visibility of trans and queer people in society, along with feminism and women’s increased social power outside the home, have become the alt-right’s new obsession and scapegoat for a whole series of economic anxieties produced by neoliberal capitalism’s restructuring and deregulation. For four decades, the American capitalist class and their bipartisan political representatives in government have waged a one-sided class war. Corporate privatisation of public resources, decades of austerity, union busting, and industrial restructuring and automation have shattered the power of organised labour, decimating the limited social safety net and economic opportunity that existed for the working class and poor people, a dynamic acutely pronounced for black and brown workers.
A cursory glance at the towns and cities dotting America’s forgotten industrial areas illustrate a living nightmare for whole regions abandoned by the country’s economic elites and their political class. We see the growth of mass incarceration, workers permanently pushed out of the labor market, an opioid crisis spiraling out of control and an increasing mortality rate triggered by drug addiction, alcoholism and suicide as people struggle to cope with the trauma of economic and social dislocation. The pain and suffering for working class communities is real and measurable, including white families. This is the social landscape in which traditional conservative, alt-right, and explicitly fascist elements converge to produce a contradictory political ecosystem of extreme nationalism and pseudo-populism, xenophobic racism, and traditional, heteropatriarchal values – and with it the rise of far-right terror.
Portrait of a terrorist
Only now is more information, still limited and partial, beginning to come out about Anderson Lee Aldrich and their hate-fueled rampage. (Aldrich claims to identify as non-binary, although there is speculation that this is a ploy by their defence team to preempt hate-crime charges.) Several facts are clear. Aldrich grew up in a family deeply affected by addiction, mental illness, physical abuse, and economic insecurity. Their father is a former MMA fighter turned porn actor who is addicted to crystal meth. Aldrich’s dad was violent and abusive, which led to a divorce and caused him to lose custody of Aldrich when they were a young child. In an interview after Saturday’s shooting, Aldrich’s father went on a bizarre homophobic rant. Meanwhile, Aldrich’s mother struggled with substance abuse and mental illness. She lost custody of Aldrich when they were a teenager. Aldrich went on to live with their grandmother, which was a tumultuous experience. They were badly bullied in school and online for their bodyweight and socioeconomic status. Last year, Aldrich kidnapped their grandmother and called in a bomb threat, followed by an armed standoff with police. Although they were taken into custody, no charges were filled, allowing them to legally purchase an assault rifle the following year.
Aldrich came from a conservative family steeped in reactionary politics. Their grandfather, Randy Vopel, is a right-wing California assemblyman, Trump fanatic, and MAGA Republican. He openly defends the January Capitol insurrection, promotes Covid denialism, claims the election results were fraudulent, vehemently opposes the Black Lives Matter movement, and aggressively advocates for anti-LGBTQ laws opposing queer inclusive curriculum in schools and trans youth access to hormones and participation in sports. Even as we wait for a clearer elucidation of Aldrich’s motives, understanding their familial environment and the country’s political context helps illuminate the ecosystem of reactionary ideas that set the stage for their violent atrocities.
Trumpism is characterized by a nauseating mixture of economic nationalism, racist xenophobic bigotry, and reactionary state and vigilante violence. It is a political alliance between sections of capital and the petty bourgeoisie, whose project is to restore a sense of nationalist, heteronormative, and white supremacist vitality in the face of downward mobility, declining imperial power abroad, and economic stagnation at home. Feminism and LGBTQ people who don’t conform to traditional systems of gender regulation are vilified for eroding the nuclear family structure. In turn, they are blamed for America’s declining global economic standing. Capital is incapable of carrying out this project of intensified class domination and increased exploitation on their own. They turn to a generation of deeply alienated white youth, mostly men from downwardly mobile petty bourgeois and working-class homes, whose family lives have been torn asunder as the financial floor has collapsed beneath their feet. These disgruntled young men become a primary audience for the far right’s reactionary rhetoric, which seeks to redirect legitimate bitterness and rage at the injustices of our society onto queer and trans people, immigrants and people of color, scapegoated for the ravages of neoliberal capitalism for which they’re not to blame.
Meanwhile, just before the weekend’s carnage, Gay Inc. was celebrating on Wall St as Grindr, the popular hookup and dating app for gay, bi, and queer men, become a publicly traded company. Outrage and fiery speeches are to be expected from mainstream LGBTQ groups in the aftermath of Colorado’s shooting, but their strategy will remain unchanged. Groups like the Human Rights Campaign and the National LGBTQ Task Force will inevitably pour millions into political campaigns for Democratic politicians who do the bare minimum in performative action, making empty proclamations, and proposing legislation with no chance of passing through Congress without outside pressure.
Most self-proclaimed trans and queer ‘movement leaders’, far from building any kind of grassroots, participatory movement, are caught up in building their own social media brand, mired in a mix of self-righteous moralism and middle-class identity politics leveraged to further their own personal agenda. We’re only two years out from the country’s largest anti-racist rebellion in decades, where countless online activists created radical Instagram personalities, only to leverage them to gain corporate sponsorships and lucrative book deals. While the unique business model and structure of social media platforms contributes to this trend, social movements have always encountered the pressures of corporate co-optation and middle-class careerism. As struggles wane and mass protest and militancy fizzle out, the horizons of possibility narrow, generating a tendency towards greater accommodation rather than confrontation.
A world of LGBTQ NGOs exists, many providing crucial and meaningful direct services to the most vulnerable members of our community – services that are completely non-existent from the state. But these groups face serious structural impediments to initiating disruptive, militant organising, operating within a system where they’re forced to compete for corporate sponsorships and government grants that fuel their work. This creates inevitable pressures to acquiesce and contain their organising within the bounds of capitalism’s accepted legal frameworks.
The heinous violence displayed in Aldrich’s hate-fueled rampage in Colorado Springs is a clear and stark reminder of the menacing, lethal threat that today’s determined far right continues to pose to trans and queer people, and anyone living outside capitalism’s imposed sexual and gender boundaries. The urgency of birthing a militant, grassroots and participatory LGBTQ movement is clear and present. We need a movement that helps build mass power among ordinary, working-class queers and our allies, that engages in disruptive social action, and that nurtures democratic activist networks and structures of collective resistance and dissent. Our movement must foreground the intersectionality of our struggles, integrating class, race, gender and sexuality, into a radical, anti-racist, feminist, and emancipatory vision of collective liberation from capitalism and its interlocking systems of oppression. The pressing need for a left that can speak to the desperation and rage of working people whose lives have been upended by the ravages of neoliberal capitalism is all around us. Our task is to provide a radical challenge, grounded in solidarity, to the far right’s agenda of scapegoating and bigotry.
Such a transformative movement would ideally be grounded in solidarity, emphasizing the shared and common nature of our battles and the capacity for political transformation in ordinary people. There must be a willingness to patiently engage and assume best intentions, to reflect, listen, and grow in community with one another. We live in a deeply unequal society where bourgeois ideology and the competition of daily life under capitalism define the way working-class people understand and make sense of the world and relate to one another. Absent the influence of an organized left to counteract those pressures, it is inevitable that most people internalise ideological features of the system. When a person chooses to reject those ideas and join the ranks of our movements, they deserve to be welcomed as comrades in struggle, not treated with suspicion and hostility. Our side faces immense challenges to which no single person, organisation, or identity category by default holds all of the answers. Winning will require a willingness to learn from the experiences and contributions of others and a commitment to comradely debate and dialogue.
It was the bravery and heroism of ordinary people that stopped the killing spree at Club Q from spiralling even further. Richard Fierro, a straight Iraq and Afghanistan combat veteran, out at a gay bar for his first time to support his daughter and her friends, jeopardised his life to tackle and subdue Aldrich within seconds of his opening fire. A trans woman helped Fierro restrain the mass killer by stomping her heels into his face. No one is coming to save us: not the Democrats, no matter how ‘progressive’, not the Human Rights Campaign, not the next up-and-coming TikTok influencer, and most definitely not the CEOs of rainbow capitalism. Our collective emancipation, our community’s safety, our willingness to struggle, fight and win a liberated future:
that will be up to us.
Keegan O’Brien is a queer socialist activist and writer in Brooklyn, New York. He is a school teacher and member of the Movement of Rank & File Educators and the Tempest Collective.
This article was first published in Spectre Journal, reproduced with permission.