Online attacks against LGBTQ people have skyrocketed in recent months, rising in lockstep with proposed policies seeking to roll back LGBTQ rights and culminating in real-world violence. A House committee is set to investigate the connection on Wednesday in a first-of-its kind hearing.

“Violence against LGBTQ+ people is on the rise, and has been for years,” Olivia Hunt, policy director for the National Center for Transgender Equality, said in an emailed statement. “From bomb threats and intimidation tactics targeting hospitals and churches to attacks like the shooting at Club Q, LGBTQ+ people nationwide are living under the threat of violence.”

Last month, a 22-year-old carried a rifle into Club Q, an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colo., and opened fire, killing five people and injuring more than a dozen others. The alleged shooter, Anderson Lee Aldrich, is suspected to have ties to an extremist “free speech” website that aims to “cleanse” society, according to NBC News.

“You’re seeing that kind of hate speech becoming more and more prevalent online,” Colorado state Sen. Dominick Moreno (D) told The Hill. “Social media channels obviously make it easier to distribute, but I think they also intensify the vitriol because you can say anything you want behind the veneer of a computer screen.”

Hunt, who is scheduled to testify in Wednesday’s House and Reform Oversight Committee hearing, said it is critical for Congress to “shine a bright light” on rising violence against the LGBTQ community and make clear that recent attacks have been fueled by the harmful rhetoric and policies of right-wing leaders. 

“I wish this hearing wasn’t necessary, but as long as extremists are targeting our community, we have to respond loudly with the truth and demonstrate how the dangerous environment for LGBTQ+ Americans is a consequence of their actions,” she said.

Inflammatory and false rhetoric

 An August report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate and the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group, found that inflammatory rhetoric aimed at LGBTQ people flourished during the first half of 2022 on mainstream social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter, which recently relaxed its hateful conduct policies under new owner Elon Musk and allowed scores of suspended users to return to the site.

The same report found that social media posts comparing LGBTQ people to “groomers” and “pedophiles” surged by more than 400 percent after a Florida education law barring teachers from engaging in classroom instruction related to sexual orientation or gender identity was passed.

In March, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) then-press secretary Christina Pushaw said in a tweet the measure — known to its critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill — would be more aptly described as the “Anti-Grooming Bill” and that anyone opposed to the legislation is “probably a groomer.”

Accusations of child “grooming” have been hurled online at prominent LGBTQ figures and elected officials in droves this year, though the consequences of claims made on a virtual plane are spilling into the real world.

San Francisco police earlier this month were dispatched to the home of California state Sen. Scott Wiener to investigate an emailed death threat that called Wiener, who is openly gay, a “pedophile” and a “groomer.”

Wiener in a statement said the threat, which police later determined to be meritless, was the result of false accusations made by GOP officials and conservative media personalities that he was “grooming” children for sexual exploitation.

Wiener is the author of several pro-LGBTQ bills, including one measure that blocks states from prosecuting or investigating the families of transgender youth that travel to California to obtain gender-affirming health care.

A new billboard welcoming visitors to "Florida: The Sunshine 'Don't Say Gay or Trans' State' is seen Thursday, April 21, 2022, in Winter Park, Fla.
A new billboard welcoming visitors to “Florida: The Sunshine ‘Don’t Say Gay or Trans’ State’ is seen Thursday, April 21, 2022, in Winter Park, Fla. Billboards, which are being placed in key areas with high visitor traffic and visibility, are part of a new advertising campaign launched by the Human Rights Campaign. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Attacks on gender-affirming care

Threats of violence similar to Wiener’s have been made against children’s hospitals that provide gender-affirming medical care to transgender minors. Lawmakers in more than a dozen states this year introduced measures to heavily restrict or ban such care for youth and young adults, accusing physicians of “mutilating” children.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) in August introduced federal legislation seeking to make providing gender-affirming medical care to transgender minors a felony, punishable by up 25 years in prison.

Greene during an appearance on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” where she announced her bill said gender-affirming care is “disgusting and appalling” and equated it to child abuse.

“This needs to be illegal,” she said.

Under standards set by the World Professional Association of Transgender Health and the Endocrine Society, gender-affirming treatment for minors that have already started puberty typically involves puberty blockers or hormones that have been prescribed by a licensed physician.

Surgery is not recommended for youth under 18, and the only acceptable treatment for prepubescent children is social transition. Gender-affirming health care for transgender people of all ages is supported by most accredited medical organizations.

During November’s midterm elections, Republican candidates funneled millions into campaign ads that propagated false or misleading information about gender-affirming health care for youth and targeted transgender athletes.

“The radical left will destroy children if we don’t stop them,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) says in one social media ad, which features footage of a Drag Queen Story Hour event. “They indoctrinate children; try to turn boys into girls.”

Proposed legislation

Drag events for youth have recently drawn the ire of GOP leaders, and several bills seeking to ban them have already been pre-filed ahead of the 2023 legislative session by lawmakers in TennesseeTexas and others.

In October, more than 30 House Republicans signed on to a measure seeking to block federal funds from being used to make “sexually-oriented” materials — including those that feature “any topic” related to sexual orientation or gender identity — available to children under the age of 10.

The measure’s primary sponsor, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), in a news release said the bill — titled the Stop the Sexualization of Children Act — will put an end to a “misguided crusade” led by Democrats to expose the nation’s children to “sexual imagery and radical gender ideology.”

Broader use of such language has galvanized far-right and extremist groups like the Proud Boys, whose members have led dozens of armed protests at family-friendly drag shows and other LGBTQ youth programs across the country, often in the name of protecting children from “groomers.”

In June, authorities in Northern California launched a hate crime investigation after a children’s story hour was disrupted by protesters that hurled anti-LGBTQ slurs at a drag performer. In November, an Oklahoma doughnut shop was firebombed after hosting a drag event. Organizers of an upcoming holiday-themed drag brunch in Jacksonville, Fla., say they are reconsidering holding the event at all after receiving multiple threats from Proud Boys members.

Moreno, the Colorado state senator, said he doesn’t engage much with his critics on social media anymore. Sometimes, he’ll extend an invitation for a cup of coffee. More often than not, he said, both parties are able to come to a point of mutual respect.