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After school shooting, some trans Tennesseans face backlash


When Nashville police announced that the shooter who killed three children and three adults at a school this week was transgender, trans Tennesseans braced themselves for renewed vitriol in a state that has recently proposed a raft of anti-trans laws.

Soon enough, some prominent Republicans, including J.D. Vance, a U.S. senator from Ohio, and U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, suggested in social media posts that the shooter’s gender identity may have been a factor in the murders.

Police later said they did not know the shooter’s gender identity.

Even before the shooting, many transgender Tennesseans felt villainized by their state’s efforts to regulate the lives of gay and trans people, and were increasingly fearful for their safety.

“This isn’t a trans issue, this is a gun issue,” said Mykul Coscia, a drag king at Nashville’s Play Dance Bar, an LGTBQ nightclub. “But they’re gonna make it a trans issue.”

Tennessee’s Republican-controlled legislature recently banned gender-affirming medical care, such as puberty blockers and hormone therapy, for anyone under 18, despite U.S. medical associations saying such treatment can save lives.

It also restricted drag shows in public in an ambiguously worded law taking effect this weekend that includes “male or female impersonators” in the same X-rated category as strippers. As that bill progressed, armed neo-Nazis and other far-right groups protested outside drag shows in the state.

The Tennessee bills are part of a broader anti-trans push by Republicans in conservative states who argue they are protecting children.

Coscia has a 7-year-old daughter going to a Nashville-area school, and said he was never worried about doctors or drag queens harming children. But he does live in fear of school shootings, which have become commonplace in the U.S., where guns are easily obtained.

Last year, the Supreme Court declared for the first time that the U.S. Constitution protects an individual’s right to carry a handgun in public for self-defense.

Even as a gun owner himself, he wants lawmakers to make it harder to get hold of guns, and to ban the kind of semi-automatic rifle used in many school shootings, including Monday’s at the Covenant School.

Police identified the Nashville shooter as Audrey Elizabeth Hale, and initially referred to Hale as female. Later on Monday, police said Hale was transgender. By Wednesday, the police department was less sure.

“We do not know the shooter’s personal gender identity,” Kristin Mumford, a police spokesperson, wrote in an email. “We are aware that she used male pronouns in a social media profile.”

The vast majority of mass shootings in the U.S. are committed by non-trans men, according to Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a non-profit group advocating for stricter gun regulation.

Grayson Collins, a trans man raising a 3-year-old daughter with his wife in a Nashville suburb, said the gender identity of a mass shooter was irrelevant.

“It’s evil,” he said. “I could care less who they are or what they are. You still took someone’s life and that’s horrible.”

Dawn Bennett is the pastor of The Table, an LGBTQ congregation at a Lutheran church in downtown Nashville, and spent Wednesday helping organize a vigil. Congregants lit candles and another pastor rang a bell as the name of each of the Covenant School victims was read aloud in prayer.

“You can also pray by writing to your state legislator,” Bennett said from the pulpit. Some later left the pews to head to a laptop set up in the church’s hallway, where they could send a petition to Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, a Republican, to enact “commonsense gun safety measures.”

After the service, Bennett, who has a trans son, said one of her congregants had been confronted and “told they were the cause, that this was God’s repudiation of gay people, and that ‘you and your people are going to hell for eternity,'” she said. “The trans community is going to pay dearly for this.”

Two other congregants were similarly targeted, Bennett said.

Nashville police did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for information about attacks or threats on the LGTBQ community since the shooting.

Every time there is a school shooting, Story VanNess said she has sleepless nights: she was a special education teacher in a Knoxville school for several years before becoming the director of trans and non-binary programs at Knox Pride.

VanNess, who in recent months has heard from the parents of several trans youth asking her advice on how to flee Tennessee, went through drills and lockdowns in her classroom. She had nightmares about ever having to deploy the pair of sharp scissors she had stashed near the classroom door to confront an attacker.

“It’s all just disgusting and heartbreaking,” she said. “We’ve had another school shooting but, because this shooter was trans, that’s taken a back seat so politicians can demonize trans people. Now we’re even more of a target than ever before.”

Related Galleries:

Mykul Coscia, who performs drag as Eazy Love at Play, a night club, poses for a portrait after a deadly shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S. March 29, 2023. REUTERS/Cheney Orr

A drag performer who goes by Vanity performs at Play, a night club, after a deadly shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S. March 29, 2023. REUTERS/Cheney Orr
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