Kurt McLaughlin: Drag queens aren’t terrorists. They are the targets.

When will this violence come to my home town?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) People gather at the Utah Pride Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 21, 2022 for a candlelight vigil for the victims of a shooting in Colorado Springs.

Waking up to the languid light streaming into my college dorm, hangover setting in and glitter on my pillow from the night before, I rolled over to check my phone. Five people had died.

My soul quaked as a million “what ifs” flooded my mind, the wake of my first queer clubbing experience still ripe. Exhaustion accumulates within me from headline after headline - legislative attacks on the trans community, armed protesters at drag queen story hours, “don’t say gay” rhetoric, and now the latest mass shooting statistic coming out of my own community. When will we ever be safe to be ourselves?

Thousands of miles away from home in New York City, I watched my Utah community react to the tragedy of the Club Q shooting. The Utah Pride Center vigil, news on Club Verse’s increased security and an Instagram post from my old high school’s queer alliance reminded me how close to home this grief took shape.

Preparing to come back for the holidays, I cannot help but feel uneasy stepping back into a world I know is not always safe for people like me.

Last month, the Department of Homeland Security added the LGBTQ community to the list of potential domestic terror targets. Across the country, right-wing politicians have been infatuated with drag queens as the newest cultural boogeyman, a fixation that has deep roots in the policing of gender, dating all the way back to 1848.

Their abominable condemnation of the queer community can be linked to the recent threats, protests, and attacks at over 120 drag shows in 47 states this year. Hate breeds violence. Drag has always been a jubilant celebration of queerness, but hateful rhetoric is poisoning our once safe spaces.

Utah is no exception. In St. George, Patrica Kent, a candidate for Washington County’s clerk/auditor, described drag queens as “grooming our children for immoral satanic worship.” It is words like this that have reverberating consequences.

In Colorado, Lauren Boebart, Republican member of the U.S. House of Representative, has called LGBTQ people “groomers” who are “perverting” the nation and “spitting in God’s face,” yet, after the Club Q shooting called for “this lawless violence needs to end and end quickly.” She could not see that her words are a part of the violence. Language like this is dangerous.

As the Respect of Marriage Act passes, I cannot help but feel frustrated. While the need for such a protection speaks to the distorted politics ominously looming in our future (and present), the act does little to confront the real and active violence happening in our community. Politicians aren’t focusing on the right things. Over 300 anti-LGBTQ bills have been filed in 2022, more than tripling the number of proposed anti-LGBTQ bills from 2015.

Arkansas’s ban on gender affirming care still stands, the erasure of queer existence still infects schools in Florida, and white supremacists are protesting drag events in Ohio with assault weapons.

There is no doubt that the vile anti-LGBTQ rhetoric spread by these bills, the politicians that write them, the extremists that vote for them, and the news outlets that amplified them, have contributed to the violent attacks like the Club Q shooting. Five people have died and nothing has been done. We need more than just a marriage act to address the violence that is habitually enacted to queer folks by individuals and the state.

The words of Patricia Kent, the attack on Christian Peacock and Jacob Metcalf, prohibition of same-sex dating at BYU and the relentless fixation of the Utah Legislature to control trans bodies makes me wonder when the inevitable will happen in Utah. When will I wake up to find that people have been killed in my hometown?

Politicians only start to act after smelling tangible physical violence, but we cannot wait until innocent blood is spilled to change. We have the right to feel safe. We need more than just a #NoToHate hashtag to address growing hate speech and the very real and violent consequences it invokes.

Politicians must be held accountable. The media must be held accountable. Queer lives must be protected. We must honor the Club Q victims with action.

Kurt McLaughlin

Kurt McLaughlin (he/him) is a Salt Lake City native and Columbia University freshman studying gender and sexuality.