As Tennessee was mourning those killed in a mass shooting at a Christian school this week, speculation about the killer's gender identity was quickly weaponized in an ongoing battle against transgender and LGBTQ rights.
Police killed the shooter approximately 14 minutes after a 911 call from The Covenant School in Nashville, where three nine-year-old and three school staff members were gunned down Monday morning.
Speaking with media hours later, Nashville's police chief said the killer, Audrey Hale, was transgender and suggested the 28-year-old's gender identity may have some connection to a motive and a purported manifesto left behind. The shooter's gender identity has never been verified and police have not said more about it.
But some right-wing groups, media outlets, politicians and commentators quickly seized on the shooter's gender identity, inflaming already contentious debates.
It all comes at a time when Tennessee and other states are enacting laws directly aimed at the LGBTQ community — most specifically target transgender people — and amid a tide of hateful rhetoric and protests. There are fears the situation may get worse if the shooting is used as a catalyst to advance legislation seen as taking away the rights of transgender and other LGBTQ people.
The LGBTQ community in Nashville is mourning the victims like everyone else, said Chris Sanders, the executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, noting that many people have connections to the tragedy.
"In Tennessee, we've already lost so much because of the shooting, and it's horrible to contemplate the spiral we might be about to enter," he told CBC News.
WATCH | Nashville mourns children, school workers killed in mass shooting: Three children and three adults were killed in a shooting at a private Christian school in Nashville on Monday. The shooter was killed by police and is believed to be a former student
Tennessee laws target transgender people
Sander has been working for the Tennessee Equality Project for the past 10 years and had previously volunteered with the group for a decade. But this year has already been the worst he's seen in terms of the state legislature introducing bills aimed at rolling back LGBTQ rights.
One of several laws brought forward in Tennessee this year had been slated to go into effect Saturday, before a federal judge temporarily blocked it just hours before it was set to go into effect. The law would place a range of restrictions on drag performances in public or in the presence of children.
Tennessee is one of dozens of states where more than 400 pieces of anti-LGBTQ legislation have been introduced this year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
These bills and laws target everything from access to gender-affirming care, to gender expression, inclusive education, the involvement of transgender people in sports and access to public spaces such as bathrooms.
As It HappensTennessee just passed a law restricting drag — the 1st of many such bills in the U.S.
Fear of repercussions
Sanders said it's unclear right now if the discussion of the shooter's gender identity will have any sort of implications on the LGBTQ community, or on bills that are still advancing in the state legislature.
But there is an "incredible escalation of the fear factor" about whether transgender people will face some form of retaliation for the killer's actions, said Marisa Richmond, a Nashville resident and a gender studies and history professor at Middle Tennessee State University in nearby Murfreesboro.
She said some events planned for Friday's International Day of Transgender Visibility were postponed out of grief and respect for the lives lost, but also out due to security concerns.
"I understand why some people may be reluctant to put themselves out in a very visible way given the general mood that exists right now," Richmond said.
Trans people a 'scapegoat'
Since Monday's tragedy, some anti-transgender rhetoric has surfaced online and in the media.
The headline "Transgender Killer Targets Christian School" was splashed on the front page of the New York Post's Tuesday edition. Influential Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson said on his Tuesday night broadcast that the trans movement "is the natural enemy" of Christianity. He also claimed there was "a rise in trans terrorism."
Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican member of the House of Representatives, demanded to know "how much hormones like testosterone and medications for mental illness" the shooter may have been taking.
It's not clear if Hale was undergoing gender-affirming therapy involving hormones and there is no evidence to conclude hormone replacement therapy led to the mass murder in Nashville.
This type of discussion serves to both deflect from the issue of gun control and to use a marginalized group of people as a "scapegoat," said Brynn Tannehill, a writer on LGBTQ issues who is based in the Washington, D.C. area.
"[People are] trying to frame it as a trans issue and get us to debate whether transgender people are dangerous," said Tannehill, who also has a background in counterterrorism analysis.
"Republicans have always sought to look for some other reason, besides ready access to high-power assault rifles, as the reason for particularly deadly mass shootings."
An analysis from the Violence Project found the overwhelming majority of killers involved in mass shootings — nearly 98 per cent — are men who are not transgender.
Transgender people are much more likely to be the victims of violence compared to the general population, according to organizations like the Human Rights Campaign.
WATCH | Hundreds of anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in U.S.: This week, the world witnessed yet another mass shooting at a school in the U.S. Three 9-year-old students and three staff members were killed. Andrew Chang discusses how this school shooting in particular has been politicized by some lawmakers.
Focus on gun control to protect kids
Tannehill, Sanders and Richmond all agree the focus should be on fixing gun legislation rather than imposing laws on transgender and other LGBTQ people under the auspices of protecting children.
"If you want to protect children, that's where you really start, and [politicans] aren't doing that," said Richmond.
Various analyses of data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) demonstrate firearms-related incidents — including both suicides and homicides — are among the leading causes of death for children and teenagers.
While Nashville is collectively dealing with the grief of Monday's shooting, Sanders said he's also heard "a great deal of pain and fear" from the parents of LGBTQ youth dealing with two situations affecting their children.
"I wish I could say I thought that was going to go away soon, but I don't," he said.
What young LGBTQ people need right now, he said, is to see the parents and other adults in their lives standing up for their rights, safety and existence.