This was supposed to be a weekend of defiance for the LGBTQ community in Nashville.
Thousands were set to protest against a ban on gender-affirming care for minors signed earlier this month by Tennessee's governor, as well as a first-in-the-nation ban on drag performances in public places or in front of minors set to take effect on Saturday.
A rally for queer and transgender youth — one of the dozens taking place across the country — was set for Friday afternoon in Legislative Plaza in the city’s downtown.
Seven Tennessee LBGTQ groups were preparing for as many as 5,000 people to descend on East Nashville for a rally on Saturday morning, followed by a march to the state capitol building and a drag performance.
And later that night, organizers of a “drag crawl” had planned for hundreds of queer people and their straight allies to go from bar to bar in the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood while wearing drag, wigs, or glitter.
But all these events have now been canceled or indefinitely postponed.
In the wake of Monday’s mass shooting at the private Christian Covenant School, which left three children and three adults dead, all Nashvillians are grieving over the devastation brought to their city by the US epidemic of gun violence. But the LGBTQ community has been left in a particularly unique state of shock because of the apparent transgender identity of the shooter — something that far-right figures have seized upon to cast false and hateful aspersions about the entire trans community.
So, for now at least, LGBTQ activists are stepping back, fearful that any activism might make things worse.
“We have a city that's in mourning and in shock and grief, and it's a conflict in terms of messaging,” Phil Cobucci, founder of Inclusion Tennessee and one of the organizers of Saturday’s rally, told BuzzFeed News in a phone call Thursday in which he sounded crestfallen about the decision to postpone.
Police had not asked for the rally to be canceled, Cobucci said, but organizers had seen “social chatter” online that had prompted some safety concerns. Additionally, organizers had heard funerals for shooting victims had been set for Saturday, leading them to delay the event as a mark of respect.
Rallygoers received an email Thursday morning alerting them that the march had been postponed to a date yet to be determined.
But Cobucci insisted that their decision to not hold the march should not be seen as a capitulation to far-right figures spreading “disgusting” messages about the LGBTQ community.
“Fear doesn't win. Fear will never win for us. This is not us going back into the closet,” Cobucci said. “Our decision to postpone this event is out of respect for the families, it is out of respect for our city. It is a moment for us to grieve collectively, and to show love to a community that's hurting. That's what this is for.”
Nashville drag performer Vidalia Anne Gentry, who identifies as transfeminine nonbinary, said the fear on the ground is real. “A lot of my trans brothers and sisters are noticeably more terrified, especially as the rhetoric has shifted back to them being painted as monsters, and they’re just not,” she said. “They're just trying to live their lives.”
Jonathan Metzl, the director of Vanderbilt University’s Department of Medicine, Health, and Society in Nashville, has extensively studied mass shootings and mental illness. But he said nothing could have prepared him for the sounds of the sirens and helicopters that followed Monday’s shooting when the three child victims were brought to Vanderbilt Medical Center with gunshot wounds before being pronounced dead.
Metzl said mass shootings are often quickly politicized, but usually around differing positions on gun control. This time, he said, the response to the shooting seems unique because of other political factors that have divided people into what he said were existential camps.
“You could not pick a more hypercharged moment to have a combination of guns, mass shootings, sexuality issues. I mean, they're all happening right now in Tennessee,” Metzl said.
“It just taps into every single red button … so it's really unsurprising that the actions of one person are being picked up on the right to pathologize a much broader community of people who identify as trans,” he added.
Republicans, including former president Donald Trump and Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene, have speculated, without evidence, that hormone therapy was to blame for the shooter’s actions. Donald Trump Jr. also said the tragedy was evidence of “a clear epidemic of trans or nonbinary mass shooters” — something debunked by fact-checkers who noted that cisgender men are more likely to become mass shooters than transgender people, who are more likely to be victims of violence.
Conservative media have also made a point of emphasizing the shooter’s identity in their coverage of the tragedy. The New York Post ran a front-page headline that read, “TRANSGENDER KILLER ATTACKS CHRISTIAN SCHOOL,” while Fox News’ Tucker Carlson said the shooting happened due to a “deranged ideology” and that, “We seem to be watching the rise of trans terrorism.” Carlson has also told viewers that transgender people “hate Christians.”
MAGA-linked Christian singer and activist Sean Feucht has advertised on social media for a “Day of Prayer” to be held in Nashville on Saturday afternoon. On Twitter, Feucht has repeatedly attacked transgender people in recent days. “The demonic spirit behind the transgenderism movement is being exposed,” he wrote.
Trolls online have also spread fake tweets about the Nashville shooting, prompting LGBTQ media watchdog GLAAD to warn, “Bad actors are spreading fake screenshots to stoke anti-trans malice. Be vigilant and check the accuracy of screenshots before you spread them.”
For Tennessee activists who had spent weeks and months organizing against the recent spate of anti-LGBTQ legislation in their states, the timing could not be more devastating.
“I think maybe I'm still finding my words about what's going on,” OUT Memphis Executive Director Molly Rose Quinn told BuzzFeed News. “I think the mood is somber, the mood is exhausted, the mood is definitely overwhelming.”
“I think all of us feel like we have so much anger and so much grief that it's hard to know if we'll ever be able to process all that we've been through and are going through right now,” Quinn said.
Alie Stewart, an event planner in Nashville, said that they too were indefinitely postponing Saturday night’s “drag crawl” as a mark of respect and out of concern for the safety of participants.
“We were gearing up for it and then the news broke about the shooting, and we all just knew right away to take a pause,” Stewart said.
She was expecting at least 500 people to don extravagant costumes and makeup before touring a series of bars and pubs as a visual show of support to the city’s drag community.
“We had a lot of safety measures in place that we were confident about, but when the second roll of news came out that the shooter was a trans person, someone a part of the LGBTQ community, we knew that there would be backlash from that,” Stewart said.
Tennessee’s anti-drag law that takes effect on Saturday, April 1, bans “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest” from performing in public spaces or in front of minors.
Drag queen Vidalia Anne Gentry told BuzzFeed News that she did not believe people would actually be prosecuted under the law in Nashville, which has a Democratic district attorney, but that she feared how other more conservative parts of the state might enforce it.
“I don't see Saturday being a threshold that we're going to cross or something's going to immediately change so much as it just being a temporal marker for the chipping away of our First Amendment rights,” she said.
In addition to free speech concerns over the law’s vague wording and unclear enforcement, activists say the law is inextricably bound to other attacks on the transgender community and plays on outdated fears and tropes that children could be “groomed” or otherwise made LGBTQ by being exposed to queer people.
“The far right and anti-LGBT forces have always had the conviction that LGBT people are inherently dangerous for children, but it's harder for them to say that now with a straight face when so many more people know LGBT people,” said Adam Polaski, spokesperson for the Campaign for Southern Equality. “And so they have to take that anti-LGBT message — the LGBTQ community is bad for children — and they have to find a new target and a new way to hook it. So they picked drag queens.”
Hundreds of tickets have been sold for an all-ages drag brunch that is still set to go ahead on Sunday in Nashville to raise money for Inclusion Tennessee. But others in the city had already taken steps to exclude children from drag audiences after several incidents, including in Tennessee, in which far-right extremists have shown up at all-ages events.
“We just decided for both a business model and the safety of our patrons, to not allow that anymore,” said Todd Roman, a co-owner of the Nashville gay bars Play and Tribe, about their decision to no longer allow children to attend a drag brunch at another of their venues or ride in their drag party bus.
“Even though we think it's completely harmless, and that a parent should absolutely have the right to attend and it's not at all what [right-wing lawmakers] described, we thought it was a wise business decision to take ourselves out of that conversation,” Roman said. “If there's so much hate and resistance to that, then we will just elect not to participate.”
But Nashville is not without protest in the wake of the shooting.
More than a thousand demonstrators calling for gun control gathered outside the state capitol on Thursday before entering the building and filling the public gallery in heated and emotional scenes. Chants of “Save our children!” echoed throughout the halls of the Republican-led Legislature.
“I also feel like the Covenant shooting is something that impacted a lot of people in our community very directly,” high school junior Davern Cigarran told the Tennessean newspaper. “I think this is something that can’t just be, you know, ignored or protested for four days and then forgotten about.”