Author’s Note: Due to the clandestine nature of the measures the space facilitators have taken to protect their spaces, names and places have been disguised.
ON DECEMBER 12, 2016, our local queer independent performance space was targeted by an alt-right vigilante group, along with about a dozen DIY (“do it yourself”) spaces nationwide. I got the news while riding a Greyhound up the east coast, heading back home after a visit with my then long-distance girlfriend. My phone blew up with notifications after Ray, the space’s head facilitator, announced that they had been compromised, showing a link to a bulletin board posting peppered with pictures of their house and home address. We were all still shaken by the tragedy at Pulse earlier that year, and the kids and the adults who frequented our space were joined in a frenzy of support and fear—asking if everything would be okay, asking what would happen to the space, asking if they were going to be safe.
Theories started to spring up around who locally might have given the group a tip that we existed, and the next few days were incredibly tense. In the wake of the wave of violence that we had all seen plastered over our news screens and Facebook feeds since the presidential election, we were all uncertain of how much information they had, and what could be done with it. Ray and Tom, who operate a queer performance space in the deep South, described their initial reactions to the incident as a mixture of “shock, horror, doom, and pretty much that the worst has happened or was going to happen: anger that people could cloak their extreme bigotry in memes and jokes; overwhelming feelings of visibility and unsafety regarding our space and our personal identities.” Their space was an eccentric, well-loved bastion of queerness and grassroots activism in the conservative South, run on the edge of a neighborhood being quickly gentrified out of accessibility for the low-income wage-earning residents inside.
As a mixed trans man with a disability that makes it difficult for me to move freely in a lot of venues, even gay ones, that space was one of only a few places where I could really feel welcome and safe. Spaces like this one are (or were) open to all ages, which was great for younger folks who can’t get into nighttime gay bars; they hosted local activist groups and offered tangible solutions for change at the regional level; they cooked up fresh food for people passing through; put on clothing swap parties; and, most prominently, they gave a platform for Southern queer artists to perform and showcase their work, particularly artists who were typically left out of the punk music scene and had a hard time getting booked in mainstream venues. They fostered a sense of community, love, solidarity, and strength for people who were used to feeling ousted and unwanted—which is precisely why it was targeted for shutdown by the Right Wing Fire Fighters.
The Fire Fighters are a group of alt-right keyboard warriors who stalk DIY spaces through leads across the USA, publish their addresses, infiltrate them, and either incite violence, plant code violations, or exaggerate possible code issues, then contact the authorities to shut them down. Their true mission is concealed under the mask of “concerned citizens” who are seeking to prevent a repeat of the Ghost Ship fire incident, say.* But a scan through their 4chan thread quickly reveals that the real mission is shutting down communication hubs that foster and support “faggots,” “shemales,” “kikes,” and “blackies,” normalizing what they call a perverted lifestyle, “leftist propaganda,” and degenerate dogma.
Since the start of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, we have seen a tangible increase in the visibility of groups like the Fire Fighters. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Map is a tracking tool that keeps a catalog of organized hate group activity in the U.S. There has been an overall increase in activity since the SPLC started collecting data in 1999. The reported number of groups rose in fits and starts from 457 in 1999 to a peak of 1,018 groups in 2011, after three years of expedited growth following Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign. The public presence of these hate groups declined during the Obama administration every year from 2012, to a low of 784 groups in 2014. As the candidates geared up for a viciously polarized primary contest starting in 2015, and some Republican candidates tried to rally support with increasingly vehement far-right rhetoric, the number of hate groups climbed to 895 in 2015, then 917 in 2016. The SPLC believes that the official count of hate groups has less to do with the actual number of practicing groups than with the prevailing political climate. Under the Obama administration, these groups became more secretive, retreating into darker corners of the Web; but recent events have emboldened the newly minted “alt-right” to come out from behind their keyboards in a more brazenly public way. The week of the November election saw the biggest spike in reported hate activity ever seen. These attacks were mostly against Latino and Muslim citizens and immigrants, but also against African, Asian, Jewish, and LGBT Americans.
According to the latest annual report of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence (NCAV), 2016 was the deadliest year for the LGBT community in twenty years, with a seventeen percent increase in homicides (not counting the lives lost in the Pulse shooting). The report collected data from Arizona, California, Illinois, Ohio, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Virginia, Vermont, and Wisconsin, and found a total of 1,036 incidents of hate violence committed against members of our community. Of the 28 LGBT homicides covered in the report, 79 percent were people of color (eighteen were black, four were Latino), and 68 percent of them (nineteen out of 28) were transgender or gender non-conforming, largely trans women of color. The majority of these hate incidents were perpetrated by family members, co-workers, neighbors, and landlords—people who were close enough to the victim to know of their sexuality and gender expression.
This pattern explains why trans women, specifically trans women of color, are the most vulnerable and the most viciously attacked subgroup in our diverse community. Life as a queer person is vastly more stressful when you’re already under the microscope for the color of your skin, and gets more complicated when you cannot easily pass for straight, whether on the street or at work. While I was writing this in late June, I heard that the fourteenth trans woman already this year was murdered in Athens, Georgia—seventeen-year-old Ava Le’Ray Benton. That’s 33 trans bodies buried in the last year and a half.
I caught up with Sam, the operator of another queer performance space in the Midwest that was also targeted and eventually shut down as a result of the Fire Fighters’ interference. Sam, a non-binary person of color, agreed that one of the most important things that we can do right now is truly listen to one another. We discussed the importance of different elements of the LGBT community showing up for one another in how we vote, how we engage with our representatives at the state and local levels. If there is a town hall hearing on a “bathroom bill,” we need our cisgender gay allies to show up and help mediate that interaction. If a black member of our community reports on an incident of harassment by the police, we need to stand with them in making sure justice is served. The aforementioned NCAV report found that 66 percent of survivors of anti-LGBT hate violence were met with dismissal or some degree of harassment or police misconduct, with African-Americans being three times more likely than whites to experience excessive force when the police became involved. In my city, our police force now has an LGBT liaison in place, following conversations with our local government. The operation is headed by a lesbian officer and a committee designed to field complaints in instances of perceived police oversight and work toward transparency and respect on both sides.
When asked if Sam felt that there was an increase of violence in the wake of Trump’s election, the answer was a resounding “Yes.” In the months before November, Sam was followed and physically assaulted, and came home to find his name spray painted across the outside of his house. After the election, another trans performer had to regroup before going onstage and tell the crew that they were going to change up and present as cisgender (not in drag) for the performance because of the hostility and level of threat.
As for our space in the South, crisis was averted through some quick and assertive actions taken by Ray and Tom, so the center has recently been able to start hosting events here in our city again. First, they cleared out a lot of online information, de-activated the space’s Facebook page, changed their name, and then re-activated. A phone call was made to the parents of the guy suspected of having made the tip for the Fire Fighters, a local troll and right-wing punk who’d been harassing the space on and off for years. The space’s owners had the local arts paper run a story saying that they were no longer operating, blocked a lot of folks on-line, and went for a “mutual disappearing act.” A few months after the initial campaign, the city fire marshal visited and left a card, and Tom contacted them via phone. He said that they “were extremely understanding even through the confusion of everything. The allegations made against us were patently ridiculous and unfounded, things like smoke coming out of the building consistently.” Tom admitted that it was terrifying for him to go through this, noting that it underlined the importance of keeping quiet about details regarding the space with new or unknown people. Sam in the Midwest gave a similar account, telling me that the fire marshal was extremely understanding after coming to check out their space from the smear report made in the local paper tipped by the Fire Fighters, but that eventually their landlord decided not to renew their lease due to the incident.
While these are small-scale events, there are about seven similar spaces for which I was not able to find contact information. Their secrecy is a prime example of the double-edged sword of queer visibility in the U.S. and abroad. In an increasingly hostile environment, being public and accessible is both a necessary act of solidarity and a target painted on our foreheads. My advice would be that we remain visible and public in our presentation of who we are and in our support for other groups in the LGBT community. Talk to the other queers in your local community, have cookouts, organize events. We are not like those who only crawl out from behind their keyboards when the water feels right. But we also need to include our straight neighbors, including people who don’t look like us.
To end on an inspirational note, Ray asserted that “being visibly queer in America is a pride that, if and when accessible, should be held close to the heart. It is a privilege no law has the ability to encompass in a way that speaks to its power. It says we will not assimilate, we are present, and our beauty is unwilling to be condensed under racism. I believe I should be visible as much as possible in honor of our trans and queer family already lost to violent acts of erasure not only in the U.S. but around the world.” If there is one thing that we have taken from this election cycle, it is that complacency is not an option. Now is the time to get to work forging a stronger safety net of advocacy and intersectional protection at the local, regional, and national levels.
* On December 2, 2016, 36 people were killed in a fire at a warehouse converted into an underground artist space riddled with code violations in Oakland, CA. It was an art house and a performance space with a very active queer and left-wing presence, like other places targeted by the Fire Fighters, but it actually was a dangerous venue, recklessly endangering local lives, unlike the spaces talked about in this article.
Mel Paisley, a writer, illustrator, and sketch journalist focusing on politics, mental health advocacy, and queer history, maintains a website at melpaisleyart.com.