Newsletter #25: Club Q and Christian persecution
In this newsletter: the Club Q shooting and Christian persecution, discussing tragedy at work, Thanksgiving, and Brené Brown.
Here’s what’s in the newsletter today:
Shooting and Club Q and Christian persecution
The rhetoric of violence and the habit of allyship
Discussing Tragedy at Work
The Privilege of the Oppressed
Thanksgiving is complicated
What I’m reading: I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Wasn’t)
Shooting at Club Q and Christian persecution
Over the weekend, a gunman opened fire at one of the two LGBTQ clubs in Colorado Springs, Club Q. Five were killed (Daniel Aston, Derrick Rump, Kelly Loving, and Raymond Green Vance), and eighteen were wounded. The shooting occurred minutes before the start of Transgender Day of Remembrance, and killed multiple members of the trans community.
Club Q is just a fifteen minute drive from the headquarters of Focus on the Family, a Christian organization which focuses on political and social advocacy in areas such as marriage, family, and sexuality. Focus on the Family aligns closely with conversion therapy advocates, such as Joe Dallas. The organization also releases such content as videos on the need to “Prepare Your Family for Christian Persecution” and guides on “Talking to Kids about the Persecuted Church.” This is consistent with the ways in which Christians generally tend to seek out evidence of persecution and focus on it as an important aspect of religious identity.
Rhetoric concerning Christian persecution recently flourished in the wake of the Dobbs decision. For example, consider Richard Garnett’s June article in First Things on “Anti-Catholic Attacks after Dobbs” (such as offensive sign-waving and “unconvincing” political charges). After the Dobbs decision, Catholics across the country wrote about a coming onslaught of violence against Catholic and pro-life institutions. Certainly, there were reports of arson and vandalism after Dobbs. But I am aware of no killings. And while violent persecution of Christians does occur around the globe, anti-Christian killings in the United States are quite rare.
Killings by Christians are much more common in this country. This weekend’s violence at Club Q wasn’t the only mass shooting in Colorado Springs in recent years. In 2015, a man motivated by Christian extremism opened fire in the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, killing three and wounding nine others. Even mass shootings in churches in the US are much more likely to target race or ethnicity, as was the case with the 2015 shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, which killed nine Black Christians. The most deadly church shooting in this country, the 2017 shooting at First Baptist Church in Southerland, was motivated by a dispute with the shooter’s mother-in-law.
When discussing Christian persecution in the United States, a country with a majority of Catholics on its supreme court and whose presidents have almost exclusively been Christians, most point to the limitations on white collar employees to speak or act in ways others deem harmful, or how legislation increasingly limits the ability of the service industry or public accommodations to deny services to certain groups, or how many want to limit the ability to fire someone on account of their romantic relationships or gender identity. What many Christians seek is the ability to fire or deny services to someone on account of their gender identity or sexual orientation, but they also want to bar the ability to subject anyone to adverse actions on account of words or actions they state come from their religious beliefs. In essence, these Christians seek protection to treat others as they do not want to be treated. The great irony in this pursuit for Catholics is that it’s often not even consistent with the Catholic tradition.
Targeted attacks against the LGBTQ community by Christians had been a consistent part of Colorado Springs’s history. In the early 1990s, the Colorado Springs City Council considered adding sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination ordinance, protecting gay persons from discrimination in housing and other areas. In response, an advocacy group called Colorado Coalition for Family Values (CFV) successfully raised a ballot initiative, Amendment 2, for the Colorado state Constitution to ban any non-discrimination initiatives which would protect those with “homosexual, lesbian or bisexual orientation, conduct, practices, or relationships.” CFV promoted rhetoric alleging that such nondiscrimination initiatives were acts of oppression by the “homosexual” community. That is, even attempts to prohibit landlords from denying housing to someone on account of their sexual orientation were deemed oppressive acts. (Amendment 2 was approved by voters, but found unconstitutional by the Colorado supreme court in 1994.)
In addition to discrimination, anti-LGBTQ violence is also part of the historical fabric of Colorado Springs. Prior to the opening of Club Q, Colorado Springs City Council member Richard Skorman had operated a restaurant which was known for its openness to the local gay community. Because of this openness, his restaurant “regularly received death threats and bricks were thrown through the window.” Club Q eventually became a thriving safe space for the local LGBTQ community, but community members now have to reckon with the fact that this safe space was the site of a mass shooting.
I struggle with Christians in the United States who talk about anti-Christian persecution and violence, partly because we often fail to grasp that people in this country are far more likely to be killed because they are Black, immigrants, or LGBTQ. The passion and frequency with which Christians discuss anti-Christian persecution sometimes strikes me as not only lacking in awareness, but, at times, laughable. This isn’t to say that anti-Christian persecution isn’t real. But I do think that Christians would have a much easier time being taken seriously if we spoke in a way commensurate with the actual state of affairs. I’m not afraid of walking down the street in many cities because I’m Christian. I’m afraid of walking down the street because I’m brown and gay. Asking Christians to talk about that more is an invitation to reality.
The rhetoric of violence and the habit of allyship
Some will say that the shooters who have perpetrated such violence are simply crazy. They suggest that, in a way, these are random unexplainable acts of the totally deranged. This has never sat well with me. How is it that the totally random acts of the deranged tend to focus on specific groups? How did Club Q, one of two LGBTQ clubs in the city, come to be the target?
Was it because, before they were armed with guns, these shooters were armed with rhetoric? The Charleston shooter had been armed with the Confederate Battle Flag, with messages about how George Zimmerman had been in the right in killing Trayvon Martin, with search histories on “black on White crime.” The man who killed a woman and injured three others at Chabad of Poway synagog in California in 2019 had posted about Jews pursuing a “meticulously planned genocide of the European race,” extending rhetoric promoted by Ann Coulter and Donald Trump. The Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooter was known for his Christian faith which contributed to his (violent) opposition to abortion. Even if the decision to kill comes out of nowhere, the decision of who to kill often does not. Religious and political leaders often give a direction. Even if they do not buy the guns, they help supply the motive. (I’m not convinced the decision to kill comes from nowhere, and if it does then this would underscore the need for more restrictions on the ability to purchase certain types of weapons.)
I do find hope in people like Richard Fierro, who is being recognized as a hero in the wake of the Club Q shooting. Fierro, an Army veteran, was attending his first drag show Saturday night with his wife, daughter, and daughter’s boyfriend (Raymond Green Vance, 22, who was killed in the shooting). He later told the New York Times: “These kids want to live that way, want to have a good time, have at it… I’m happy about it because that is what I fought for, so they can do whatever the hell they want.” Fierro sprung into action when the shooting began. He instinctively dove to the floor and pulled a friend down with him. When he identified the shooter, Fierro ran across the room, pulled the shooter down, and fought with him until he was subdued.
Fierro describes his actions as more instinct than vulnerable heroism. He was trained to subdue attackers, and his war instincts took over. The protection of others, for him, was a bodily condition. When I think about allyship, this is one thing I think about: you act out of the ingrained habit of putting your body on the line when others are subjected to harm.
One thing that I’ve struggled with as a Catholic is how rarely I’ve seen this form of allyship. I think back to my experience of discrimination in my Catholic graduate program (and at the highest levels of the Church). While others had reached out to me privately to share how they were shocked at what I have suffered, I know of no one who put their careers, reputations, or relationships on the line over what I had experienced. No one actually did anything to protect me or others from this kind of harm. (Of course, it’s possible that some did this and I just didn’t know.) I lost a career, and I felt alone in this.
This is partly why I have focused on prioritizing spaces other than that Catholic world which I had considered home for so long: because I know allies who would put themselves on the line in the face of these sorts of injustice exist, just not there. Far too often, the rhetoric which helps the perpetrators of violence identify their victims is given space to grow and develop in Christian communities. Seeing events like the Club Q shooting unfold makes the pain of these realities feel fresh again. I can’t imagine the pain felt by the friends and families who lost loved ones this weekend.
If you would like to do something to support the LGBTQ+ community at this time, I would love it if you would make a donation to the Pride Community Center in my hometown of College Station, Texas. You can learn more about the Pride Community Center here. I would also highly recommend identifying any LGBTQ+ organizations in your own community and offering them support.
Discussing Tragedy at Work
In the wake of this weekend’s shooting, LGBTQ+ employees and allies may be showing up to work today in a variety of ways. Some may turn to work to distract them from the pain they are grappling with in their personal lives. Some may need acknowledgement and support. Some may be tired and need space to show up differently. Many are struggling with complex feelings including sadness, grief, confusion, isolation, fear, loneliness, and anger. Two hours into the workday on Monday, I’d already gone in and out of feelings of intense focus, deep sadness, exhaustion, trying to distract myself with projects, gratitude for my team, and seeking to overcome my own feelings of powerlessness by offering support to others.
Creating space for all of this in the workplace can be extremely challenging. But workplaces have an opportunity to be key places of safety and support for people who may struggle to find it elsewhere. And if workplaces want to truly be characterized by diversity, equity, and inclusion, they need leaders who recognize and respond to the unique struggles faced by communities that are targets of violence and hate.
At my own company, I’m organizing a listening session for employees to share their thoughts and feelings and to receive support. I also put together a resource for managers on how to support teams following a tragedy. I’ll be working with my company to see if it’s a resource I can share more broadly, but in the meantime here are some resources you may want to share with your team:
What is the role of a workplace after a tragedy? (Fast Company)
Leading in times of trauma (Harvard Business Review)
How to talk to employees after a tragic event (Insperity)
In general, what leaders need to do is demonstrate empathy and practice acknowledgment. At the very least, if you lead a team, I would recommend sending a message with the following:
Acknowledging this act of violence;
Expressing support for the LGBTQ+ community;
Briefly sharing the feelings this has brought up for you;
Acknowledging that there may be varied reactions across the team;
Inviting people to share (if that would be helpful) with you personally;
Offering to set up time for sharing as a team if that would be helpful (if you are not experienced at facilitating these sorts of conversations, I’d recommend bringing in a professional);
Directing the team to mental health and other resources, especially those that are included with your benefit plans or other company programs; and
Giving space if people need to take a day or two off, reschedule meetings, have their cameras off during virtual meetings, or take some breaks throughout the day.
The privilege of the oppressed
Over the last two weeks, I wrote about “the privilege of the oppressed.” You can find the essay here.
Thanksgiving is complicated
Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday. It can (and should) bring up mixed emotions. Others have written on this, so rather than detailing all this myself, here are some resources:
The Invention of Thanksgiving (The New Yorker)
Rethinking Thanksgiving Celebrations (Native Knowledge 360)
Rehabilitate Thanksgiving and renew the practice of gratitude (National Catholic Reporter)
These Native Americans focus on family amid Thanksgiving’s dark history (Washington Post)
What I’m reading: I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t)
At the insistence of a friend, I recently read Brené Brown’s I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough.” Brown is such an influential popular figure that I sometimes forget that she is a serious researcher and academic who has worked to understand shame and vulnerability through both large-scale studies and countless intimate conversations with a wide range of men and women. So while her books are written for broad audiences, they draw on a range of texts and research to draw out meaning and help people improve their lives.
I Thought It Was Just Me begins with the sentence around which Brown says she has built her career: “You cannot shame or belittle people into changing their behaviors.” At the center of the text is not just seeking to understand shame and the dynamics which motivate it, but what it takes to enable people to find freedom from harmful habits and behaviors and change their lives for the better. In her research, she found that shame is used every day to try to change people, but that shaming others does not result in lasting change and tends to reinforce harmful behaviors and dynamics. Shame is often the origin of that harm and also its perpetuator.
Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” Shaming messages often take the form of “he/she is,” “I am,” or “you are.” We can identify shame when we can understand the difference between the statements “I did a bad thing” and “I am a bad person.” The former statement focuses judgment on a particular behavior, which we can unpack and take a different approach towards in the future. The latter, by contrast, establishes a quality within the person which can feel intrinsic and inescapable, thus perpetuating bad behaviors and inhibiting even attempts towards change.
Brown notes that “most of us, if not all, have built significant parts of our lives around shame.” It’s a pervasive experience. And it drives the most challenging and harmful interpersonal dynamics, as well as challenging and harmful dynamics within the self. But most of us don’t talk about it. Of course, this is part of the dynamic of shame. Part of what maintains shame is its power over us, manifested in making that which we must speak feel unspeakable.
Brown argues that “shame resilience” and empathy are at the center of overcoming shame and enabling change. We cannot permanently rid ourselves of shame, but we can develop “the ability to recognize shame when we experience it, and move through it in a constructive way that allows us to maintain our authenticity and grow from our experiences.” For this, empathy is key. Brown found that “[w]omen with high levels of shame resilience were both givers and receivers of empathy.” This is partly because shame relies on fear, blame, and disconnection. (Brown contrasts blame, which is often used “to discharge overwhelming feelings of fear and shame” though accusations and tends to shut down its recipient, with accountability, which tends to be “motivated by the desire to repair and renew.”) Empathy allows us to “tap into our own experiences in order to connect with an experience someone is relating to us.” Empathy taps into a recognition of the essential goodness of the other (or oneself) to start disentangling core identity from negative monikers and enable a healthy recognition of limitations and change.
Of course, this is all simpler said than done. I Thought It Was Just Me isn’t so much a simple handbook for change as it is an invitation to undergo an extremely challenging but very necessary journey.
You can follow along with my current reads at Goodreads.
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