There is a numbness that comes with studying extremely violent events for over a decade. I am a scholar of terrorism and white supremacy, and sometimes my work involves weeks on end of doing nothing but reading accounts of violence. You might call the numbness I adopt an act of self-preservation: I cannot carry on with my work if I am constantly breaking down, and so I inure myself to brutality. I pay attention, then, to events that shake me out of that stasis. The 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre was one: every year since, on June 12, I’ve lit a candle and mourned. The November 19–20 Club Q massacre, in which five queer and trans people and allies were taken from us, has been another.
As a queer woman, and given the importance of chosen community for queer people rejected by their families, I react differently to these attacks. This is a community to which I belong, and one in which I have found acceptance and celebration, and it is under threat. I start with my personal reaction to Club Q because it is a reminder that the phenomena we study as scholars of terrorism and extremism are indeed personal. They are personal to the loved ones of victims, and they are personal to the larger communities sent a message through these singular acts. The incentives for scientific abstraction, not to mention the aforementioned onslaught of awfulness that we encounter, can distance us from this reality in ways that can not only do unintended harm to victims but also act as a significant hindrance to making sense of the things we are trying to understand.
In this Insight, I use the Club Q shooting to illustrate the importance of what I term target-centred approaches in terrorism and extremism studies. Calls to foreground the experiences of people of colour, queer and trans people, and other marginalised communities who bear the brunt of political violence are not new. Indeed, they constitute key approaches in Black studies, queer and gender studies, and other fields with which terrorism and extremism studies do not usually engage. My intention is thus not to reinvent the wheel but rather to highlight how centring the targets of violence shifts our research questions, our research outcomes, and our research goals toward justice and liberation. Gaining insight from marginalised communities is easier than ever in the digital age, and so I further emphasise the utility of online platforms in learning about and from targeted groups. Online spaces allow researchers to easily track perpetrators’ rhetoric over time, but they can also shed light on resistance to violence and efforts to heal.
‘Research’ is About Real People and Their Safety
The first reorientation that comes from a target-centred approach to terrorism and extremism research is the reminder that at the end of the day, violence is done to real people. Targeted communities process grief and organise resistance with anger, sadness, hope, and fire. As tempting as it may be to sideline this aspect of violence in the name of conducting ‘objective’ research, doing so places the safety of queer and trans people on the back burner in the name of another policy analysis. This serves no one.
With few exceptions, mainstream coverage of and responses to the Club Q shooting focused on the facts of the event, possible motives for the shooter, and the broader context of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and hate in the United States. Once the victims’ names emerged, brief profiles appeared in some publications. In queer online spaces, however, the discussion was quite different. Queer people celebrated all aspects of the victims’ lives, normalising their queer- and transness rather than exceptionalising and essentialising their identities. Local artists insisted on beauty in the aftermath of violence. Across the country, queer communities mourned by uplifting the dead and survived by resisting the impulse to hide. In doing so, they highlighted the human aspect of violence
Taking a target-centred approach requires starting in the spaces and with the people targeted. This does not mean appropriating their reactions or intruding where one is not wanted, but it does mean observing responses those communities choose to make public online and off. Doing so can shift our research from numb, distanced work towards empathetic work interested in the common aim of keeping vulnerable communities safe. This end goal also urges researchers to move beyond typical counterterrorism and counter-extremism responses of policing and surveillance to prioritise care and liberation beyond the bounds of traditional security.
Targeted Communities Understand Violence Best
The second shift engendered by a target-centred approach moves us toward valuing local, on-the-ground sources of knowledge. The people with the deepest wells of knowledge about anti-queer and trans violence—and those doing the most significant research on these topics—are not always at universities or research institutes. Traditional academic training often dismisses such perspectives as ‘too close to the case’ or insufficiently rigorous, to the detriment of both academic research and policies aimed at queer and trans safety.
In the aftermath of Club Q, trans activists such as Erin Reed and Alejandra Caraballo collected and amplified information from the queer community in Colorado Springs in real-time—and, crucially, contextualised that information within years of experience being in and part of queer spaces. Reed’s weekly ‘Anti-Trans Watch’ on her Substack catalogues anti-trans bills and pro-trans protections across the United States, placing acts like the Club Q massacre against a backdrop of rapidly legislated anti-trans hate. Caraballo drew links between queer and trans hate and the far right’s broader antisemitism and tracked far-right commentators’ praise of the shooting. Queer and trans people were also the first to notice that mainstream media had misidentified a trans woman at Club Q as a drag queen.
The efforts of Reed and Caraballo, along with countless other queer and trans experts, underscore that single instances of violence are never really singular within the broader spectrum of far-right hate. Moreover, queer and trans ‘insiders’ had the knowledge necessary to counter media narratives that disseminated transphobic tropes, however unintentional, about trans women simply being cross-dressers. A target-centred approach turns first to targeted communities for expertise and trusts their perspectives as authoritative, thereby gaining a more accurate and comprehensive picture of violence and its dynamics.
Violence is More than Spectacular Attacks
Finally, a target-centred approach reminds us that single attacks are always embedded in larger social environments. Those environments can, on any given day, be far more violent than individual attacks, even if not in immediately physical ways. Combating anti-queer and anti-trans violence will be unsuccessful if pursued in a vacuum, and turning to targets illuminates the full range of institutions, rhetoric, and policy enabling more extreme acts of violence.
Work by queer and trans researchers and allies draws attention not only to shootings and assaults but also to larger acts of intimidation. Monthly demonstrations in the United States against queer and trans people have more than quadrupled in the last four years, as Erica Chenoweth’s and Jay Ulfelder’s Counting Crowds project demonstrates starkly. Likewise, observations by trans leaders emphasise the permissive environment for violence created by legislation targeting bathrooms, children’s sports, and gender-affirming care. Commenting on a proposed bill in Montana that would remove all legal recognition of trans people, Representative-elect trans woman Zooey Zephyr noted, “ … when you try to deny our very existences, you partake in & encourage that violence.”
Looking outside of traditional terrorism studies for perspectives on political violence, especially perspectives from targeted communities, suggests that over-emphasising only the most spectacular attacks misses the forest for the trees. A more holistic picture of the threat environment shifts attention to other parts of politics deeply intertwined with violence and reactions to it—and prescribes, in turn, a more holistic policy response. By looking at online platforms as places of community care and resistance instead of simply sources of information on bad actors, we allow hope and healing into research spaces as important components of our own research practices. In effect, then, a target-centred approach does more than simply flesh out academic and practitioner understandings of anti-queer and anti-trans violence. It also demands a pivot to solutions focused on broader societal justice, celebration, and liberation for all marginalised communities.