The FBI recently arrested a man who had threatened to kill a doctor in Boston who provides gender-affirming care to transgender children. The following day, members of two far-right groups, the Patriot Front and the Proud Boys, gathered outside of a Unitarian church in Columbus, Ohio, leading to the cancellation of a drag queen story hour. These incidents came just weeks after a mass shooting at Club Q, an LGBTQ+ club in Colorado Springs, which was planning to host a drag performance to honor the upcoming Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Such attacks are part of a staggering rise in anti-LGBTQ+ violence and threats across the country. While the motives of these events are not always clear, as of 2020, around one out of every five hate crimes committed in the U.S. were motivated by anti-LGBTQ+ bias, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The fuel for much of this violence has been far-right rhetoric spread by white nationalist groups, extremist influencers and conservative politicians, says Yotam Ophir, an assistant professor of communications at the University at Buffalo, who studies misinformation and extremism. “It’s become pretty clear that the LGBTQ+ community is now at the heart of the new iteration of the culture wars that we have been unfortunately going through in recent years,” he says. This community has become “a staple of right-wing messaging and often propaganda.”

Part of the reason this rhetoric is so prominent now is because of connections with evangelical Christian and white nationalist movements, says Sophie Bjork-James, an assistant professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University and an expert in white nationalism and the religious right. According to Bjork-James, both movements are based around the patriarchy, which requires two genders that are in a hierarchical relationship with each other. “Queer identities challenge the patriarchy,” she says.

During the 2016 presidential election, white nationalists and evangelicals supported then candidate Donald Trump, bringing extremist views that were once on the periphery of mainstream politics to the center of the Republican Party, Bjork-James says. There is also a growing fear among conservatives, Ophir says, that the U.S. is becoming less white and less Christian. All of these factors have fueled the rise of far-right media personalities such as Chaya Raichik, who runs the social media account Libs of TikTok, political commentator Matt Walsh and Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

“The way that [far-right media instigators] tend to work is that they have an audience whom they have already primed for violence and for hate,” says Erin Reed, a legislative researcher, content creator and trans rights activist. They will then target a specific person or organization and blast misinformation out to their millions of follows, she says.

For example, earlier this year, Raichik, Walsh and Carlson all spread a baseless conspiracy theory that Boston Children’s Hospital’s gender-affirming health care clinic was performing hysterectomies (removals of the uterus) on children. Afterward, the hospital received multiple bomb threats. The reality is that the clinic requires patients to be at least 18 years old to perform a gender-affirming hysterectomy. Additionally, data from more than a dozen studies clearly show that access to gender-affirming care—much of which is nonsurgical—is linked to better mental health outcomes in trans kids and that lack of access to such care is associated with higher rates of suicidal thoughts, depression and self-harming behavior.

Scientific American reached out to Raichik, Walsh and Carlson for comment, but none responded to the questions presented.

The false claims and rhetoric used by right-wing extremists dehumanize and vilify the LGBTQ+ community and provoke stochastic terrorism, a phenomenon in which hate speech increases the likelihood that people will attack the targets of vicious claims. Research has also shown that this type of rhetoric can motivate people to express and possibly act on their prejudiced views

The potential for any individual extremist message to push people toward violence is low, Ophir says. But continuous exposure to this hate speech from many different media platforms and politicians can contribute to radicalization.

The rise in anti-LGBTQ+ hate messaging has also emboldened conservative lawmakers. For example, Tennessee legislators who sponsored a bill that seeks to ban gender-affirming care for trans youth said that they based the proposed legislation in part around Walsh’s social media crusade against Vanderbilt University Medical Center, which provides gender-affirming care. Walsh also helped stage a rally in support of this bill in October, which was attended by GOP members, including Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and that state’s Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson.

A number of Republican politicians strongly embraced anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric during the recent midterm elections. Illinois’s Republican nominee for governor referred to gender-affirming care for trans youth as “experimental gender surgeries,” which is not accurate because such surgeries have been shown to be safe, and patients have very low rates of regret. Another GOP politician—a candidate for attorney general in Nevada—called for there to be “a lot less” trans people. In the final weeks leading up to the elections, extremist candidates and groups such as America First Legal—an ultraconservative legal organization run by former Trump adviser Stephen Miller—poured around $50 million dollars into anti-trans ads, many of which targeted parents and spread misinformation about gender-affirming care. Such hate speech from politicians boosts the likelihood of domestic terrorism, according to a 2020 study led by a researcher at Pennsylvania State University.

“Antiqueer rhetoric seeks to establish violence against the LGBTQ+ community, be it physical violence, harassment and abuse, or political violence,” Reed says.

Combating hate speech is difficult but not impossible, Bjork-James says. Supporting LGBTQ+ people who have been targeted online by sharing their stories is a good first step. Additionally, people can fight back against misinformation by reporting social media accounts that are spreading anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and putting pressure on advertisers who support platforms with hate speech, she adds. More Internet regulation would help—something that has become particularly relevant since billionaire Elon Musk bought Twitter and reinstated many far-right accounts, Ophir says.

Additionally, education on how to navigate the media and Internet is vitally important. “As humans, we’re not wired to cope with so much information,” he says. “We should provide people with better tools to understand how media works, to understand how to identify falsehoods and to identify propaganda.”

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely we have seen the worst of the anti-LGBTQ+ violence in the U.S., Reed says. But many states are fighting back through legislation that protects LGBTQ+ people, she notes. California, for example, just became the first sanctuary state for transgender youth who are seeking gender-affirming care. Washington, D.C., also passed legislation that protects the rights of those pursuing care for abortion and gender affirmation.

We must remember that we have the power to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and make a difference, Ophir says. “I think this is our biggest failure as humans: our inability to imagine change,” he says. “We need to keep fighting back.”