On the weekend before Thanksgiving and the night before Transgender Day of Remembrance, Anderson Lee Aldrich burst into Club Q in Colorado Springs. Aldrich was wearing tactical gear, armed with an automatic rifle and a handgun, and spraying bullets. Five people were killed and 17 others shot before unarmed patrons at the club--a cis straight man, a trans woman, and an apparently cis gay man--subdued the shooter.
LGBTQ+ people all over were traumatized. In an era of ever-expanding attacks on queer and trans folks and our allies as "groomers," and of laws being passed to try to erase or segregate trans youth and adults, the attack underlined how we are not safe from hate.
On the political right, the media and social media had little to say about the mass murder. Tucker Carlson did bring on a guest to say that events like this would continue to happen as long as "these people keep trying to get their hands on children." But mostly the right wing just ignored the story that didn't fit their narratives that guns are good and trans people are bad.
Then, a few days after the mass murder, in a flurry of court filings, the shooter's legal team said that Anderson Aldrich is nonbinary, and should be referred to as Mx. Aldrich and "them." And rightwing social media posters went wild, suddenly bursting with interest in the incident. The left had thought they had scored a point on the right, but psych! The point goes to Team Red! Posters were gleeful. Oh, this was perfect, what a move! Aldrich had caught the left in a trap, a glorious Catch-22. Either "the libs" would have to admit that trans people are unstable and dangerous wingnuts, or admit that people who are obviously male can say they're trans when it is not true, and thus have free access to spaces reserved to protect women and girls if society recognizes trans rights.
Watching the flood of rightwing social-media celebration about this news was really hard. People were doing the verbal equivalent of gleeful jigs, while I had been mourning, and supporting scared students who are trans, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming, and/or queer, all week. Few of the exultant posters were even bothering to give lip service to caring that people died, people were maimed, a community was in mourning. It was just "Haha, gotcha gotcha gotcha!"
And I know it can be really hard to respond to this. So many trans and queer folk are exhausted and don't have the energy reserves needed to muster an analysis and develop a response. The exultation of bigots was retraumatizing. And well-meaning Americans who just don't know much about gender-variant communities don't know what to think. Should they call the shooter "they" or not? What was going on?
So let me explain why calling the shooter "they" doesn't mean the trans community loses, and in fact has the potential to educate others and move things forward. And it by no means lets Anderson Aldrich off the hook for the consequences of their hateful and heinous actions.
First, let's step back and get a better picture of Anderson Aldrich.
This is a photo of Aldrich with some family members:
The photo was one of the very, very few of Aldrich that people were able to locate after the shooting. This is unusual, especially given the many public controversies Aldrich's family was involved in, and Aldrich's own prior livestreamed threats to blow up their house and their family a year ago. Those arrest records were sealed, even though Aldrich was a legal adult at 21, and it seems internet content was scrubbed as well.
In any case, in the photo above you see that Aldrich's face has been circled, along with that of their grandfather, outgoing Republican California State Assemblymember Randy Voepel, self-declared "super-MAGA." Randy Voepel was infamous for proclaiming that the January 6th attack on the US Capitol was the first battle in the next Revolutionary War against tyranny. Here's Voepel in his regalia:
Randy Voepel's daughter, Laura Voepel, is Anderson Aldrich's mother. Her life story is pretty boggling. It includes being active in communities of the Church of Christ of Latter-Day Saints (i.e. the Mormons, of which Aldrich is a registered member as well). It involves marrying an MMA fighter who had already been arrested for battering her--Aldrich's father--then divorcing him soon afterwards. It also includes a long list of charges being brought against her--for drunk driving, for arson, for "criminal mischief," for refusing to appear in court. Here's a photo of her in her youth:
In 2008, when Anderson Aldrich was 7 years old, police responded to a call about a home invasion. They found Laura Voepel lying on her bed, with her wrists and legs bound in duct tape. According to news reports, "Voepel initially told police a man had put string around her neck, bound her with tape and placed a knife on her chest. She admitted the following day, however, that she had been under the influence of narcotics and fabricated the incident because 'she was lonely and wanted attention,' a police report states."
Not exactly a role model for veracity or stability. What about Aldrich's father? He is Aaron Brink, known as "The Frijolero" in MMA circles, and as Dick Delaware in his second career, as an actor in pornographic videos. As an MMA fighter, he won 29 fights and lost 27, and as an actor, he had supporting roles in Spiderman XXX: A Porn Parody, Thor XXX, and many other films. Here he is in a safe-for-work promo photo for the Thor XXX film, wearing what appears to be a fantasy Viking tactical vest, with bonus six-pack abs:
That all seems pretty amusing. What's not amusing is that he was abusive to his family, spent time in jail, was addicted to meth, and says he taught young Anderson Aldrich that one must respond to any challenge from others with overwhelming physical violence--to be the dominator and not the dominated. When informed that his offspring had committed the atrocity in Colorado Springs, Brink responded, “They started telling me about the incident, a shooting involving
multiple people. And then I go on to find out it’s a gay bar. I said, ‘God, is he gay?’
I got scared, ‘Shit, is he gay?’ And he’s not gay, so I said,
‘Phhhewww…’” He said he couldn't tolerate a gay son, as a Mormon and conservative Republican.
Anderson Aldrich grew up in a family of unstable adults who desperately craved attention--and tended to get what they wanted, as conservative white people with connections and means. Randy Voepel got elected to the California State Assembly to seek to promote his ultraconservative brand. Laura Voepel never did any jail time for any of her charges and convictions. Aaron Brink got to be a B-list celebrity, with acting credits in some mainstream films as well as 340 pornographic videos. This was a family of contradictions. They were Mormons who called themselves ultra-social-conservatives, yet Laura Voepel and Brink were also lawbreakers who were addicted to drugs, alcohol, and thrills. The theme of extremes of conforming gender expression in the family photos is really evident--along with its usual companion, fragile masculinity, which resulted in physical abuse.
At some point, Aldrich moved in with their mother's parents, who were apparently the most stable option. So Aldrich grew up in the home of "ultra-MAGA" Randy Voepel. At 16, they changed their name, with their grandparents sponsoring the name change to Anderson Aldrich. Laura Voepel says the name change was intended to sever ties with Aaron Brink, whom Aldrich feared. Brink says Aldrich wanted a different last name due to being upset as a good Mormon that Brink was a porn star, and that Brink agreed to sign the name change papers because "I let my son down."
It is clear that by this time, Aldrich was being teased and bullied about having a porn star dad by classmates.Someone created a YouTube channel in Aldrich's old name, and posted a racist, homophobic video on it entitled "Asian homosexual gets molested by floating piece of f*ckle." There is little information on what transpired, but whatever harassment was going on, it did involve fag-baiting Aldrich, seeking to humiliate them by portraying them as gay and thus supposedly displaying failed masculinity and low social value. (This doesn't mean Aldrich was actually "gay"--fag-baiting one another is a ubiquitous practice among boys in American middle and high schools, and among gamer bros everywhere.) In any case, Laura Voepel was concerned, and posted in her Mormon women's social media group, asking for recommendations for someone who could coach Aldrich in boxing, and for therapist recommendations.
And at some point, Aldrich started to acquire weapons, ammunition, body armor, and tactical gear.
The Bomb Threat and First Attempt at Notoriety and Suicide by Cop
In June 2021, Aldrich became extremely upset, because they found out their grandparents were going to move to Florida. Aldrich was now 21 years old, 6'6" tall, living in their own rental apartment, and possessing weapons. They reacted with a rage combining a toddler's temper tantrum with an armed adult's menace. Aldrich went to Laura Voepel's house and threatened to blow it up with a homemade bomb, killing them both. News reports describing Aldrich's own video of the event show that, "'This is the day I die,' he can be heard telling his mother. 'They don't give a f*** about me anymore. Clearly.'"
So Aldrich provoked Voepel to call the police. And what followed was a very familiar scene. We've all seen it in many other mass shooting events committed by white supremacists and incels and others in the manoverse online network of young far-right edgelords and 4chan chuds. Aldrich was wearing body armor, carrying a long gun, and livestreaming the entire event, hoping to go viral. “If they breach, I’ma f***ing blow it to holy hell,” Aldrich told the camera as police arrived outside. Police cleared people out of the 10 surrounding houses. Here's a screenshot from Aldrich's livestream:
But the whole event fizzled. There was no bomb. There was no suicide by cop. Police brought in crisis negotiators, and Aldrich eventually put down their weapons and walked out to be arrested without incident. The result was not a period of internet fame and notoriety. Instead, Aldrich's well-connected and well-funded grandparents managed to get the charges dropped, and the case sealed as if Aldrich were a minor. Further steps seem to have been taken to scrub the internet of information about Aldrich and/or the event, including convincing news organizations to remove stories about the bomb threat.
But it seems clear that this outcome, which is what Aldrich's family wanted, is not really the one Aldrich wanted. That's why we see a more dramatic repeat of the attempt to secure fame through a blaze of violence, with a deathwish attached. This time, Aldrich realized that you don't get much attention from the manoverse or news media by just threatening your own family, and attacked a vulnerable community instead. They attacked an LGBTQ+ club in their area on the weekend of the Transgender Day of Remembrance.
Is Anderson Aldrich a Member of the Trans Community?
Aldrich's lawyers say their client is nonbinary. It's clear how the transphobic political right views this announcement. They don't believe it on two levels. First, they deny the validity of nonbinary identities generally. And secondly, they don't believe that Aldrich actually identifies in this way. They frame the claim as a tactical lie meant to trap trans/nonbinary/gender-nonconforming communities and our allies. If we say what they are thinking--there's no way this militia-looking dude really means it--the posters say that means the left must agree that people lie about their gender identity, and thus trans people must be segregated and excluded from public life. Society must protect cis women and girls from men pretending to be women and using trans-protective laws to supposedly prevent society from doing anything to stop them. That would put an end to trans rights movements, they crow.
So, cackle the transphobes on social media, if "team groomer" is to avoid that outcome, we'll have to call sly Aldrich "they" and treat him as if he is a member of the trans community. And in that case, the shooting can't be considered a hate crime! Instead, the right will say it proves the left harbors violent domestic terrorists--a charge the left is always annoyingly making about the right. Touché! Oh, and if the right calls Aldrich a he, the sad, entrapped lefties will have to defend Aldrich's right to be called "they", even though they know he's really a dude! How delicious! Mwahahah!
So, say the transphobic posters, gather around friends, and get out your popcorn--let's see which bad option the libs choose. . .
And here is the response we can give:
We will refer to Anderson Aldrich as "they." This will not destroy the case against them. When a person states that they are trans, it not allow them to harm people. Instead, the trans community and our allies will stop them from committing harm, and deliver them for justice.
We in the trans community have had to engage in a great deal of thinking about identity, and how to tell an identity is "real". We are so often faced by people questioning the reality of our identities as we consider transition, and by transphobes challenging our lived genders after transition. And so we've learned things.
One fundamental thing we understand is that nobody can tell how a person identifies except that person. If someone says they identify as a Christian, or a geek, or heterosexual, or nonbinary, you can't get into their head with them to verify they are telling the truth. Of course, this begs the question of why anyone would lie about their identity. Yes, of course that happens. People have concealed their true identities to escape oppression throughout history. They could be a Jew during the Spanish inquisition passing as a Christian, or a gay man living in 1950s America, when gay sexuality was illegal and being known to be gay got you blacklisted from employment, hiding in the closet and presenting as straight. Conversely, a person could assert having an identity they really don't have to try to get some kind of advantage. Someone might want to be in a relationship with another person who they have learned is really into geek culture, for example. Or they might want to escape a hate crime prosecution after committing mass murder at an LGBTQ+ club.
But stating one identifies as something and being a member of a particular community are different things. Community membership is something we can verify objectively. Can the person claiming they are a geek tell you what aspects of geek culture they are passionate about? Do they spend a lot of time chatting on internet forums with others who are into that type of geekery? Do they attend fandom conventions, or makers events, or play weekend sessions of Dungeons and Dragons with fellow tabletop gaming geeks? Are friends and family aware they are a geek? Do they have a collection of favorite geeky t-shirts? Do they defend the honor of the community when they hear people making jokes about geeks?
So: does Anderson Aldrich really identify as nonbinary? We can't know. But was Aldrich a member of the trans/nonbinary/gender-nonconforming community? No. Nobody at Club Q recognized them. They did not march in pride parades or wear nonbinary flag tshirts. Instead, their Instagram shows an image of a Pride flag on fire. Their dress and demeanor were those of rightwing anti-LGBTQ+ militia fans. They did not defend the honor or safety of queer and trans people under threat. They were the threat. They tried to kill as many LGBTQ+ people as they could with an automatic rifle. They committed a hate crime against the community.
Well then, why am I referring to Aldrich with the pronoun "they"? Because despite the fact that they were an enemy of the LGBTQ+ community, they could be telling the truth about their identified gender. They could be immersed in extreme rightwing culture, depending on support from ultra-MAGA grandparents and Mormon parents--and yet have realized in their heart of hearts that they were nonbinary. If you had a father, however estranged, who thought it was a worse thing for you to be "gay" than for you to commit mass murder, and you realized you were nonbinary, might you not wind up experiencing extreme self-loathing?
It is plausible to imagine that a person immersed in a culture of extreme transphobia who realized they were themselves a nonbinary trans person, who was already unstable and armed, would feel, not love for the trans and queer community, but increased hate. There were people who had come out and were happy, having fun at drag shows, supporting one another through the Trans Day of Remembrance, looking forward to an all-ages brunch where young people would get to be themselves and feel safe and accepted. How dare they get to enjoy something a person like Aldrich could not--that Aldrich had already missed out on, with their years as a minor now past? How enraging that these out LGBTQ+ people felt pride where Aldrich felt shame!
So: Aldrich could be lying about being nonbinary, as his mother lied about being a victim of a home invasion, for attention and plaudits from a cackling rightwing audience, and to try to get out of the hate crime prosecution he deserves. Or they could be telling the truth about their identity--and have committed a crime of doubled hate, against proud and open LGBTQ+ people, and against themself.
Since we can't tell which is the case, the right thing to do is to refer to Mx. Aldrich in the way they have indicated accords with their identified gender. In this way we model that respect for identified gender is a right, just like the right to a fair trial with an attorney. We don't withdraw those rights just because we are horrified by a crime, or don't like a person. Respecting people's right to a trial of a jury of their peers, and their right to be referred to by the pronouns they say they use, doesn't mean that person gets away with committing evil acts. It means that when we hold them accountable, we have done so in a just and civilized way.
And consider this: if Aldrich is in fact cisgender, they now have to live their lives being misgendered, and called "they" when they think of themselves as "he". They have to face familial disgust. The masses of transphobes now laughing with them as owning the libs will move to laughing at them, and in time, as Aldrich has to go on asserting that they really mean it, they are nonbinary, through the months or years that court cases against them proceed, they'll become a figure of disgust to those they now delight, held up only as a supposed example of how trans people are "crazy."
And if Aldrich is not trying to pull some Super Genius scam, and they are indeed nonbinary, and for the first time in their life they are using their identified pronoun publicly and openly, and we nod and employ it--well. What could be more self-punishing than committing an atrocity on a community you hate because they can be out and happy and you believe you cannot--and then finding out that you can come out and have your gender accepted, at least by LGBTQ+ people, but you have destroyed your chances of finding community by shooting community members in rage and hate?
Aldrich is not a member of the LGBTQ+ community. How about another claim that rightwing talking heads now intone, that as a nonbinary person, Aldrich a leftist, not a conservative, and liberals must now own that their side has domestic terrorists? Rightwing media are currently scolding that the left has been blaming the right for this shooting, and must now apologize to the right, and heap the shame they tried to foist on rightwing media and politicians on their own heads.
This is ridiculous. Aldrich was immersed in rightwing militia culture, and wanted to go out with a bang, spraying bullets at people they hated. They picked an LGBTQ+ club on the eve of Transgender Day of Remembrance because like the rest of us, they have been bombarded with messaging from the transphobic right that queer and especially trans people are evil groomers. They prevented an all-ages drag brunch from happening in an act of domestic terrorism that looks just like the mass murders perpetrated against people who are Black, Latine, or Jewish by rightwing white supremacists. Like the mass shooter at the Pulse LGBTQ+ club in Florida, it is possible that they were internally conflicted. The Pulse shooter may have experienced same-gender attraction; Aldrich may be nonbinary. But whether or not that is the case, which we cannot truly know, they were terrorists full of hate for LGBTQ+ people because of homophobia and transphobia spread by bigots who are on the political right. Politicians and media figures who support hate are the ones encouraging hate crimes, and blaming the victims is reprehensible.
What we must not do
There are some things I see people doing--largely allies rather than trans, nonbinary, and/or gender-nonconforming folks--that I think are counterproductive, though the people are well-intentioned. And we should push back against these things.
One is to focus on Aldrich's body. The fact that they are 6'6" and very bulky and look male is held up as belying a nonbinary identity. That's just wrong. Nonbinary people can have any sort of body, and many do not medically transition. And it is such a major theme of transphobia to attack trans people assigned male at birth for having male sex characteristics like broad shoulders or big feet, which is not something anyone can change. Once you've gone through puberty, you get dealt a hand that you have to live with, including sex characteristics that may cause you great distress, and there are no medical transition procedures to narrow a wide pelvis or drop a foot in height. Attacking Adrich for their bodily characteristics just entrenches a harmful trope.
A second is to say there's no way someone whose father would prefer that they shoot up a queer club than be queer is nonbinary. Someone raised by a "super-MAGA politician" is declared obviously cis and straight. That's ridiculous. The reason places like Club Q are so important is because there are so many trans and queer people whose bigoted families reject them, leaving them to patch together a family of choice in spaces like LGBTQ+ bars and cafes.
And a third is to argue that a person who is LGBTQ+ by identity can't be an anti-LGBTQ+ bigot, proving Aldrich is cisgender and lying. Well, have you noticed how huge the list is of politicians who have both sponsored hateful anti-LGBTQ+ bills, and been caught having gay sex? Those politicians don't get a pass on their evil homophobic actions because they were secretly gay. It's an open secret that men who express rabid hate against transfems and gay men are very often covertly attracted to them. That doesn't make the impact of their hate any less.
And if a clandestinely nonbinary person shoots up a club full of queer and trans people in a fit of selfhating, LGBTQ+-hating rage, their secret identity doesn't make it any less of a hate crime. Nor does revealing it after the fact.
In conclusion, why we should call Aldrich "they"
I myself will remain agnostic as to Aldrich's true identity. It's not something any of us can ever really know, since we can't share their brain, and who would want to. . . I'm skeptical just because faking minority identities and thinking that that gets you privilege over cis straight white people is a fantasy of rightwing culture warriors, that they often try to put into practice. One example would be last year's "superstraight" campaign, in which edgelords on 4chan organized a campaign to declare that they had a sexual minority identity called "superstraight" that meant they could only be attracted to cis people, and that since they were "born that way," their disgust at the thought of sex with trans people had to receive deference from the left, and civil rights protection as part of the "LGBSS" community. Yes, "SS" is also the abbreviation used by infamous Nazi death squads--that was part of the "fun."
But it is possible Aldrich could be a self-hating nonbinary person filled with rage and hate at out and proud LGBTQ+ communities, of which they were not a member.
Either way--what we want to model are two things. First: we accept it when people tell us what their identified gender is. And second: that this doesn't mean a person who says they are trans gets away with any evil act they engage in. That's a fantasy of the transphobic, homophobic right.
A few years back, there was a cis man who was a member of alt-right trolling online groups. He was married to a woman and had kids. And he started entering the women's locker room at my university gym, wearing his khakis and button-down shirts, in his stubble and Great Clips men's haircut. He was in touch with a conservative legislator, it turns out, and was hoping to "prove" that trans-protective school policies put cis women in danger, as any man could just enter their locker room and stare at naked women there, and nobody could stop him.
You know who stopped him, and protected the women in the locker room from a man with bad intentions? Trans people at my university. It was trans community leaders who told him his online connections had been tracked. That his wife could be informed of his activities. That the police could be informed. That there would be someone allied with us in the locker room at all times, waiting to document his presence, and if the network found out he entered again, then those steps were going to take place.
He didn't try again.
This is a modest example of what is revealed by the subduing of the Club Q shooter by unarmed patrons: trans folks are not "fragile snowflakes." We have dealt with a lot of difficult stuff, we have learned we must rely on ourselves to protect one another, and we are not weak. We will stop evildoers in our midst, whatever they claim their identities to be.
So: we should call Anderson Aldrich Mx. Aldrich, because everyone, even a murderer, has a right to state what pronouns they use, and have that automatically take place. And we can do so because we have full confidence that what pronoun a person uses matters not at all when it comes to subduing them if they shoot at us, or arguing forcefully that they be charged with a hate crime for murdering us.