From left: Witnesses Michael Anderson, Matthew Haynes, and Brandon Wolf
In the final hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform helmed by outgoing chair New York U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney on Wednesday, lawmakers heard powerful testimony about the increase in anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and hate across America.
Michael Anderson survived the Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs. He spoke poignantly in front of the committee about a deranged shooter using military-style weapons to "hunt down" human beings.
"When I stared down the barrel of that gun, I realized I stood no chance against a weapon of that power, magazine capacity, and seemingly automatic firing rate," he told lawmakers. "I saw my friend lying on the floor bleeding out, knowing there was little to no chance of surviving that bullet wound. I had to tell him goodbye while I continued to fear for my life, not knowing if the attack was truly over."
He described still hearing the sounds of bullets firing around him to this day.
"It's a sound I may never forget. It's a sound I hope no one here or anywhere else in this country has to hear."
Anderson voiced his frustration with Republican lawmakers' disingenuous arguments and the perpetuation of anti-LGBTQ+ hatred through language.
"To the politicians and activists who accuse LGBTQ people of grooming children and being abusers, shame on you. As leaders of our country, it is your obligation to represent all of us, not just the ones you happen to agree with," Anderson said. "Hate speech turns into hate actions, and actions based on hate almost took my life from me at 25 years old. I beg you all to consider your words before you speak them, for someone may use those words to justify action. Action that may take someone's life."
Ending his powerful testimony, the shooting survivor reintroduced himself.
"I hope my truth can help usher America into its next and greatest chapter yet. My name is Michael Anderson. I am 25 years old. I am a proud gay man. And now I am a survivor of a mass shooting."
Matthew Haynes, the founding owner of Club Q, also spoke in front of the committee. Haynes noted that the shooter was charged with 305 crimes.
"Forty-eight of these charges were hate-crime related," he said. "The number 305 alone graphically illustrates just how heinous this act was and how many people in this community were impacted.
"It also illustrates how much damage can be done when you take hate and access to military-style assault weapons. Putting those together is total carnage. We were lucky that night that the casualties were not much higher."
Haynes said that spaces like Club Q are more critical now than ever and that the community needed lots of support.
To illustrate the amount of anti-LGBTQ+ hatred that Club Q is receiving in the aftermath of the attack, Haynes read two messages he has received.
"I woke up to the wonderful news that five mentally unstable faggots and lesbians and 18 injured," Haynes read. "The only thing I'm mad about is that the faggots had courage to subdue the wonderful killer. I hope more shootings happen. Have a blessed day."
Another message was equally hateful.
"The shooter was doing God's work. Five less faggots. Not enough. Those that stopped him are the devil. All gays should die," Haynes read.
Haynes testified that through the darkness that had befallen his community, he and his husband experienced light for the first time at the signing ceremony for the Respect for Marriage Act at the White House on Tuesday.
"And while the protections for marriages like my own were signed into federal law," he said, "I could not help but reflect that 169 members of Congress voted against that bill. One hundred sixty-nine of your colleagues, hiding behind excuses and schematics and other reasons, sent a message to me and the entire community that you do not respect my marriage. And through your inaction and your vote, you, as a leader, send the clear message it is OK not to respect the basic human rights of loving who you love, and it is OK to disrespect and not support our marriages.
Haynes concluded, "We are being slaughtered and dehumanized across this country in communities you took oaths to protect. LGBTQ issues are not political issues. They are not lifestyles. They are not beliefs. They are not choices. They are basic human rights."
LGBTQ+ rights advocates also spoke during the hearing.
The Human Rights Campaign's president, Kelley Robinson, called out anti-LGBTQ+ lawmakers, saying that the increased anti-LGBTQ+ bills in state legislatures across the country has fed into a violent reality for queer people.
"Violence and discrimination against LGBTQ+ communities is the tragic result of a society that devalues our lives -- particularly the lives of Black and brown transgender and gender-nonconforming people," Robinson said. "And this hate and violence is on the rise. Fueled by nearly unfettered access to guns, and political extremism and rhetoric that is deliberately devised to make our community less safe, less equal, and less free."
She added, "Violence has become a lived reality for so many in our community...The recent increase in anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric amplified by lawmakers is fueling growing attacks on our communities -- in statehouses, in schools, and on street corners."
Brandon Wolf, who survived the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida and works as press secretary for Equality Florida, made a striking presentation to the assembled lawmakers.
"Being LGBTQ in America in 2022 means looking over your shoulder before you hold hands with someone you love. It means watching your very humanity be litigated day in and day out on every cable news network and across every social media platform. It means wondering if today is the day that hate comes armed with a clenched fist or, worse, an AR-15," Wolf testified. "It means wondering if today your little slice of normal, the thing you told yourself you didn't deserve, comes to an end. My day came on June 12 of 2016."
Wolf explained, "There were gunshots. Endless gunshots. The hair standing up on the back of my neck. The stench of blood and smoke burning the inside of my nose. The nervous huddle against a wall."
He spoke of never being able to unsee two of his friends' lifeless bodies in caskets after they had been killed in the massacre.
Wolf blamed Republican political opportunism for the spike in anti-LGBTQ+ hate in recent years.
"For years, cynical politicians and greedy grifters have joined forces with right-wing extremists to pour gasoline on anti-LGBTQ hysteria and terrorize our community," Wolf said. "My own governor, Ron DeSantis, has trafficked in that bigotry to feed his insatiable political ambition and propel himself toward the White House. We have been smeared and defamed. Hundreds of bills have been filed in order to erase us. Powerful figures have insisted that the greatest threats this country faces are a teacher with they/them pronouns or someone in a wig reading Red Fish Blue Fish."
Wolf tells The Advocate that he hopes the hearing resonated with LGBTQ+ people, their allies, and Americans more broadly at home and that he's struck by the juxtaposition of Tuesday's Respect for Marriage Act signing at the White House and Wednesday's difficult hearing on the very real threat that LGBTQ+ people face.
"It was an incredible honor to be invited, and it was an incredible honor to share space with those from the Club Q community who are truly courageous," Wolf says. "I hope that the value that I added to the conversation was in part, one, humanizing the cost of hate in America and also shining a light on some of the really vile and dehumanizing language coming from places like Florida and leaders like Ron DeSantis."
Wolf says that while it's clear that Republican committee members sought only to deflect from the issue at hand, it's noteworthy that nobody engaged in peddling the language at the root of current anti-LGBTQ+ violence.
"You listen to them talking broadly about violence and crime, but in large part, they were unwilling to hurl some of that right-wing bigotry at survivors of hate violence, and perhaps that is a sign that if we continue to humanize these issues and talk about the people behind them that we can actually change the way we talk about the LGBTQ community in this country," he says.
Wolf concluded his testimony with a plea: "The simple truth is this: We just want to live. Is that so much to ask?"