Editor’s Note: The essay commenting on the Nashville, Tennessee, mass shooting that occurred March 27, 2023, was originally published on April 7, 2023, in the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader. On April 10, five people plus the perpetrator died in a mass shooting in Louisville, Kentucky. Eight more people were injured.
The moment I read that the Nashville school shooter was a woman whom the police indicated was being “treated for a mental disorder,” I wrote an email to a friend in Kentucky, like Tennessee a state where a Republican supermajority legislature is waging war on trans children and their parents. “I find myself wondering,” I wrote, “if the ‘mental disorder’ with which the killer was being treated was some kind of gender nonconformity issue, conscious or otherwise. So much mental illness resides there, and may have been triggered, to use the word of the day, by the Tennessee legislature’s actions against LGBT people.”
How did I know this before reading or hearing the news that Audrey Hale was in fact trans? Because I grew up in rural Kentucky in the 1950s, where I attended the most conservative of Roman Catholic grade schools. Shaming and corporal punishment were commonplace and sex was never spoken of because the priestly hierarchy understood that silence was its most powerful tool in protecting its power to abuse children and women.
I who loved learning dreaded not the classroom, where I could sneak a look into the science and literature textbooks that we were often forbidden to read. Instead I dreaded the playground and my walks to and from school, where class bullies beat me up for walking like a woman. They would teach me to be a man like them — they would teach me violence. But I got lucky — I got a scholarship; I got out; I ran away, to San Francisco, to a place where I could heal my wounds, learn peace, and find the courage to come out as a gay man.
The playground and those walks home taught me that the loudest bullies had the most to protect. The meanest bullies were such cowards that they resorted to violence to mask their insecurities. They rushed to buy assault weapons.
Fifty years later, ex-Marine Senator J.D. Vance tweets that “giving into these ideas is dangerous,” as if gender identity is an “idea,” as if his toxic heterosexuality has not slaughtered countless women, children, and men across centuries of war, in the battlefields and in the streets and lanes. Tennessee Congressman Tim Burchett implies that the solution is to lock our children up at home and go to the mats — an approach that has some merit, in that it allows loving and compassionate parents to protect their children from the likes of him and his ideologies.
Courage requires not taking up the gun but putting it down. If Senator Vance seeks a demonstration of courage, let him watch unarmed black children desegregating schools in the face of spitting, cursing, bombing, and murder from people whose ignorance he courts and cultivates. Let him watch the Cambridge debate in which fey, coal-black James Baldwin tears apart conservative ideologue William F. Buckley, earning a standing ovation from the audience. And then, instead of hiding behind his phone, let he and his allies defend their love for assault weapons before an audience of LGBTQ people and their allies who have had the courage to remain in their home states and fight in the face of their legislatures’ invitations to leave.
In “The Fire Next Time” Baldwin writes, “A civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.” Baldwin, almost always on the mark, here slips a little. What is wicked if not the stampede over the corpses of children to defend the weapons that killed them?
Audrey Hale’s powder keg of anger and self-loathing was prepared in the halls of the school where she acted out her despair on the terms established and promoted by the gun lovers. The leaders who in their public stances told her she was “dangerous” invited her to act out their accusation. That she did so on their terms and using their weapons of choice is a matter of cause and effect.
Americans live on sidewalks, migrants seeking asylum are murdered at our doors and in our streets, banks go under, our transportation infrastructure is in rotten shape, our students do not receive the literacy, skills, and moral compasses they need to become good and cheerful citizens. Our legislators’ response to these crises is to spend days debating drag performances while defending easy access to assault weapons. Beyond that, they say, they can do nothing.
The hour is here for peaceful civil disobedience, such as that practiced by Tennessee State Representative Gloria Johnson and over a thousand Nashville students, who are taking their case directly to the legislative halls in exercise of their constitutional rights, and whom the Republican supermajority is attempting to silence. (Note: Johnson survived her expulsion vote but two of her colleagues did not.) As U.S. history teaches us, those who act from courage and compassion must be prepared to face the cowards with their guns. Better our aged bodies than those of our children.
Fenton Johnson is a teacher and author of seven books, most recently “At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life,” a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice.