Last month marked the one-year anniversary of mass shooting at the “Club Q,” a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs. The shooter, who killed five people and wounded 19 others, received multiple life sentences in June for his crimes, as well an additional sentence for “bias-motivated” crimes. This seemed to confirm the popular narrative that the shooter targeted the LGBT community out of hate. 

That narrative was quickly and deliberately spread almost immediately after the shooting. In fact, just days after, The New York Times not-so-subtly suggested a connection between the murders and several conservative Christian ministries headquartered in Colorado Springs, including Focus on the Family. Other media outlets and voices were not as subtle in leveling that accusation. Days later, vandals spray-painted the words “their blood is on your hands” on the entrance to Focus on the Family. 

The Club Q shooting was a horrible act of evil. Every one of the victims were made in the image and likeness of God and bore the inherent dignity and value that means. Not one deserved to be reduced to their sexual identity, not by the man who committed these crimes and not by those who would use the victims as pawns to push a false narrative. 

In this case, the narrative is a fable that goes back at least as far as the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming. Almost immediately after the teenager was brutally killed outside of town, his murder was framed in both national and international media as a clear, cut-and-dried hate crime. In 2009, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Last year in her dissenting opinion in the 303 Creative case, in which the Supreme Court upheld a Colorado web designer’s right to free expression, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that Shepard’s murder was the result of a “social system of discrimination” that “created an environment in which LGBT people were unsafe.” In fact, just last week, a memorial service was held for Matthew Shepard at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., where his ashes are interred.  

The real story of Matthew Shepard, however, is anything but clear and cut-and-dried. In 2014, after more than a decade of researching the incident, a gay journalist named Stephen Jimenez released a book that revealed Shepard’s long history of drug use. He had, in fact, been selling crystal meth at the time of his murder. He’d also engaged in prostitution and had a sexual relationship with at least one of the men who killed him. The police who intercepted the killers shortly after they fled the scene believed they were heading to Shepard’s house to search for drug money. In other words, this murder was not a hate crime. It likely had nothing to do with Shepherd’s sexuality. 

Many of the tragedies that have been made part of this narrative have similarly inconvenient details. For example, the convicted shooter in the Club Q massacre last year identified himself in court as “nonbinary” and had visited the nightclub multiple times. Though he posted anti-gay slurs online, he seemed quite fascinated with the Christchurch, New Zealand, shooter who targeted religious communities. He also came from an abusive background and exhibited significant signs of mental illness. 

Justice Sotomayor also mentioned the 2016 shooting at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub in her dissenting opinion in 303 Creative. The shooter, who killed 49 people, was a Muslim man who claimed “solidarity” with Al-Qaeda and ISIS. His wife testified that his original plan to attack Disney World was abandoned because of the police presence at the amusement park. It’s not clear that the shooter was even aware that the Pulse was a gay club. Nevertheless, that shooting is now cemented in cultural memory as a hate crime against gays.  

While there is little evidence that “anti-LGBT hatred” has led to many mass shootings, there is more evidence that suggests the opposite. The shooter at Covenant School in Nashville, for example, identified as transgender and seems to have targeted the Christian school on purpose. In August 2012, an LGBT activist stormed the headquarters of the Family Research Council with a gun and a Chick-fil-A bag and yelled “I don’t like your politics” before shooting a security guard. At least two other mass shooters identified as trans or nonbinary, though it is not clear that their identity motivated their actions. 

The problem isn’t just that re-writing history is wrong, or that it often misplaces blame on some people while excusing others. It’s that the myth hurts everyone, including those it’s supposedly trying to protect, by ignoring the problems ailing the LGBT community. For example, members of this community have disproportionately high rates of substance abuse, childhood sexual abuse, mental illness, family breakdown, violence, and deaths of despair. 

Suffering people need help. Conditioning them to be afraid of a nonexistent threat or to view their suffering as only someone else’s fault is cruel. These are hard truths indeed, but hard truths are more loving than false narratives.