America’s Pulse

You know I can’t see when you shake that flag in front of my eyes,

When you multiply the enemy just to divide.

Who cares about the you and the me in the meantime

— “In the Meantime” The Railway Children

On the night of Sunday, 12 June, I got an email from my father that said simply, “There’s a lot of crazies out there. Be careful and be safe.” That day was probably a wake-up call for a lot of parents of LGBT children, a horrific reminder of the hate and bigotry that those of us in the community experience almost daily — on social media, in our churches, from our politicians, and out of the mouths of the people who claim to be our neighbors. In the early hours of 12 June, 2016, that hatred left 49 people dead, 52 injured, and thousands grieving.

There have been too many other horrific days, tragedies unfolding in Bangladesh, Dallas, and Nice, to name just a few. The events that unfolded should not be so quickly forgotten. Clearly, however, they were forgotten by most speakers at the Republican National Convention this year, who opted to cite the San Bernardino shooting that left 14 dead over the largest mass-shooting in the United States’ history when speaking of “radical Islamic” violence. Still, the Pulse shootings have a larger implication beyond being just another mass-shooting.

According to Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, “LGBT people are more than twice as likely to be the target of a violent hate-crime than Jews or black people… They are more than four times as likely as Muslims, and almost 14 times as likely as Latinos.” (qtd. in “The Extraordinarily Common Violence Against LGBT People in America”, The Atlantic, 12 June, 2016) We can give kudos to Donald Trump for being the first Republican presidential nominee to offer the LGBT community any type of protection in his nomination acceptance speech, noting he will protect LGBT individuals from foreign militants, but the truth is we need more protection from the redneck nutcase who lives a few blocks away than from ISIL. While this violence usually takes the form of small-scale attacks, known as gay-bashing, it has also come in the form of mass assaults, and LGBT history is littered with such occurrences.

The shooting in Orlando was not the first time someone opened fire in a gay bar, having happened previously in 1980 in New York City, in 2000 in Roanoke, Virginia, and again in 2006 in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Seventeen people, most minors, were shot in a Tel Aviv LGBT youth center in 2009. Two people were killed and 81 injured after a bomb went off in a London gay bar in 1999, while two years earlier, a bomb exploding inside an Atlanta lesbian bar injured five.

The violence hasn’t just been in business locations, but has spilled over to Pride festivals, as we were painfully reminded when an Indiana man (white, with no Islamic ties) with a small arsenal was arrested outside the L. A. Pride festival the same day that the world was hearing of the shootings at Pulse in Orlando. Violence and attacks against LGBT individuals have marked Pride celebrations in Moscow for years, as well as many Eastern European nations, so much so that a Moscow court banned gay pride parades for 100 years. In Jerusalem, a man stabbed three people at the annual Pride Parade in 2005; three weeks after his release from prison in 2015, he returned to Jerusalem’s Pride Parade and stabbed six more people. Sao Paulo, Brazil, saw its 2009 Pride Parade destroyed by a bomb blast that left 21 people injured.

Clearly, there has been a lot of hatred aimed at the LGBT community, often in the name of religion (although one very rarely sees such mass violence against any other group of “sinners” other than those associated with abortion). There has been much discussion in the time since the Pulse shooting about whether the events in Orlando were a hate crime. Was the shooter homophobic or was he a gay man deeply in denial? A hater of Hispanics or a lover of ISIS?

It really doesn’t matter because the loss to our community is the same. Psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross famously noted that there are five stages to grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In the days following the shooting, the media replayed footage of people struggling through the first four of those stages, with images of parents begging for information, outrage over what the government did or did not do, and outpourings of love and support from around the world. While many who grieved those losses won’t ever “accept” the events of that day, they will move on. Other tragedies have replaced this shooting in Orlando in the headlines, and our attention has turned to the victims and their families in those events, as it should.

However, the thing about the LGBT+ community is we never seem to get to the “acceptance” stage. We don’t accept being victims. When bigotry led police to harass patrons of a bar in New York in 1969, the patrons fought back and created a social movement that advanced the rights of LGBT people everywhere. When bigotry allowed politicians worldwide to turn a blind eye while tens of thousands of gay men died of AIDS in the ’80s, all factions of the LGBT community banded together as never before to create a political movement that conservative politicians still don’t know how to handle. When African nations like Uganda threatened legislation calling for the execution of lesbians and gays, much of the world said an emphatic “No!” And when a young gay man was beaten, tied to a post, and left to die in Wyoming, the LGBT community worked to pass the first truly inclusive hate crime law in the United States.

In the weeks following the Pulse slaughter, the most meaningful action of US leaders was a sit-in protest about gun control legislation by Democratic Congressmen and women, a symbolic gesture that played well in the media but ultimately amounted to no change in policies. Their Republican counterparts offered prayers and condolences before voting down four pieces of gun control legislation intended to stop such carnage, which begs the point that if the most constructive thing one can offer after a national tragedy is prayer, perhaps one’s calling is the ministry and not politics.

One can hope that we never come to “accept” this tragedy, but instead continue to fight back for meaningful action. Not just for the our community but for all, so that a 21-year-old college student can go out with her sorority sisters to a bar and only worry about the next day’s hangover, an elderly Muslim man can go to pray at the mosque without fear in his heart, an middle aged couple can have a movie date night without their children becoming orphans, the spouse of a police officer can sleep a little better while his or her partner is on duty. And so a gay man can kiss his husband without worrying that it might inspire the senseless slaughter of dozens.

Perhaps we can start with changing our own community. A week after the shooting in Pulse, I went to march in our local Pride Parade with the student organization I sponsor, and I was moved by the enormous community support that day. However, while waiting on the back deck of a gay bar for my habitually late students to arrive, I couldn’t help but notice that on this day that we were all coming together in a spirit of love and strength, the old prejudices in our community still reared their ugly selves.

The lesbians all gathered together in cliques, the bears congregated in one corner, the gym studs took over the center of the space, and the drag queens flocked together under the fans (understandable, given the heat and the amount of make-up and cumulative weight of the sequins on those outfits). Individuals — those of us not in a readily identifiable clique — stood alone and uninvited to join in. Now, I realize that in a sea of gym bunnies and toned college guys, I’m like a Hostess snack cake on an episode of Cupcake Wars, but I’m not invisible, either. Indeed, we could all do a better job across the board of being tolerant and accepting of one another.

It is slow work, healing.