Around the globe, rainbow flags fly at half-mast today. The LGBTQ community lost 49 of our own at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando this weekend. Dozens more are still fighting to survive in hospital. For gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender persons – for queers of whatever variety – what happened in Florida was not so much of a wake-up call, but rather a reminder.
It was a reminder that acceptance and equality are not something given, but something fought for, and sometimes died for.
It was a reminder – as if any were needed – that even with the gains we’ve made, there will still be pushback, resistance, and even violence. It was a reminder that winning marriage equality or doing away with ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ were not the end of our road. It was a reminder that not even in our own refuges are we safe from the intolerance and hatred that morally corrupt politicians and extremist voices (of whatever religious, ideological, or political bent) encourage in the society around us.
It was also, however, a reminder to each and every one of us that we are all a part of something much bigger than ourselves. In cities and towns across America and around the world Sunday evening, tens of thousands of LGBTQ folks and allies came together for candlelight vigils, for remembrance ceremonies, and marches.
We gathered first of all to mourn those who were lost. With HIV/AIDS, hate crimes, transphobic attacks, and all the rest, mourning is something that those of us in the LGBT community have become all too accustomed to. Like other groups who have had violence visited upon them – Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, immigrants, women – mourning has become part of our collective identity.
But we also gathered to show that we will not be intimidated. We won’t go back into our closets. We will not stop being who we are. We will not stop being proud. We will not stop celebrating. We will not stop fighting. And perhaps most of all, we will not stop loving.
As I held hands with my partner in a Toronto park among thousands of other community members and allies last night, I felt the sadness of course, but I also felt the energy that only comes from being part of a collective. The goosebumps and shivering you get when abstract notions like solidarity and unity become physically palpable.
It came from speeches like that of Ontario’s first lesbian premier Kathleen Wynne, who started the event with the single statement: “Homophobia cannot be fought with Islamophobia.” Her words were a warning not only to avoid engaging in a religious blame game, but to also not allow the LGBTQ community to be cynically used as a weapon by leaders who probably dislike us as much as they the dislike the Muslims they want us to hate.
It came also from the words of El-Farouk Khaki, founder of an LGBTQ-friendly mosque, who told the crowd, paraphrasing the old Industrial Workers of the World slogan, “An injury to an LGBT person is an injury to all of us.”
A friend of mine, Albert Harris, lives in Orlando and lost a number of friends at Pulse. Talking with him this morning, he spoke about the fear that the attack has resurrected for us. As he said, it once again highlights “the stigma of being LGBTQ,” and reminds us of the need to be vigilant. “Anything can happen, even going out has to be met with more caution. It can pass over time, but the thought remains. Especially when someone we know was lost just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The stigma is something all of us in the community have known. Sometimes after you’ve been out of the closet for years, you can almost forget about it. Orlando of course brings it back. It will show up in small ways. A reluctance to give your loved one a quick kiss when you meet up or part ways out in public. A sudden awareness and a worry at the moment when your partner holds your hand as you walk down the sidewalk. The forceful weight of self-censorship when visiting family or going into your workplace. The sense that we might have to once more put on the masks that we thought we had long packed away.
This fear, combined with so many other things, also arouses for us a sense of righteous anger. Anger over divisive legislation concerning what toilet someone can use. Over fake controversies about how wedding cakes for gays are somehow a threat to religious liberty. Anger over politicians who tweet out Bible verses implying that gays had this coming and others who will block any moves to reform gun laws. Over religious extremists who hang gay men and throw them from buildings. Over governments that say we should all be executed simply for the act of loving someone.
Anger over the fact that the gay men of Orlando are legally barred from donating the blood that could save the lives of their brothers and sisters who were shot. Anger over the fact that a gay club – one of the few places where we can go to feel safe being ourselves and spending time with the ones we love – has been violated.
Anger that a young man’s last communication with his mother is a text message saying, “I’m gonna die.”
It’s the kind of anger that inspires you to action.
As I left the park last night, I kissed my partner on the cheek. I was thankful – for the love we have found with one another. But also thankful to be part of a great movement of humanity. A movement that has revolutionized society since it first broke onto the stage of history at Stonewall 47 years ago this month.
If it did nothing else, Orlando reminds us that we still have work to do. And if the mass vigils, demonstrations, and shows of solidarity are an indicator, we’ve got a lot of friends in the fight.
As we march in Pride parades and demonstrations this month – and as we cast our ballots in November – let’s remember that Orlando happened to all of us.