We don’t have the words to describe the pain of Orlando. But we have to try.
I wasn’t scared when I came out. Some people teased and taunted, but no more than any high school student had learned to expect. Growing up in Massachusetts provided certain cultural safeguards, the benefits of liberal attitudes and longtime acceptance for the LGBT community. I had my first kiss, dated my first boyfriend, and lived openly without any serious fear or apprehension. It was easy to forget how rare that was across the country.
No one forgets that now. The slaughter of nearly fifty people at an Orlando gay bar during Pride Month — the worst mass shooting in American history and deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 — shattered the comfortable illusion we had enjoyed since marriage equality. Far from ending the LGBT culture war, that victory seems only to have pushed the battle out of the courtroom and into our communities. And for the first time since coming out, I’m afraid.
Have you ever checked before taking your partner’s hand? Kept an eye open while you kissed? Tensed when someone came too close, unsure of their intentions? LGBT Americans have lived like that for decades, but my generation thought things had changed. The day after Orlando, I saw my newfound fear reflected in a hundred different eyes. The same question again and again: How could this happen?
There are those who think it obvious, that Orlando was just the latest battleground in the Western war against radical Islamic terror. And in some ways I can understand that. The killer had been raised Muslim and carried a Middle Eastern name. He reportedly swore allegiance to the Islamic State, though the FBI found no evidence of contact or training with actual jihadists. With evidence like that, there’s little doubt the shooter was influenced by religious radicals.
But no one said those radicals were exclusively Muslim. Perhaps the shooter found inspiration in the brutality of the Islamic State, but his hatred was as homegrown as foreign. Americans have persecuted the LGBT community as long and as viciously as anyone else. They hid their hate behind morality, claiming they could separate the sin from the sinner. But sin never bled. Sin wasn’t beaten at Stonewall, lynched in Laramie, and slaughtered in Orlando.
Christian love and tolerance never sheltered our community. We were the darkness destroying America, a disease to be exposed, quarantined, and “cured.” But you can’t change what we never chose. They called it a mental illness until medicine proved them wrong. They questioned our genes until genetics showed nothing. Now they claim recruitment or brainwashing or forced conversion. Anything to validate their crusade against equality.
Even after Orlando, their crusade continues. Two active-duty Marines threatened another massacre, posing with rifles they claimed were “coming to a gay bar near you.” A Christian pastor celebrated the slaughter, saddened only that “more of them didn’t die.” Conservatives often demand that Muslims condemn and defeat the extremists lurking in their midst. Their silence now speaks volumes.
So when a man born in Queens purchased an AR-15 and massacred forty-nine people in the Pulse nightclub, we should blame radical Islam. But we should also blame ourselves. We allowed someone investigated by the FBI to purchase a semi-automatic weapon. We allowed violent, homophobic hatred to take root on our shores. And we stand here allowing the same conditions to fester until the next Stonewall, the next Laramie, the next Orlando.
Congress could have passed new protections for LGBT Americans, but they declined. They could have adopted bipartisan gun reforms, but they refused. Instead, the United States Congress offered the victims of hatred, terror, and flagrant disregard for human life their heartfelt thoughts and prayers. Pretty words, but words are wind.
This is our new normal. The same story every time, with the same unhappy ending and the same worthless prayers. Nothing changed when children died at their desks at Sandy Hook. Nothing changed when a white supremacist murdered black parishioners in their pews in Charleston. And nothing changed when a terrorist gunned down forty-nine innocents at the height of Pride Month. The most powerful nation in the history of mankind — the country that defeated Hitler, unlocked the atom, and put men on the Moon — has surrendered its people to the whims of madmen.
And those blaming Islam to cloak their own homophobic hate? Surrender is what they want. Their right to a gun matters more than our right to life, because their lives weren’t the ones lost in Orlando. They don’t need a hashtag to prove their lives matter. Their lives have always mattered — far more, it seems, than mine or yours. They never needed Pride to organize for something better. They never needed a sanctuary like Pulse where they could meet and love in peace.
So don’t surrender. Come out of the closet and dare the world to put you back. Celebrate Pride and everything it stands for, every victory from Stonewall to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell to marriage equality and beyond. Call your representatives at every level of government. Fight for same-sex adoption and transgender non-discrimination and commonsense gun reforms to prevent the next Orlando.
A century ago, we had nothing. No rights, no recognition, no acknowledgment of our simple shared humanity. Look at us now, marching through the streets of every major city with rainbow flags on every corner. We’ll keep marching until every battle has been won, no matter how long or hard the road ahead. We’ll never go back, no more than women or African-Americans or anyone else denied their shot at the American Dream. We’ll never surrender.
America stands at a crossroads. It can join us in the light on the right side of history, or it can remain on the ash heap of its tortured, troubled past. But recognize that Orlando was just one battle. If America wants a culture war, we’ll serve as its soldiers.
And we intend to win.
Stanley Almodovar III, 23 years old
Amanda Alvear, 25 years old
Oscar A Aracena-Montero, 26 years old
Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33 years old
Antonio Davon Brown, 29 years old
Darryl Roman Burt II, 29 years old
Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28 years old
Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25 years old
Luis Daniel Conde, 39 years old
Cory James Connell, 21 years old
Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25 years old
Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32 years old
Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31 years old
Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25 years old
Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26 years old
Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22 years old
Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22 years old
Paul Terrell Henry, 41 years old
Frank Hernandez, 27 years old
Miguel Angel Honorato, 30 years old
Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40 years old
Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19 years old
Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30 years old
Anthony Luis Laureanodisla, 25 years old
Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32 years old
Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21 years old
Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49 years old
Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25 years old
Kimberly Morris, 37 years old
Akyra Monet Murray, 18 years old
Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20 years old
Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez, 25 years old
Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36 years old
Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32 years old
Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35 years old
Enrique L. Rios, Jr., 25 years old
Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, 27 years old
Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35 years old
Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24 years old
Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, 24 years old
Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34 years old
Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33 years old
Martin Benitez Torres, 33 years old
Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24 years old
Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37 years old
Luis S. Vielma, 22 years old
Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50 years old
Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37 years old
Jerald Arthur Wright, 31 years old