“It makes me very sad and angry that our country can’t seem to grasp the fact that we are all humans and only want to enjoy our freedom like everyone else without fear of death,” Claudia Robbins, a 65-year-old lesbian, posted on Facebook. As I’ve talked and texted with dozens of LGBT people after last week’s mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, I witnessed that only a portion of their rage is directed at the shooter. Much of it is focused elsewhere: on our politicians. The media. The gay-haters. Sometimes, even on our own well-intentioned friends, because they don’t understand our fear, or what it means to be LGBT.
Here’s some of what I’ve been told: “I’m angry at all who were quick to offer ‘thoughts and prayers’ but who did nothing supportive for the victims while they were alive,” Todd Brown, a gay man, posted on my page.
Steven Soto, a 21-year-old Latino college student, said, “I’m angered by the narrative as it stands now. If you look at the New York Times, listen to people on the street, they’re talking about the shooter, guns, [fear of Muslims], but not that Pulse is an LGBTQ place and these were queer people.” Soto said he felt “erased.”
Whatever the gains in “acceptance” over the past two decades, too many in the LGBT community — especially in places such as Orlando where sexual orientation and skin color both come into play— “live in apprehension if not outright terror of straight people,” one queer activist posted.
Indeed, in the aftermath of the shooting, it was hard for some to acknowledge that angle, or even use the word “gay.” The Republican National Committee issued a statement denouncing “violence against any group of people simply for their lifestyle or orientation.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other politicians did not mention LGBT people in their comments. “They ignore and reject the reality that LGBT are part of life in America today,” Jimmy LaSalvia, a Republican strategist and founder of the defunct group GOProud, said to my colleague David Weigel last week.
“The media are ‘straightwashing’ this attack — downplaying or even omitting the fact that the shooting was a crime of hatred against the LGBT community,” said John Becker, an activist in Washington. People magazine doesn’t mention LGBT people or people of color in its cover language: “Mass Murder in Florida: Faces of Orlando.” When asked to comment, editorial director Jess Cagle, who identifies as gay, emailed: “On the cover, we really wanted to show the faces of dozens of victims, and in order to do so we had to keep verbiage to a minimum.”
Thankfully, there are those who used their position to buck this trend. Owen Jones, a gay columnist in the United Kingdom, walked off a live Sky News set after the host argued that the attack was not anti-gay and kept saying the massacre was “carried out against human beings.” Yes, they were human beings, as were the nine African Americans murdered in a Charleston, S.C., church a year ago, when the national conversation did not shy away from saying why those individuals were targeted. So, why the difficulty in calling this rampage an anti-LGBT attack? Before abruptly leaving the set, Jones said defiantly, “You don’t understand, because you’re not gay, okay?”
And there it is: intolerance and hate around the globe. Gay people are thrown from buildings in the Middle East, gutted with machetes in Jamaica, and in the Unites States are more likely to be targets of hate crimes than any other minority group.
Even our best allies don’t always seem to understand this, as they celebrate our victories in civil marriage and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” One of my closest friends, a strong LGBT ally, texted me last weekend that “people lose sight of the fact that the dead are individuals first, before they are gays or Hispanics or any collective.” No, I replied, “These people were specifically targeted for who they were.” My friend texted back: “I’m sorry we live in a world where you live in fear because of who you are.”
Yes, we are still taunted, beaten and killed.
Still, sorrow, fear and even anger do not make a strategy for acceptance, for equality. “We have to advocate for laws and policies that protect the most vulnerable who are often the targets of hate as well as legislation to end gun violence,” explained Nancy Petty, a lesbian minister at Raleigh, N.C.’s Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. Soto told me he will speak up even more in the future: “I continue to be out, I continue to be visible, and I continue to live my life as best as I can.”
We need to tell our stories out loud so that no LGBT person has to say: “You don’t understand, because you’re not gay.” Our foes — and friends — need to hear us.
Join him for a chat online at washingtonpost.com on June 21.