But in the days since a gunman killed 49 people and injured 53 others at Pulse nightclub, there has been an incredible outpouring of support for a community that not so long ago was struggling for societal acceptance.
Around the world, iconic structures were aglow in rainbow lights — from the Eiffel Tower in Paris to the Sydney Harbor Bridge; from City Hall in Tel Aviv to the antenna spire of the World Trade Center. Thousands gathered in London’s SoHo neighborhood and released 49 red balloons in honor of each victim. People filled the streets in cities across the United States, waving rainbow flags and makeshift signs about love, in front of the White House and across New Orleans’s French Quarter and outside the Stonewall Inn, the Manhattan landmark synonymous with the LGBT rights movement.
Each were “symbols of the strength of our common humanity,” said Jay Brown, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign.
Although the gunman’s motives are still widely unknown, his attack was indisputably a hate crime against gay men and women — a reality that should never be played down or overlooked. But the world also has seen it as an attack on all humankind. It did not happen to them, it happened to us. And this overwhelming solidarity is not lost on the LGBT advocates who have fought so long, and continue to fight, for equality and acceptance.
The swift sea change in public support for gay rights occurred when people stopped seeing LGBT individuals as their sexual orientation alone and instead as their family members, friends, co-workers and teammates.
“LGBT people are everyone, we’re Latinos, we’re people of color, we’re Muslim, we’re Catholics, we’re disabled,” said Sarah Ellis, GLAAD president and chief executive. “We are everyone, and so we affect every community. The LGBT community are your brothers, your mailmen, your computer IT person. We’re part of the fabric of everyday life.”
To give a sense of how far the acceptance movement has come, one has to go back only as far as President Obama’s first election, said Brad Sears, the founding director of the University of California at Los Angeles’s Williams Institute, which researches sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy. In his victory speech in 2008, Obama included “gay” when listing the groups that made up the United States. To have the president-elect mention the gay community felt then like a significant accomplishment, he said.
Now, Sears noted, when Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) did not acknowledge that many of the Orlando victims were gay, it was a noticeable omission.
“It’s horrible we still live in a world where there is violence like this against the LGBT community, but the response is completely different today than a decade ago,” he said. “It shows the LGBT community has been embraced as part of the larger community.”
Even some of Orlando area Chick-fil-A stores — the fast-food chain whose chief executive in 2012 espoused his opposition to same-sex marriage — had crews come in on Sunday to make and deliver food to the public responders and people waiting in line to donate blood. (The chain doesn’t do business on Sundays, in observance of the Christian sabbath.)
In the hours after Sunday’s shooting, Equality Florida, a statewide advocacy group for the LGBT community, created a GoFundMe page for the victims. It has raised more than $4 million from more than 90,000 donors.
“We were blown away by the generosity. We kept increasing the goal because we kept surpassing it,” said Hannah Willard, Equality Florida’s policy and outreach coordinator.
“It’s surreal, and it’s a long time coming,” she said of the support. “I think in these moments of tragedy there is a common humanity that is revealed. There was so much panic and fear in those first hours, but I think now what I’m feeling overwhelmingly is this sense of solidarity.”
This was not always true. In 1973, a gay bar in New Orleans was firebombed and 32 people died. There were no worldwide vigils and no sweeping U.S. response. Instead, there were jokes about burying the victims in “fruit jars.” Churches didn’t hold memorials, and closeted friends of the dead couldn’t acknowledge knowing them for fear of losing their jobs or homes, a man recalled this week to the Times-Picayune.
By contrast, it appears that many of the Orlando victims were open to their parents about their sexual orientation. The club was filled that night with friends and siblings out for a Saturday night of dancing with their loved ones, gay or straight.
The same year an arsonist burned the New Orleans bar, a national survey found that 70 percent of Americans said they thought that sexual relations between members of the same sex are always wrong. Only 11 percent said such relations weren’t wrong at all.
Today, nearly 50 percent say they aren’t wrong at all.
That’s still a long way from full acceptance, but it’s tremendous progress in only four decades.
Mark Segal, a gay rights advocate and editor of the Philadelphia Gay News, was at the Stonewall Inn riots in 1969 and was one of the members of the Gay Liberation Front that formed in its wake. When he became an activist, he said, 99.9 percent of the people he knew were still in the closet.
“It’s a sea change that makes me emotional,” Segal said, his voice breaking. “I never expected to see what we are seeing. Never. I’m so sad about these 49 lives, and they were so young, but they did not die in vain. They somehow, in this tragedy, brought this world together to realize what the gay community has suffered for millennia, and now the world is embracing that struggle for equality.”
Every time he gets emotional over the tremendous loss, Segal said, he pictures the crowds gathered in London or the Eiffel Tower awash in rainbow lights. And it gives him chills.