The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We still mourn those killed at Pulse. But can we celebrate LGBTQ life too?

The limits of centering tragic deaths in the fight for LGBTQ rights

A makeshift memorial continued to grow outside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando on July 11, 2016, the day before the mass shooting a month earlier left 49 people dead. (John Raoux/AP)

This year’s Pride month marks the fifth anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting, the largest mass murder of LGBTQ Americans in U.S. history. On June 12, 2016, more than 300 people converged on Pulse, a popular LGBTQ club in Orlando, for its weekly “Latin Saturdays” party. Shortly after 2 a.m., as the crowd of primarily queer people of color danced to pulsating music, Omar Mateen entered the club with an assault rifle and fired at random. By the time a police SWAT team stormed Pulse and killed him three hours later, Mateen had shot 102 people. 49 died.

Although this was neither the first mass killing of LGBTQ Americans nor the first time queer people of color were targeted for violence, it was the first time the nation seemed unified in its condemnation of such an attack. In the weeks that followed, a range of people — from LGBTQ activists to then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton — cited the Pulse deaths to argue the country must do more to protect the LGBTQ community.

Using LGBTQ Americans’ deaths, whether by murder, disease or suicide, as a tactic to promote equality is a strategy that stretches back decades. Centering LGBTQ suffering and death has, at times, captured the attention and concern of straight, cisgender Americans. But has this strategy enabled a culture where LGBTQ people, in all of their racial, gender and sexual differences, can thrive while they are living?

Years before the Pulse shooting, the then-deadliest attack on LGBTQ Americans took place at a gay bar in New Orleans. On June 24, 1973, an arsonist set fire to the UpStairs Lounge. When the fire started, the Metropolitan Community Church, a predominantly gay congregation, was conducting its Sunday evening services on the bar’s second floor. Other churches refused to let them use their space, so the community gathered around the UpStairs Lounge piano for prayers and the minister’s sermon. As they sang hymns, the arsonist doused the stairs to the second floor with gasoline and set the bar ablaze. About half of the congregants were able to escape. But flames blocked others from fleeing the burning building. Thirty-two people ultimately died.

Although gay activists hoped this mass murder would elicit sympathy, the attack generated almost no national media coverage outside of LGBTQ newspapers, with one calling it a “Holocaust in New Orleans.” The New Orleans mayor refused to return from his vacation to offer comfort. Several churches declined requests to conduct funerals for the murdered gay Christians.

During the next decade, as the AIDS epidemic devastated the LGBTQ community, activists tried desperately to get straight people to care about the rapid rate at which gay, bisexual and transgender Americans got sick and died. Too often the response was either silence or condemnation, with countless straight Americans blaming those with AIDS for bringing about their own deaths.

But the scale of suffering and death began to change how straight Americans reacted to AIDS. The work of activists helped to transform their perceptions.

In 1987, gay activist Cleve Jones unveiled the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Each quilt panel was the size of a human coffin and represented someone who had died of AIDS complications. Jones created the Quilt in the hope that it would arouse the attention of apathetic heterosexuals. He believed straight Americans were more likely to care about AIDS if the memorial was “not threatening to nongay people.” A quilt, with is associations of warmth and family homes, did just that and made the suffering of queer people with AIDS more palatable. The AIDS Memorial Quilt received extensive praise and a Nobel Peace Prize nomination. More than 1.2 million people visited the Quilt when it was last displayed on the National Mall in 1996.

That same year, however, with overwhelming congressional support in both parties, President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law, which prevented same-sex couples from receiving federal marriage benefits. Although the country had embraced a quilted memorial to dead LGBTQ Americans, it was not ready to grant living LGBTQ couples equal rights.

The LGBTQ death that attracted the most attention from straight Americans was the murder of college student Matthew Shepard in 1998. Standing 5-feet-2-inches tall and weighing 105 pounds, the 21-year-old Shepard looked like a much younger adolescent. The two men who killed Shepard claimed they pretended to be gay so they could lure him out of a bar to rob him. They tied him to a wooden fence, in what many activists described as a crucifixion, and beat him to death. The brutality of the attack shocked the country.

Countless straight Americans who had never cared about LGBTQ politics were horrified by Shepard’s murder. Shepard was White, blond, middle-class and Christian; he looked like the archetypal “boy next door” who happened to be gay. Memorial marches and vigils took place throughout the country, often with thousands in attendance. In death, Shepard elicited broad sympathy.

A decade later, the death of another White, Christian, gay college student sparked further activism. In 2010, 18-year-old Tyler Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate secretly used a webcam to catch Clementi in a sexual act with another man. News of his suicide appeared the same week that sex advice columnist Dan Savage posted the first “It Gets Better” video to prevent LGBTQ adolescents from harming themselves. Savage reported that the response to Clementi’s death was “like steroids injected into” the It Gets Better campaign. Clementi, in turn, became the national face of LGBTQ teen suicides.

Americans’ concerns about these deaths fueled the expansion of LGBTQ rights. After Shepard’s murder, several cities and states enacted hate crimes bills to protect the LGBTQ community. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Bill into law, which made targeted violence against LGBTQ Americans a federal offense. Following Clementi’s suicide, Obama uploaded his own It Gets Better video. A year later, he overturned the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. And in 2012 he voiced his support for marriage equality.

By that time, LGBTQ activists had made same-sex marriage their most visible political priority. Those who survived the AIDS epidemic told stories about how hospitals refused to let them see their dying partners because they were not considered family. Other activists used images of Shepard and Clementi to present LGBTQ Americans as “normal,” and as deserving of the same rights as other Americans.

But there were limits to this strategy. Activist efforts to focus on the plight of transgender Americans and queer people of color never generated the same momentum, even though they have been more frequent victims of violence than White gay men. The annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, first organized by activist Gwendolyn Ann Smith in 1999, is an ongoing effort to rectify this. In recent years, some have advocated to change the day’s name to “Transgender Day of Resilience” to avoid the impression that murder is inevitable for transgender women, and to showcase transgender people’s humanity and accomplishments.

Turning select LGBTQ Americans into martyrs created some cultural change, but spotlighting White, Christian, gender-normative men like Shepard and Clementi has made equality for others elusive and easier to attack. In 2021 alone, policymakers have introduced more than 100 anti-transgender bills in 25 states.

While the Pulse shooting galvanized attention — both Obama and then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump mentioned the shooting in public remarks — LGBTQ equality and concerns facing queer people of color quickly faded to the background as other political issues took center stage. Now, as the country marks what happened at Pulse five years ago, Americans can remember the 49 people who died by focusing not only on their deaths, but also on their humanity and the kinds of policy changes that would have made a difference in their lives.

The people inside Pulse on June 12, 2016, were there to celebrate the joys of queer life during Pride month, to dance late into the night and to gather together in a safe place for queer people of color. Honoring the 49 lives lost at Pulse would mean making this country a place where all LGBTQ people feel not merely safe, but where they know they can thrive in their racial, gender and sexual differences — from transgender kids in elementary schools to queer people of color in our highest elected offices.