This is how we live our lives as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the United States. Even in 2016, our mere existence can still be considered a threat.
Our movement has made incredible strides in the battle for equality in recent years. A sitting president endorsed marriage equality. The Supreme Court made it legal for us to marry. At least 225 cities and counties across the United States prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. We are becoming more visible on television and in movies. It would be easy to think that the fight for equality is over.
But in a majority of states, a person can still be denied service for being gay and can still be fired because of their gender identity. Recently, Republican legislators have attempted to make life as miserable as possible for transgender Americans by restricting their access to some public restrooms. The mass shooting in Orlando may be the worst in U.S. history, but it is in no way an isolated act of violence against LGBT people. Americans have been shot, stabbed, drowned and beaten to death for the crime of being LGBT — by their classmates, by their parents, by their neighbors and often by strangers. To be gay in 2016 is still in many ways a dangerous and radical act.
Bars and nightclubs like Orlando’s Pulse have been our havens, where we can gather with our chosen families when our blood families have rejected us. These are spaces free from the uncomfortable glares we’ve come to recognize all too easily. Many LGBT people prefer to not kiss or even hold hands in public as a matter of protection from slurs and fists. But as we saw in Orlando, deadly homophobia and transphobia follow us wherever we go.
In an analysis of FBI data, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that “LGBT people are more than twice as likely to be the target of a violent hate-crime than Jews or black people. They are more than four times as likely as Muslims, and almost 14 times as likely as Latinos” to be attacked. The trans community has experienced devastating, disproportionate rates of violence. In the first five months of this year, 10 trans people were killed, the majority of them trans women of color. In 2015, at least 21 trans women were killed.
In 2002, Gwen Araujo, 17, was strangled by four male friends after they discovered she was transgender. In 2008, Lawrence King, 15, was shot twice in the head by fellow student Brandon McInerney, 14, in front of their classmates. King’s crime: asking McInerney to be his Valentine. In 2007, Andrew Anthos, 72, who was gay, was beaten with a lead pipe in Detroit as his assailant yelled anti-gay slurs at him; Anthos died 10 days later. And gay clubs, bars and events have long been targets for arson fires and shootings. Over the weekend, Los Angeles police may have averted another attack by a suspect with guns and explosives who said he “wanted to harm” that city’s pride parade.
We’ve made bigotry a matter of public policy. It shouldn’t be a shock then that bigotry has trickled down into our lives in so many deadly ways as a result. Until earlier this year, Mississippi was the final state in the nation not to allow gay couples to adopt children. Writer Michelangelo Signorile noted in February that legislators in more than 20 states had advanced “religious liberties bills that would allow government workers, taxpayer-funded groups and businesses whose owners or operators oppose gay marriage to discriminate against gays.”
As a gay Latino man, I’ll never forget that this butcher targeted a Latino-themed nightclub on a busy Saturday night during Pride Month. The first seven victims to be publicly identified were Latino men, five of whom were 23 or younger. I think back to my life at 23. I was still deeply closeted, still living in fear that I would be found out, with absolutely no idea how many wonderful things life had in store for me in the years to come. They were robbed. We were robbed.
This act of hate was meant to cause fear. It is all the more painful in a time when we’re seeing so much anti-Latino rhetoric. But we cannot be afraid. That’s what homophobia and transphobia feed off, and we have come too far to be forced back into a closet. For many of us, that life of fear ended years ago — and we must keep it that way. We must keep fighting for the silenced voices in Orlando, and for those still living in fear in the closet.