My recent visit to the Pulse in Orlando taught me some difficult lessons. The foremost was that, although it had been almost three weeks since the shootings there, the tragedy of June 12th is not over. Crime scene tape still hung on the fence enclosing the club. And people were still leaving tributes—balloons, cards, flowers, and posters—for the victims.
Since most of them appeared to know one of the victims, I learned that the loss was personal. I felt like I was intruding on a private ceremony. There were many people gathered on the sidewalk in front of the club, but I was struck the most by a seven or eight-year-old boy, who was leaving red roses next to the photographs of some of the victims. The scene drove home the fact that forty-nine people will be missed by their families and friends for the rest of their lives.
How do you understand this kind of loss? One minute, a crowd of mostly young LGBTQ people were enjoying a night out, and the next minute, they were terrified as bullets flew through the club. The shootings were so unexpected. The consequences were so deadly. Drawing on my own experience, the only event that could remotely compare in its impact was Hurricane Katrina. I knew several people who died, and I knew many survivors who would never be the same again. And even though it has been more than ten years, Katrina still haunts most of us who lived through it. So, at least in some ways, I think a parallel can be drawn between the two events.
One lesson from Katrina that strikes me as relevant to the tragedy at the Pulse is that we can be better prepared. For example, when I went to a big gay club in Fort Lauderdale last weekend, I was happy that an off-duty policeman used a wand to check me and the other patrons for weapons before we could enter. Patrons of gay clubs need to demand that club owners adopt this practice and to support the ones who do.
A more long-term precaution is improving our infrastructure. After Katrina, buildings were raised, levees were reinforced, and new shelters were built. So, to continue the parallel, how can we rebuild the infrastructure of the LBGTQ community to be better prepared for hate crimes?
LGBTQ people need to build a stronger legal infrastructure. After Katrina, communities on the Gulf Coast needed many structural protections such as levees and seawalls. Similarly, LGBTQ people need many legal protections. Cities need to pass anti-discrimination ordinances like the one recently enacted in Jackson, Mississippi. Police departments need to begin filing annual hate crime reports to the Justice Department. Most importantly, LGBTQ people need to rally together to support the passage of the Equality Act now before Congress https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/3185.
To get this new legal infrastructure, LGBTQ people need strong allies. Just as Gulf Coast representatives in Congress forged alliances with politicians from around the country to secure funding for new infrastructure, LGBTQ people need to forge alliances to secure the passage of new anti-discrimination laws. I think the Pulse shootings established a common interest with organizations worried about violence against minorities. Although police saved lives at the Pulse rather than taking them, most of the Pulse victims were African American and Latino, which should be of interest to the #BlackLivesMatter movement and to the NAACP. I agree with these organizations that being a minority increases your chances of being shot without a good reason.
In addition to reaching out to other minority groups, LGBTQ people need to tell their straight white allies to speak up on their behalf. It is nice that allies include us in their lives, but if they want us to feel safe, they need to join our efforts to lobby city council members and representatives in Congress. We cannot get laws enacted without them. Equally important, allies need to speak up when they hear their family and friends say they hate LGBTQ people. It could save lives. The Pulse shooter, Omar Mateen, had a history of making threats against African Americans, Latinos, LGBTQ people, and women at his workplace, but none of his coworkers reported him to authorities.
Before closing, let me address the naysayers, who might say that anti-discrimination laws will not prevent the next mass shooting of LGBTQ people. On the most basic level, they are right. No law will prevent a disturbed individual, especially someone driven by internalized homophobia as Omar Mateen appeared to be, from killing more LGBTQ people. But if you saw any merit to drawing a parallel between Katrina and the Pulse shootings, you might ask the following question. Will better levees prevent the next hurricane? Of course not, but they will improve the chance of people surviving it by limiting the number of people who are affected. Similarly, more legal rights will mean better protection from threats to the safety of LGBTQ people.
Let me end by asking this question. Did the forty-nine innocent people who were murdered in the Pulse shooting die in vain? If nothing is done to better protect LGBTQ people in the future, I think the answer is yes.
By Douglas Bristol