Categories: Op-Ed

Reflecting on Orlando

The tragedy earlier this month in Orlando was not an outlier, not in the violence against the LGBT community, nor in the sickening trend of shooting deaths we endure in this country.

Being gay, you are, in a way I think others may not realize, accustomed to the prospect of violence. For centuries, church and state collaborated to execute people like me just for being who they are. The Nazis branded us with pink triangles and killed gays by the thousands.

LGBT youth are far more likely to be bullied at school and abused at home, and, per the Centers for Disease Control, four times more likely to attempt suicide. There are places — a lot of places — where being yourself means being at risk. Gays are disproportionately impacted by hate crimes, with one survey finding more than half of LGBT people concerned about being the victim of one. And the threats are even more pronounced for LGBT Latinos, as occurred in Orlando, and transgender people, as we’ve seen right here in San Francisco.

Then there’s the soft violence, the not-at-all subtle messages that your life is less valuable. Psychology regarded homosexuality as a mental illness for decades. Consensual sex was illegal in many states only 13 years ago; marriage only last year. And today, the gay friends of those injured in Orlando are prohibited from donating blood to help them.

I grew up under a president who ignored AIDS while it tore this community apart. At school, anyone who swayed from social norms was a “fag”; anything bad was “gay.” I was in high school when I started to realize I may actually be gay, right around the time Matthew Shepard was beaten with a pistol, tied to a fence and left to die. When they found him, his face was caked in blood, except where tears had washed it away. To me, the message was clear: “Be quiet.”

Coming out is about confronting fear, the fear of rejection, of stigma, of violence. Gay bars and clubs have long been a refuge from those fears, a safe space. The shooting at Pulse nightclub violated that in a shocking, wretched way.

If there is any positive to come of this tragedy, let it be our recognition at last that guns are a gay issue, that gun control is gay rights. Gays, lesbians, bisexuals and particularly transgender people face a world of bigotry, fueled by irresponsible politicians, awful history and the false piety of prejudice. As the Human Rights Campaign argued in its resolution last week endorsing common-sense gun control, this shooting underscores “how deadly hate can be when it is compounded by access to military-style weapons.”

Newtown, Aurora, San Bernardino, Columbine, Orlando — after each horror and its attendant plea for some shred of gun reform, the Right Wing tells us: “Don’t politicize a tragedy.” But they are political. NRA politics — the insane notion that suspected terrorists and the mentally ill should have unfettered right to assault rifles — are fueling these tragedies. And “thoughts and prayers” won’t wipe that blood from their hands.

Nor should this be an opportunity for yet more division, to stoke an immigration ban or obsess over “radical Islam.” I am, like so many of the shooting victims, gay and Hispanic. My sister-in-law, like the shooter, is Afghan by way of New York. If we divide ourselves in this country, it’s amongst our own families. But we haven’t. And we won’t.

If we grieve today, we grieve together. If we are angry, we’re angry together. And when we celebrate Pride, we do so together — without fear.

Thousands of San Franciscans gathered in the Castro on June 12. We mourned under a rainbow flag at half-mast, then marched to City Hall. A sea of tiny flames struggled in the breeze. When one candle blew out, a neighbor would reach over and light it again. At City Hall’s steps, quietly, the crowd began to sing. “We shall overcome. We shall overcome.”

We will. We always have.

Conor Johnston is the chief of staff to the president of the Board of Supervisors, London Breed, and co-founder of the East of Twin Peaks Neighborhood Association. The views here are his own.

Conor Johnston
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