After Orlando massacre, LGBT community urges: Don't lose sight of the hate

Counter-protesters oppose the threatened presence of Westboro Baptist Church members outside a wake Wednesday in Orlando.
Counter-protesters oppose the threatened presence of Westboro Baptist Church members outside a wake Wednesday in Orlando.
Published June 16, 2016

ORLANDO — Nestled in the memorial's mass of daisies and rainbow pinwheels and photos of the dead, a stars-and-stripes baseball cap bore a message.

No matter who's gay, straight, black, white, etc., we are all Americans.

But it does matter, say those who don't want the nation to whitewash the sexual and gender identities of the victims killed in the largest mass shooting in U.S. history.

"It's a lot safer to talk about terrorism than for this country in particular to start addressing the very, very real fact that for a measurable amount of our population, this kind of violence towards gays is perfectly acceptable," said Pete Werner, the openly gay owner of Orlando's Dreams Unlimited Travel. "This man didn't choose just any bar."

Omar Mateen's attack was only the latest aimed at a gay club in a long cycle of violence that in the 1970s helped spur the gay rights movement. With a death toll of 49 in an establishment intended as a safe haven, some said they've had enough hypocrisy.

As Gov. Rick Scott discovered, responding publicly to this particular tragedy has been trickier than usual for politicians perceived to be unfriendly to the LGBT community.

The morning of the shooting, Scott tweeted that the attack was on "our people," on Orlando, on Florida, on America, "on all of us."

"Don't forget the gay people you've denigrated in your time as governor," John Pulice wrote in response, a sentiment echoed by dozens. Two days later, the governor tweeted, "We pray for our LGBT community. Our Hispanic community. Our state. Our nation."

The true nature of the attack can be easily lost when memorializing it for different audiences, said Joseph Pierce, a professor of Latin American studies and queer theory at Stony Brook University.

"To say that it's Islamic terrorism is easier to understand than to grapple with the kind of thinking that makes this kind of violence possible," Pierce said.

He's wary of catchphrases like "We are all Orlando," however well-intended.

"It's a sentiment of support and solidarity," Pierce said. "I just worry that the more complicated picture of the particular context of Orlando and of Pulse is getting lost."

Glossing over the nature of the attack is all the more unacceptable in this state, said Michael Farmer of Equality Florida Action.

"Our Legislature refuses to take action to address their needs," he said. In Florida, it's "perfectly legal for them to be fired or kicked out of their home just their because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity."

For gay rights advocates who fought for the right to marry, the shooting exposed scars that have yet to heal.

"I've been pretty much disgusted by the governor — he hasn't even been able to say gay or LGBTQ with respect to this," said Jim Brenner, the plaintiff in Brenner vs. Scott, the case that forced Florida to legalize same-sex marriage in January 2015.

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

On Wednesday, after much pressing, Scott told reporters the attack "clearly" targeted gay and Hispanic communities.

As CNN's Anderson Cooper interviewed Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, she referred to "our LGBT community." For years, Bondi led the state's legal battle against same-sex marriage, an effort she attributed to her duty to uphold a ban passed by voters.

Bondi appeared Wednesday on the radio show of her friend Todd Schnitt and criticized Cooper.

"The interview was supposed to be about helping victims families not creating, more anger and havoc and hatred," she said.

Werner said this week's comments from the governor and the attorney general, no matter how well-meaning, weren't welcome.

"Rick Scott and Pam Bondi have absolutely no credibility on the subject, none," Werner said. "They have used fear and bigotry toward our community for their political gain."

To those who play down the idea that the attack targeted gays, 24-year-old Spencer Off said, "Don't you dare."

"You've got conservative leaders trying to make this out to be about radical Islam, and sure, it absolutely is," said Off, of Orlando. "But at the same time this was targeted specifically at the gay community."

Authorities and witnesses said that during Sunday's attack, Mateen pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. But members of the LGBT community don't want motivations for the attack to overshadow who was targeted.

At a Baptist church's vigil Tuesday night, television cameras rolled as faith leaders praised elected officials and declared a need for unity.

"What happened in Orlando was not just focused on a particular group. It bothers me each and every day to see on Facebook many people saying, 'the LGBTQ community,' " said Bishop Kelvin Cobaris of the Impact Church Orlando. "When I look at the TV I don't just see a community or certain groups, I see people."

The crowd went wild.

Paulina Helm-Hernandez, 34, a queer Latina woman, had come to pay tribute to the victims. Half an hour passed, she said, without a mention of the nature of the shooting. And when an official spoke about the city being tested, being "washed in the blood of the lamb," she bristled.

"I just had a physical reaction to it," she said. "This is not everybody's blood, this is my people's blood, and we are not your sacrificial lamb."

She thought of the way, in the wake of the Charleston shooting that left nine black churchgoers dead at the hands of a white supremacist, some swore it wasn't about race.

She couldn't listen anymore. She walked out.

Times staff writers Waveney Ann Moore and Anna Phillips contributed to this report.