One year ago June 12, I awoke to a flurry of text messages and missed calls from friends demanding that I turn on my television. It was a Sunday morning, and like many black gay men who reside in the nation’s capital, I was in hibernation, sleeping off one too many Jack and Cokes.
When I finally found my remote, buried in between the comforter, I turned to CNN to a headline that read, “49 Killed, 53 Injured in Orlando, Fla., Nightclub Shooting.” My heart skipped a hard beat when I realized that it was at a popular LGBTQ nightclub, one like the one I had just patronized the night prior.
Despite some historical disagreement, Pulse is now known as the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, taking the lives of mostly black and Latinx queer people during the club’s “Latin night.” But to people who went to Pulse monthly, it was known for much more—a place where people could build lasting friendships over a house beat, a drink and a two-step.
Jai Saint, 35, the best friend of Shane Tomlinson, an entertainer who lost his life in Pulse last year, told The Root, “Shane and most of our friends went to Pulse regularly—aside from the Parliament House or Southern Nights, Pulse was the major gay club and we always had a great time.
“I preferred Friday nights because the DJ played hip-hop music, while Shane preferred Saturday nights for the Latin music. We compromised,” he said, laughing.
As an observer, the terrorist attacks at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub immediately revealed two things: discriminatory blood-donation policies and a Pride Month that still does not center marginalized communities like LGBTQ people of color.
It was clear after the attacks that many survivors would need more blood if they were to have a sustainable quality of life, but then it was remembered that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s archaic blood-ban policies concerning men who have sex with men would prevent that. Then it became apparent what level of hatred Omar Mateen, the man who attacked the nightclub on June 12, 2016, needed to have against LGBTQ people for him to effectuate such a violent mass shooting—and in mid-June, which is widely known as LGBTQ Pride Month, no less.
The Pulse-nightclub shooting also revealed another troubling truth:
If the community only reduces Pulse to a terroristic crime without connecting the dots of whiteness and whitewashing, loose gun laws and a hostile political climate, then it has the chance of happening again.
June is unofficially recognized as LGBTQ Pride Month because of protests that took place nearly 50 years ago. In June 1969, New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in the city’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. Unlike many times before, the crowds fought back, led largely by LGBTQ people of color, even throwing beer bottles as police placed drag queens in a police van. It was a sign of resistance, signaling to oppressive institutions—places that did not believe in the LGBTQ communities’ freedom and liberation—that silence would no longer be our answer.
Until recently, Stonewall was recognized as a white LGBTQ community’s resistance, a symbol that relegated people of color and women to its margins. This has unfortunately created the framing of Pride Month as largely rooted in the mainstream LGBTQ community’s desires, which means rejecting the experiences of those whose contributions related to the uprising—transgender women of color like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. This whitewashing of LGBTQ experiences increased the awakening of LGBTQ people of color to demand that we could be heroes, but also victims, too. This is part and parcel of why it was critical that many activists and advocates pushed for a racialized discussion of those who were killed and/or injured last year.
The Pulse shooting also highlighted just how much death could happen because of weak gun laws, limited regulations and conservative policymakers. Across the country, we see just how easy it is to get access to weaponry, and we see how that increases violence.
Over the years, data has shown that gun violence in the United States is a result of weak gun laws. The question then becomes: What are elected officials going to do about it? Because although Pulse should never be used for political convenience, it’s critical to continue the discussion of how easy access to guns is part of many reasons that tragic events like Pulse happen.
In October 2016, four months following the Pulse shooting, the Center for American Progress released its groundbreaking report (pdf), “America Under Fire: An Analysis of Gun Violence in the United States and the Link to Weak Gun Laws,” discussing the correlation of certain strong gun laws and lower rates of gun violence. Specifically, the report highlights that “the 10 states with the weakest gun laws collectively have an aggregate level of gun violence that is 3.2 times higher than the 10 states with the strongest gun laws.” Although this is not a causal link, the correlative relationship must be underscored.
It isn’t that some congressional members have not attempted to speak out against gun violence; it’s just that organizations such as the National Rifle Association have big voices and even bigger pockets. And that has caused the U.S. Senate to fail to pass gun-reform bills a pathetic four times, all bills inspired by the Pulse attacks. What’s worse, one of the failed measures would have increased funding for background checks, including looking more intently at those who may have mental-health issues.
Saint admits to being conflicted about politics and the ongoing congressional gun debate. “Many of us dropped the ball with letting President Trump [in the White House],” Saint told The Root. He continued, “if we had someone like Secretary Clinton in place, maybe our atmosphere would be different. Clinton came to Pulse and would have done more for the LGBTQ community. Trump would have said, ‘Give everyone a gun,’ which would have not likely worked that well.”
As a black queer person who sees the increasing violence against bodies, I also find it understandable that someone would want access to guns for self-defense. “I can see both sides,” Saint noted. “If someone else at Pulse had a gun, maybe they could have stopped [Mateen] from killing many others.”
The entire political climate against LGBTQ people, especially black and Latinx queer and transgender people, should be interrogated for its role in allowing Pulse (and other violent acts) to happen.
It isn’t as simple as Trump breaking tradition and failing to recognize June as Pride Month. It’s about how a current political climate—comprised of anti-black, anti-women and anti-LGBTQ policymakers—can never ensure a world where LGBTQ people won’t experience violence. In less than two weeks, two transgender women—Sherrell Faulkner, 46, and Kenne McFadden, 27—were killed. And that’s not all. The LGBTQ community makes up just about 2 percent of the U.S. population. But according to the FBI, nearly 20 percent of all hate crimes in 2015 occurred because of sexual orientation or gender identity.
This past year, I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around the understanding that people want to weaponize multiple parts of my body because of my sexuality and race. There is not enough compassion, and many people are forgetting its importance. Saint told us:
People are not compassionate of the families and what they are going through. There was a release of Orlando police new body camera video that friends and families didn’t know about, and it became very triggering. People need to remember that we had to go identify the bodies. The media, generally, don’t think about that. We’re not being hypersensitive. What I would want them to take from this is the human factor, the compassion. All the media cares about is sensationalism.
Pulse shouldn’t have happened, gun laws must be reformed, violence against LGBTQ people shouldn’t be a lived experience—and yet here we are. Over the past year, society has attempted to struggle with the idea that the Pulse tragedy is either a “hate crime” or “an act of terror.” As they continue to compete for a gold medal in intellectual gymnastics, I’ll simply wrestle with why it couldn’t be both.