For Gays, Orlando Attacks Are a Reminder That Anti-LGBT Persecution Remains

"The current mood in Orlando has been a bit on edge and somber," says Hannah Swope, an Orlando resident. "It seems hard to believe this took place in our own backyard."

Camilo Quinones, an Orlando native, says, "My family that lives there feel just as weird and confused as I do. It makes them feel not safe in one of the most suburban places I know."

Though a focus two days after the shooting is now on expressing condolences to families of the dead and commending the brave acts and commitment of first responders, the incident at Pulse nightclub — the worst mass killing by gun in American history —  has made a lot of people feel unsafe and anxious. Especially for LGBT people, the tragedy was a stark reminder that gays are still persecuted. 

One can only imagine the fear and terror that people in Pulse nightclub experienced: realizing they were being hunted in a place where they expected to feel accepted and safe. The sound of gunfire confused with loud music. The strobe lights obscuring dead bodies. Witnessing an armed man, and wondering whether it’s performance art or if the unthinkable is actually occurring.  

When tragedies like these occur, especially so close to home, I am reminded why some LGBT people are still guarded about their sexuality, and why coming out isn’t always an option. There are heteronormative privileges and one of those is the ability to show affection freely and not fear victimization. If I am seeing another woman, I will avoid all public acts of affection, from as innocuous an act as holding hands to any action that may indicate more than friendship. Why?

Because on October 3, 2010, Bryan Almonte and Brian Cepeda were kidnapped by a homophobic group in New York, sodomized with foreign objects like a baseball bat, burned with cigarettes, and tortured for hours.

Because the next month, on November 17, 2010, Joshua Wilkerson was found dead in a Texas field after having been immolated and beaten to death after supposedly making a pass at a male friend.

Because on June 23, 2012, Mollie Olgin and her girlfriend Kristene Chapa were shot in the head in a park in Portland, Oregon.
When the fear of being victimized exceeds the hypothetical joy of living openly, it becomes much easier, even necessary, to hide. On one of my first dates, I was eager to explore and validate a nascent part of my identity. My date and I were seated and were openly affectionate at the table, the way youthful love manifests, with stolen kisses and uninterrupted gazes. After a while, we noticed the staff and other guests staring, some leering. Our waitress changed from attentive and friendly to brusque and taciturn.

Christian Portilla, an openly gay journalist in South Florida, attended the candlelight vigil held on Miami Beach Sunday night and felt the vulnerability this incident has engendered. "I don’t think we will be less affectionate but we for sure will always feel vulnerable and like we have to watch our backs," she said. "I felt like that at the Miami Beach vigil. I kept watching the crowds as if I worked for the Secret Service, and then I freaked out when a guy with a backpack stood up in front of us."

According to reports, the shooter, Omar Mateen, had become enraged when he had witnessed two men holding hands in Miami. That very statement demonstrates how easily this tragedy could have happened in South Florida. And now despite all the positive rhetoric and progress made for LGBT rights, we return to a state of terror, of fearfulness. We  don’t have to hide who we are; it’s just more convenient. Still, we will not stop loving who we love. 

Julie Marie Wade, associate professor at Florida International University, who is openly gay, said, "I agree with Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan, who said Sunday that the LGBT community is 'resilient, decent, and loving.' We have learned that we are vulnerable in particular ways as a group, but have also learned to turn that vulnerability into honesty and strength. I think the LGBT history in this country — the Stonewall Riots, the AIDS pandemic and all the activism surrounding it, the fight for marriage equality — reveals that we are determined not to be silenced and not to be shamed."