The Lessons From Orlando

Now that two months have passed since the horrific killings of clubgoers at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, there has been some time to reflect on what these murders might mean for LGBTQ youth and the future of the LGBTQ movement. As Executive Director of the Stonewall National Museum & Archives, the magnitude of this massacre echoes for me a near-forgotten history of LGBTQ people targeted in nightclubs – LGBTQ sanctuaries that became battlegrounds. In light of Orlando, we as a community must acknowledge where we have come and push even harder for our community’s future.

During this time, I have visited memorials, attended vigils, and spoken with people throughout our community. Exactly one month after I woke up to the horrific news of June 12, 2016, I joined others in an emotional ceremony to transfer 49 wooden crosses created by memorialist Greg Zanis to the Orange County Regional History Center. I spent the morning helping to clear away the photos, cards, candles, flowers, stuffed animals, and a variety of personal trinkets left on these wax-coated monuments. Wiping sweat from my brow in the heat of Central Florida, I paused to reflect on how we could make this not-just-another-tragedy. How do we say, this time, “Enough is enough?”

Challenging Learning Environments

The first thing we must do is create anti-biased education systems that embrace the intersectional identities of a new generation to address the interconnectedness of longstanding systems of oppression. Fifty years ago, The Nation published James Baldwin’s essay entitled “A Report From the Occupied Territory.” He called his report “a plea for the recognition of our common humanity.” Today, when we as a community stand and proclaim “Black Lives Matter” and have conversations about race and intersectionality, we do so in light of the common sense humanity for which Baldwin called. We do so keenly aware of the violence, discrimination, and hostility targeting queer people of color. We do so aware of how our intersecting identities can be used to enrage individuals like Omar Mateen to enact violence against the bodies, minds, and souls of our youth. As a response, it is our duty to ensure not only our young people’s basic safety, but to create challenging learning environments that build strength of character, form bonds of community, and build a heritage that is honest and inclusive. I believe that as a black and gay man, Baldwin understood that.

Baldwin also said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” The Pulse Nightclub shooting presents us with some hard-to-face realities. There are bigger issues that we must address with widespread honest, intentional and thoughtful conversations. Otherwise, we cannot move forward with addressing the intersectional issues that face our country in terms of violence, discrimination, and hostility against queer people.

Targeted Safe Space

Secondly, we must accept the fact that the Pulse attack was an attack against the LGBTQ and Latinx communities, one directly targeted at a “safe space.” To address the issue of “safe spaces,” we have to address the need for them, and the fact that our failed system of education continues to create hostile environments in which young LGBTQ people can’t find the space to be themselves.

Gay bars have long been our community’s sanctuaries. During the Harlem Renaissance, LGBTQ people found solitude in the black gay night life where networks developed that blended race, class, and gender. When you can’t be yourself in public, schools, or at home, when you live in a state of constant fear and hesitation, or when you aren’t afforded the basic humanity of going to a public bathroom in safety, Pulse and other gay bars likewise become our community’s contemporary sanctuaries. Police raids were regular occurrences from the 1930s through the 1960s. Other attacks followed: a deadly arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge in 1973, the shooting at the Ramrod in New York in 1980 in which gay men were referred to as agents of the devil, and the nail bomb at Other Side Lounge in Atlanta in 1997 – all reflecting the reality that violence leaks into places the LGBTQ community calls safe.

LGBTQ youth are more likely to have poorer academic and health outcomes, less likely to attend school on a regular basis, and have a greater chance of being pushed out of school and into the prison system. Now, add to that the threat that exists in our world – one in which there remains little “safe space” or support systems, where multi-leveled bigotry is the nightly headline on the national news.

One of the first steps to remedy this is to actually include LGBTQ people in our history teaching. California recently approved LGBTQ history lessons for classrooms in a monumental victory for advocates of LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum. Inclusive education will start in the second grade with discussions on diverse families and again in the fourth grade with the introduction of Harvey Milk and California’s place in the gay-rights movement. At this year’s Stonewall National Education Project Symposium at American University, we provided school districts around the country with the tools to make their curricula LGBTQ-inclusive.

In order to move away from the dehumanization of the LGBTQ community as something with which our students don’t identify and don’t understand, we have to teach that the LGBTQ experience is part of the human experience. Let these cases be our guide.

Facing the Hard Questions

Finally, we must realize the importance of teaching another agent of the Pulse Tragedy - Omar Mateen, and address the direct and indirect homophobia and transphobia that systems of hate politics helps propagate. Within days of the Orlando massacre, reports came in that shooter Mateen was himself gay and a regular at Pulse Nightclub. Reports vary about gay dating apps, a boyfriend, and his wife taking him to Pulse and other LGBTQ clubs in Orlando. What does it mean if this horrific attack came from a member of the LGBTQ community?

Whether Mateen was, in fact, gay, straight, or bisexual, the facts show that the conditions were ripe for self-loathing and hate-justified violence. We are all witness to the hate-filled rhetoric and discriminatory state legislation that continues to employ fear-based politics with religion as a shield to dehumanize minority groups (including a group(s) that Mateen belonged to). The past two months have continued to spiral downward in instances of violence against minority communities.

We must start to look at the hard questions raised from such events. We must summon up the energy to make real change through continuing education and advocacy. An essential tool in the movement for greater equality is that we all must become advocates for the safety, inclusion, and value of our youth.

Teaching our kids the very fundamentals behind LGBTQ and Civil Rights history should not be criticized as “politically correct” history, but authentic history. Our youth deserve the space to learn about race, ethnicity, sexuality and gender – and to not be afraid of what the outcomes will be. We must remember the 49 who were lost in Orlando, but challenge ourselves to teach the one who could cause it.

Anti-biased education systems that teach diversity-in-action, creating safe space in our community and education systems, and teaching ALL about inclusivity are all keys to this puzzle. Teaching Tolerance Classroom Culture shows that creating a safe classroom climate may take time, but that it sparks belief in the dignity of every person and builds community, equity and fairness, respect for cultural differences, and respect for the safety and inclusion of all individuals and groups. These values should expand dialogues outside of the classroom, create “safe spaces” in homes, in churches, and in the streets.

President Obama recently and rightly gave National Monument status to the Stonewall Inn in New York City, but there were movements, marches, and protests in and around our community’s sanctuaries prior to the Stonewall Riots. During the days following the riots on June 28, 1969, our community noticed that one of the most important things that they were witnessing was a unification of many sub-communities within the larger LGBTQ population of New York City at the time. This was pivotal in launching something larger-than-themselves.

Following the tragic loss of the 49 in Orlando, we have begun to notice a shift in the LGBTQ movement with more allies than ever before, Hopefully, this will spark a similar unification in which we can all push for honest, intentional and thoughtful conversations about the ways in which our young people experience life. I hope that from Orlando springs a pivotal change in the ways we talk about and advocate for justice.

Author’s note: Great thanks to Stonewall National Museum & Archives’ Graduate Fellow, Jason Brown, for help in researching and drafting this essay.

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