Just two years ago, few of us would have imagined the frightening America we live in today. Instability, impulse and mad rantings rule the day. Many fear brutality, deportation, separation from their families. No one’s rights can be taken for granted, and for LGBTQ people, whose rights, like so many others, have always been fragile, it’s a harsh reality. Though we’ve organized and empowered ourselves in a forceful way across the country, standing strong against those who would harm us, we live on edge now, uncertain about the future.
But there we were, in the seemingly magical summer of 2015, basking in the glory of the strides of decades of work after the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality. A president who made many promises but had a slow start and needed a push was by then moving at breakneck speed, soon reaching down to secure equality for even the most vulnerable among LGBT people: transgender military personnel and transgender students.
We thought we’d arrived, as the term goes, with no turning back. The hate that we’d endured for decades seemed like it had been vanquished. America was finally embracing us, as the media and the pollsters were telling us. It was easy to be lulled in that moment into a false sense of security and a feeling of final triumph ― “victory blindness,” as I had called it that June in my book “It’s Not Over,” trying to warn against complacency.
Sure, people were still being discriminated against, as only less than half of the states fully protected LGBTQ people by law. But many thought that would soon end. Activists and politicians were talking about a comprehensive federal civil rights bill, banning discrimination for LGBTQ people in employment, housing, public accommodations and credit nationwide, as being just a few years off. So-called “religious liberty” bills were a last gasp of the religious right, many thought, and would be beaten back with help of big business in legislatures, in the courts and by a president who would champion our full civil rights and equality.
“The massacre was the latest wrenching wake-up call alerting us to the fact that the battle against hatred of LGBTQ people is an ongoing one.”
But the whiff of authoritarianism was also in the air at that time, whether many of us picked up the scent or not. In the same month in which the Supreme Court handed down the landmark Obergefell ruling on marriage equality, Donald Trump announced his run for the presidency, on June 16, 2015. And as that authoritarian scent grew more and more unmistakeable as 2016 came to its midpoint, we were jolted by an event so horrifying, so staggering and ultimately so prescient ― a harbinger of a world in which we don’t feel secure and where hate is omnipresent.
The gun massacre on June 12 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, a queer nightclub where 49 people were killed and 58 were wounded, most of them LGBTQ people of color and some of their friends and family members, hit us like a freight train. It underscored in one terrible night in which so many died and so many families were shattered, that the hate we’d always lived with was still very much alive and deadly ― perhaps more deadly than ever. We found ourselves dealing with the grief and trying to make sense of it, collectively, while also seeing a sensational media ― and an America ― that completely misunderstood it. That was the second crash of reality, after the hate rearing its head ― the fact that even well-meaning straight people didn’t get it.
There was a rush to call the massacre an act of Islamic terrorism ― and thus a politically-based attack on all Americans ― because the killer was of Afghan descent, raised in a Muslim-American family. But he was an American citizen who grew up in American schools and in an American society with a history of violently homophobic attacks, and with hate groups like the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family promoting the lies and bigotry that enable those who engage in violence. He had a history of violence himself, and only a week before the attack his father alleged he’d become angered when two men kissed one another in Miami in front of his son. And on that weekend last June he decided his target carefully: a queer space, where he would kill queer people.
No matter how much LGBTQ activists tried to focus the media on homophobia as the driving force, journalists were hellbent on dangerously simplifying the mass murder, slotting it as an act of foreign-influenced terrorism and downplaying homophobia, not to mention often failing to emphasis the impact on the Latino community of Orlando, heterosexual and LGBTQ. And Trump capitalized on all of that, at once using the mass murder for his racist campaign, promoting his hatred of Muslims, while implying he was a champion of “LGBTQ people” because he would protect us from a “hateful foreign ideology.”
“The fight for acceptance, equality and civil rights, we learned on that weekend, is not one that will ever really be over.”
But it wasn’t a hateful foreign ideology that threatened and still threatens our lives every day. It is a domestic ideology that inspired the killer, a hatred of LGBTQ people bred in the country in which he grew up, embraced in a vocal way by a one political party for decades ― and most fervently in its platform in 2016 ― and even by U.S. presidents.
It was perhaps at that moment, when we were shellshocked and saw that even the media, and even our supposed friends among political leaders and even among some in Hollywood, just didn’t get it, that we realized how truly fragile our rights are. For Trump, who won the elections by the slimmest of margins ― losing the popular vote by three million and winning the Electoral College by less than 80,000 votes in three states ― any one moment in the campaign could be pointed to as making the difference, including this one.
The massacre was the latest wrenching wake-up call alerting us to the fact that the battle against hatred of LGBTQ people is an ongoing one. But it was also a wake-up call about what would soon transpire, whether many of us would heed that call or not. Too often, all of us, no matter our sexual orientation, gender identity, race or class, believe the battle is won. We believe certain things can’t happen in America. We want to believe it because we’re optimistic and we see the promise of this country. We’ve seen how far we’ve come, beating back the forces of hate time and again, and securing our rights.
But the massacre at Pulse was a tragic reminder that we must always stay on guard. It shined a bright light on the fact that even places we see as our own, spaces in which we believe we’re protected, can come under brutal assault. The fight for acceptance, equality and civil rights, we learned on that weekend, is not one that will ever really be over.
And Trump’s jarring election win several months later only confirmed that. Winning rights is just half the battle, while keeping them from rolling back, protecting ourselves and our spaces, and beating back the hate is the rest of it. In that summer of 2016, it began to sink in that we must always live in this fight.
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