The following article is written by Anna Ho, one of our new UNAC-Vancouver website writers.
It was two a.m. on June 12th, 2016. Elmer, a young Salvadoran man of twenty-seven years, was enjoying an ebullient evening at the Pulse, an LGBTQ nightclub located in downtown Orlando, Florida, when the sudden sounds of gunfire pierced the air. Barely fifty feet away from the shooter, Elmer lunged for the ground, scrambled behind the bar counter, and crept into the adjoining prep room. From there, he discovered a ladder, climbed it, and locked himself in an upstairs office – all the while hearing screams and shots ringing out below him. He discovered he was bleeding. A bullet, ripping through khaki cloth and flesh, had hit him at such an angle that a chunk of muscle had been blown clean from his calf, Elmer tells The New Yorker. There were three others upstairs with him. One of the group called 911 while another fashioned a tourniquet. They all remained in their sprawled positions, chests pressed to the floor and scarcely daring to breathe, until the police found them around an hour later.
Elmer is among the fifty-three clubgoers who were wounded in the Orlando shooting, during which Omar Mateen, an Afghan-American armed with a Sig Sauer MCX walked into the Pulse nightclub on its Latin Night and opened fire. Forty-nine people were killed on the scene. The rest, including Elmer, were rushed to the Orlando Regional Medical Center. Nine hours into the emergency treatments, the center’s chief surgical-quality officer grimly predicted that the death toll would rise, and it was only through the concerted efforts of both the medical and civilian community that it did not.
This mass shooting, the 177th of its kind in the United States this year alone, is distinguished from the rest in that it is not just an act of horrific violence, but also a hate crime in which the shooter actively targeted members of the LGBTQ community. In its wake, the tragedy has garnered public condolences, incited political change, and revealed the challenges, both collective and personal, still faced by the LGBTQ community.
The most conspicuous–and most heartening—outcome of the atrocity lies in the incredible public respect and compassion offered to the victims from people all around the world. Domestic and international news agencies reported live each detail as it emerged and condemned the hate crime as just that– a hate crime. In face of such fervour, the silence of these same news outlets just four decades ago in 1973, when an arsonist burned down a gay bar in New Orleans, seems like a relic of the past.
As reports of the massacre spread throughout the night, social media networks were inundated with messages of support. In a defiant celebration of their sexuality, members of the LGBTQ community posted photos of themselves with their significant others, captioned with the hashtags #GaysBreakTheInternet, #lovewins, and #OrlandoStrong.
In Orlando, responding to a call from the ORMC, thousands of people lined up at the doors of the local blood bank. The lines were so long in some locations that they spilled out onto the sidewalks. Though wait times can be as high as eight hours, the donors remained determinedly cheerful and resolute in their goal.
“You want to do something to help,” a donor waiting in line explains to the Orlando Sentinel. “It’s hard to believe …You have to do something to help. You can’t stay home.” Across the ocean in London, a crowd gathered outside the Admiral Duncan, a gay bar which was also the site of a bomb attack in 1999, for a minute of silence. Many waved rainbow flags as banners reading “Love Trumps Hate” “Love Wins” and “Not Afraid”.
Vancouver, too, saw hundreds of candle-bearers gather in the square before the art gallery in downtown, where the harbour waters reflected the rainbow-coloured light washing over the sails of Canada Place. A citizen remarked to Global News: “It’s all about solidarity,” a sentiment echoed by members of the Vancouver Muslim community in statements to the press. “We’re just here to show our support.”
Grief, so collective and poignant, spurs both a need and a desire for action. The shooting has galvanized governmental legislation in areas of LGBTQ rights as well as gun control, some of which were met with resounding success.
On June 30th, the United Nations Human Rights Council successfully passed its third resolution concerning sexuality and orientation. The historic bill, which was spearheaded by a bloc of Latin American member nations and supported by the United States, would establish the position of an Independent Expert dedicated to combating the violence and discrimination committed against LGBTQ communities. Often hailed as “the ‘crown jewels’ of the human rights system” by analysts, Independent Experts or “special rapporteurs”, serve as crucial links between local communities and global decision makers. As the name implies, they are part of the U.N., but still maintain a degree of autonomy in decision-making. After the committee vote declared a clear majority in favour, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry proclaimed in a press release: “The United States and a growing number of partner nations around the world will not rest in our efforts to protect and promote human rights—no matter who you are or who you love.” From hate crime statistics published by the F.B.I since the nineteen-nineties, one can observe that members of the LGBTQ community in America have been consistently attacked in the past up to eight times more than heterosexual people.
According to Mark Potok, an expert with the Southern Poverty Law Center, even those figures might be deflated as hate crimes are notoriously underreported. With the horrors of Orlando fresh in policymakers’ minds as a prime example of violence in dire need of address, this new U.N. resolution is long-awaited achievement for LGBTQ rights activists and the community as a whole. It is a small victory, yet a victory nonetheless.
Public gestures and political paper-pushing aside, Orlando has also provided an invaluable perspective. In the weeks following the attacks, as the survivors progress in their recoveries, they have been giving interviews and testimonials to visiting reporters.
These tales, on occasion autobiographical, sketch out the realities of an LGBT demographic that has been largely neglected in terms of coverage by mainstream gay and lesbian media, offering a fresh frame of reference on our perceived gospel truths. For Latin American, lower-income members of the LGBT community, the challenges they face —and at times uniquely face— reveal the fact that for many, benefits reaped from our extolled progress on gay and lesbian rights have passed them by. In Orlando, the survivors are mostly young service-industry workers who had immigrated alone from Latin American nations, where conservative family values demanded conformity.
As Isabel Sousa, a Colombian sociologist explains, “When your identity doesn’t conform…. there’s a sense of fear and guilt.” Most of the clubgoers have not come out to their families before the attacks, and were frequently harassed in their home countries despite never daring to overtly portray their sexuality. Upon arriving in the United States, where they hoped to build new lives, they encountered other societal fissures which prevented them from embracing their identities. Many recount that they can feel as though they are split into multiple versions of themselves as they go about their everyday lives.
“They think, I’m an immigrant and I have no English and I come from Puerto Rico—and also I’m going to come out? It’s just another reason to be mistreated. It’s easier to hide your sexual identity than your accent.” Pedro Julio Serrano, a Puerto-Rico LGBTQ rights activist, tells The New Yorker. It is for these reasons that events like Latin Night at Pulse hold such incredible significance for its participants. Amidst the music and strobe lights all the colours of the rainbow, surrounded by a community that share their stories and experiences, they can finally exist as they are.
By invading a space that signifies solace for so many, the shooter has devastated his victims’ lives in more ways than one. As names of both the deceased and the survivors of the attack are published by news sources, the multitudinal lives that they led are at an end, their identities laid bare for all to see. The aftermaths are heartbreaking. “Some of the victims’ families—they think their kids went to Hell.” says Jacob Torres, a regular visitor at the nightclub, to The New Yorker. The survivors, recovering in the ORMC, are left to worry about the future of their relationships with their families back home.
Some time after the shooting, in advising a new Orlando group seeking to help LGBTQ Latinos achieve a more resilient form of progress, Isabel Sousa recognized the value of places like Pulse in the community, but ultimately concluded: “We need so much more than just the club. If we go back to that, we’ve failed.”
Others agree. The attacks have also highlighted a lack of general awareness of the problems faced by the Latino LGBTQ community and brought many ongoing discussions of representation into the foreground. Many feel that nuanced coverage of the complex realities is paramount in order to take the first step in achieving true progress for the community. Some members of the community express that the LGBTQ media largely focus on white, upper-middle class individuals, and that even when queer Latinx receive press coverage, their stories are oversimplified and stereotypical.
Ia discussion with George Thrasher of The Guardian, Paulina Helm-Hernandez, the Latina co-director of an LGBTQ organization dedicated specifically to people of colour, explains her point of view:
“There’s often a rush to decentralize marginalized people at traumatic moments. Even when it’s our community under attack, our community is not allowed to set the tone, and I hate to say it, white people just rush in.”
In his article, Thrasher further notes the extent of the whitewashing and erasure, pointing to the 2015 film Stonewall’s casting of white actors to play Puerto-Rican activists in telling the story of the historic LGBTQ rights movement, as well as a Texas representative’s response to Orlando which mentioned Latinos and LGBTQ people in two different contexts “…as if Latino LGBT people don’t exist” writes Thrasher.
Back in a hospital room of rippling glass and white-washed walls in the ORMC, Elmer is ready to be discharged. His mother had flown in from El Salvador with the help of donations, and she continuous, sustawill remain in the United States for the next few weeks to take care of him. They have not broached the topic of his sexuality. Elsewhere in the city, the owners of Pulse Nightclub have pledged to reopen. The tragedy has highlighted the strength and beauty of human compassion, but it has also thrown into contrast the daunting obstacles still standing in the way of inable momentum in the global pursuit of acceptance and equality even as the community heals. The shots which rang in Orlando have echoed across the world, and only time will reveal what further retrogressions – or advancements – they will motivate.