Orlando: Straight America's Stonewall

The mass shooting at Orlando's gay nightclub Pulse jolted straight Americans in much the same way that 1969's Stonewall Rebellion accelerated the LGBT rights movement. Like Stonewall, Orlando catalyzed a collective self-reckoning and resolve for progress.
06/29/2016 05:11 pm ET Updated Jun 30, 2017

President Obama made history last Friday by conferring national monument status upon the site of the Stonewall Rebellion. As of Monday's dedication, Stonewall became the first national monument commemorating an event in LGBT history. That the president took this step with the nation still reeling from the antigay massacre in Orlando highlights how the two events -- Stonewall and Orlando -- are intertwined as major inflection points in the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) equality.

The mass shooting at Orlando's gay nightclub Pulse jolted straight Americans in much the same way that 1969's Stonewall Rebellion accelerated the LGBT rights movement. Like Stonewall, Orlando catalyzed a collective self-reckoning and resolve for progress. But unlike Stonewall and the other anti-LGBT attacks that followed it in the decades since, Orlando's aftershocks have rocked all of America - most notably Straight America - and not just LGBTs.

No LGBT American needed yet another reminder of the dangers we face on a daily basis. Orlando was not the first mass murder motivated by antigay hate. Thirty-two people were killed in the New Orleans UpStairs Lounge Massacre in 1973. Gay social spaces have long been targets of homophobic violence. Atlanta Lesbian nightclub Otherside Lounge was the site of a bombing in 1997, and Backstreet Café, a gay bar in Roanoke, VA, was the target of a mass shooting in 2000.

Many LGBT Americans have been the victims of violent crimes motivated by antigay or antitrans animus. In fact, the FBI classifies LGBT Americans as significantly more likely than any other minority - including Latinos/as and African-Americans - to be targeted by hate crimes.

So, while the Orlando mass shooting was horrifying to LGBT people, it did not necessarily surprise us. It was antigay violence and hate of the kind to which we have grown accustomed. We have learned to coexist with precarity, and walk the netless high wire that outness often entails.

The Mainstreaming of LGBT Grief and Rage

Orlando's aftermath, however, has differed materially from that of prior antigay mass hate crimes. This time, LGBT Americans were not left to mourn alone. To the contrary, there has been a loud, sustained, and unprecedented outcry by straight people condemning what happened in Orlando - and not solely as a mass shooting of unprecedented magnitude, but as an expressly and intolerably antigay mass hate crime. A loud chorus of mainstream outrage against Omar Mateen's slaughter of 49 people, most of them LGBT Latinos/as, continues to reverberate over two weeks after the massacre.

Countless beautiful expressions of sympathy took the place of the silence and indifference that had followed past antigay attacks. Some statements rang hollow, like those from politicians and religious leaders known for trafficking in antigay hate in exchange for votes or donations. But a great many came across as sincere and heartfelt.

Some of the boldest displays of solidarity came from corners not usually known to be welcoming, nevermind attuned, to the LGBT community. Sports, for example. The Orlando City Soccer Club donned jerseys bearing specially designed rainbow hearts, and swapped out the field's corner flags for rainbow flags in their recent home match against San Jose. Not to be outdone, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Mansfred went so far as to say, "The LGBT community is part of the baseball community [and] [t]hat community stands together as we try and heal from this devastating moment in U.S. history."

Stories abound in the traditional and social media, and in our own personal lives, about straight people across the nation - from the President and the Attorney General to everyday Americans - expressing their support for the LGBT community in remarkably embracing ways. Attorney General Lynch, for example, addressed head-on the risk that the Orlando Massacre would drive LGBT Americans back into the closet. She said: "Let me say to our LGBT friends and family, particularly to anyone who might view this tragedy as an indication that their identities - their essential selves might somehow be better left unexpressed or in the shadows: This Department of Justice - and your country - stands with you in the light."

Soul-searching and "Regret"

Many straight political and religious leaders conveyed remorse for their failure to stand up against anti-LGBT oppression. Utah Lt. Governor Spencer Cox, an opponent of antidiscrimination measures protecting LGBT Utahns, expressed that his "heart has changed," and that he "will forever regret not treating [LGBT people] with the kindness, dignity, and respect - the love - that they deserved."

Teresa Jacobs, the mayor of Orange County, FL, which includes Orlando City, at the Lake Eola vigil that drew 50,000 straight and LGBT mourners lamented that the straight majority's indifference to homophobia's ubiquity helped the Orlando Massacre happen. She said: "We failed them when we were insensitive....and we failed them when we knew it was wrong, and we did nothing." She observed that her "generation and the generations before were indoctrinated with beliefs and messages that fostered and perpetuated hate and prejudice, sometimes intentionally...." She called "on every member of our straight community to open their hearts to acceptance, to embrace diversity, and to cherish our differences."

Numerous faith leaders also have engaged in public soul-searching, questioning whether they have been "complicit" in the Orlando killings. Catholic Bishop Robert Lynch bemoaned that "it is religion, including our own" that "targets...and also often breeds contempt for gays, lesbians and transgender people." Then, just this past Sunday, Pope Francis said that the Church "must...apologize" to gays "for not having behaved as it should many, many times...."

This was overdue self-reckoning by religious leaders, considering how some of their colleagues celebrated the deaths of the Orlando victims as just desserts for immorality. One called the slain victims "the scum of the Earth." Even in these isolated cases, it was notable that the condemnation of those incendiary statements came swiftly and forcefully, and from straight people, including conservative faith leaders.

It was straight allies, in fact, who literally stood between antigay bigotry and the LGBT community mourning our dead. Scores of volunteers in Orlando worked in shifts to don large, white angel wings to conceal from view of funeral attendees the sight of protestors from the infamously antigay Westboro Baptist Church.

WBC picketed the funerals of some of those killed with placards proclaiming "God Sent the Shooter" and their old tried-and-true "God H8S FAGS." These "angels," inspired by those who blocked the Westboro Baptist Church protestors from the view of mourners attending Matthew Shepard's funeral in 1998, were joined by hundreds of other counterprotestors, many of them straight, in forming a human barricade shielding the Orlando Massacre's mourners from the taunts of the Westboro picketers.

"Now I Really Get It"

Desmond Flynn, a straight, Christian, married father of six, reported on Facebook that his entire family had hoped to serve as angels, but discovered when they arrived at the counterprotest that all of the wings had already been claimed by an overwhelming crowd of volunteers.

I reached out to Mr. Flynn to ask why he and his family were moved to take part in the kind of pro-LGBT counterprotest that years ago would have taken place with little if any straight involvement. He told me that "a good portion" of the angels and counterprotestors were, in fact, straight people. Concerning his own motivation, he added: "This horrific event has made me examine my beliefs about LGBT people, and take a more permanent stance." He said: "I've always loved and cared for my LGBT friends and family, but what happened at Pulse has caused me to do a lot of soul-searching. Now I really get it.... It should be free for anyone to love whomever they choose without exception."

Mr. Flynn also sent me a picture of an arm tattoo he had done last week, placed just under his tattoo of a cross. The new tattoo is of a pulse line enclosed within a heart inked with colors of the rainbow. He said he got it "as a testament to [his] beliefs as a Christian who believes in full unity."

The evidence is strong that Mr. Flynn is far from alone in his new resolve as a straight ally in the LGBT movement. Slate's J. Bryan Lowder reported from Orlando that "[a] number of queer folks [he] spoke with...observed that, in the wake of the tragedy, straight people in their lives seemed to be experiencing a kind of revelation about how precarious and stressful being LGBTQ still is in America." He quoted one person as saying, "people are getting woke, right?"

Familiarity, Proximity, and False Comfort

Unwavering straight allies have fought at the front lines of the LGBT movement for years and were fully aware of the dangers and hate faced by LGBT people daily. Yet the Orlando Massacre served for many other straights as a sudden awakening to the plight of LGBT Americans.

That Omar Mateen's alleged self-hate as a closeted and tormented homosexual may have fueled his cataclysmic crime was for many straight observers a sudden realization of homophobia's enormous capacity for destruction. That the father of one of Mateen's victims refused to claim his remains because he "disapproved" of his son's homosexuality, opened many straight eyes to how LGBT people can be unwelcome even in our own families, even in death. That the millions of everyday acts of subtle as well as explicit homophobia can amount to a life of torment for many LGBT people, and drive suicide rates far beyond the norm, have prompted many straight observers over the last two weeks to question society's collective guilt for the massacre at Pulse. Theology scholar Robert A. Rees did not mince words: "We are all responsible for what happened in Orlando."

Many straight Americans arrived at these distressing realizations in Orlando's wake, after having been lulled into the false reassurance that last year's nationwide marriage equality victory represented the full normalization of gay life. Thanks to the same-sex marriage ballot initiatives that swept the nation, many straights helped settle the matter by taking sides, with us. And we won. So, many straight people assumed that the LGBT equality movement was "done." Their LGBT friends and loved ones were safe at last.

And there indeed are many more of these openly LGBT friends and loved ones than there were even just a few years ago. Millions of LGBT Americans have come out of our closets in recent years. Straight Americans have many more personal connections with the LGBT community, as more of us have introduced ourselves - our complete selves - to coworkers, schoolmates, co-parishoners, neighbors, and family members.

Gone are the days when the LGBT community was a band of (truly) queer eccentrics at society's margins. It was openly gay and conventionally popular news anchor Anderson Cooper, after all, who battled through tears to cover the Orlando massacre live on CNN, while other openly gay or lesbian, and equally anguished television anchors, covered it too on competing networks. We don't just live next door. We're in your living rooms.

This heightened interweaving of Straight with LGBT America cultivated the familiarity and empathy demonstrated so vividly, everywhere, over the last two weeks. It rendered the Orlando Massacre a catalytic event in LGBT history - as a straight counterpart to Stonewall. It is a watershed moment that is accelerating progress in the LGBT movement by raising awareness, activating countless new straight allies, and mainstreaming demands for full LGBT equality.

"Special Power In The Air"

This dynamic is not new. Equality and liberation movements in whose footsteps the LGBT movement follows also had these moments of collective revulsion at being confronted with the stark contours of the injustice that always was there, but tacitly accepted and ignored as one of life's more unfortunate realities. These moments in social justice movements serve as national and sometimes global "tipping points" that accelerate understanding, awaken the collective psyche, and motivate action that results ultimately in the integration of previously alienated social movements, and their core values, into the the fabric of society.

Such was the case with the African-American civil rights movement, as my colleague, Professor Perry Wallace, reminded me. Perry was a civil rights trailblazer as the first Black college basketball player in the previously segregated Southeastern Conference. Of the Orlando Massacre's importance as an historical moment, Perry told me: "What goes with all the pain, sadness and bewilderment is a correspondingly special power in the air for education, empowerment and change."

He's right. The images of the atrocities visited upon African Americans seeking equal access to public education and accommodations across the South awakened a nation that by the early 1960s had grown complacent with, and blind to, the realities of Jim Crow. It was those events, shown in shocking detail, that marshalled nationwide outrage against segregation and spurred passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Great Straight Awakening prompted by the Orlando Massacre may similarly accelerate progress in the LGBT equality movement's work in areas that were stalled or overlooked by the attention dedicated to the ultimately successful marriage equality project. The surge of empathy that it has unleashed can and should be channeled into durable social, and especially legislative, change. And an enormous amount of work still needs to be done for all LGBT Americans to have the most basic of legislative protections.

There were approximately 200 anti-LGBT pieces of legislation introduced around the country over the last year or so, the great majority of them backlashes against the marriage equality win in Obergefell. Preposterous "bathroom bills" not only were introduced but actually passed across the nation, denying access to gender-appropriate restrooms to - and creating dangerous conditions for - transgender people. The Orlando Massacre has drawn a spotlight on the bigotry that propelled the passage of those bills, and that contributes to the toxic atmosphere that so gravely imperils our lives as LGBT Americans.

Meanwhile, there still is no Federal statute that explicitly prohibits sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination in the workplace, in housing, public accommodations, schools, and lending. That the Equality Act continues to languish before a Congress whose leadership is indifferent to, and at times even approving of, anti-LGBT discrimination, itself reinforces the second-class status of LGBT Americans.

But there is hope.

Orlando's aftermath has recruited legions of new straight allies to the LGBT movement. The LGBT civil rights movement is no longer a movement for and by LGBT Americans. It is an American movement. For and by all of us.