I was in South Florida vacationing near the Everglades when I awoke to news from Orlando that a 22-year-old singer named Christina Grimmie who had been a contestant on “The Voice” television show was killed after performing in a club.
I have met so many young performers through our Voices United series that this seemed like a terrible loss of a person who seemed to love her music and had everything to live for.
The next morning there was more terrible news: A massacre had occurred at Pulse, an Orlando nightclub with strong ties to the LGBTQ community. The shooter killed 49 people and was himself fatally shot in a confrontation with police.
The murderer had called 911, telling an operator that he was pledging allegiance to the Islamic State. In the days that followed, we learned more about his motives and his obvious problems.
We seem to follow a script in these situations. Some were quick to exploit the situation by attacking the entire Muslim community, even though U.S. Muslims immediately condemned the murders and expressed support for the victims and their families.
That meant nothing to people like Donald Trump, who asserted that Muslims in America know there are terrorists in their midst but won’t identify them. Trump, of course, presented no evidence for this incendiary charge.
I also knew we would hear an extreme reaction from a truly awful member of the clergy somewhere. Pastor Roger Jimenez of Verity Baptist Church in Sacramento filled that role.
Jimenez told his flock not to mourn the deaths, remarking, “People say, like: ‘Well, aren’t you sad that 50 sodomites died?’ Here’s the problem with that. It’s like the equivalent of asking me, what if you asked me: ‘Hey, are you sad that 50 pedophiles were killed today?’ ‘Um, no, I think that’s great. I think that helps society.”
Other groups at least tried to be sensitive. The American Family Association (AFA) issued a brief statement saying that God loves everyone and condemning senseless violence.
The sentiment sounds nice until you remember that the AFA and its allies have issued a steady stream of ugly rhetoric designed to cause people to hate and fear members of the LGBTQ community.
Bryan Fischer, a controversial figure who hosts a radio show on an AFA-owned network, responded to the Supreme Court’s June 26, 2015, ruling on marriage equality with this tweet: “Just as Hitler bottled up the church of his day inside the four walls of their churches, so the Gay Gestapo will do today. Hitler had the Jews to blame. The Gay Gestapo has Christians to blame.”
James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, asserted it would result in pastors being “dragged into court to be prosecuted or subjected to civil judgments.”
So, according to the Religious Right, LGBTQ people, if left unchecked, will destroy families, crush religious freedom, behave like Nazis and put pastors in prison.
You cannot lead a movement that spends decades dehumanizing and demonizing an entire class of individuals, and then feign surprise when someone violently attacks them. You can’t portray millions of people as nefarious agents of destruction of our very way of life, and then claim plausible deniability when someone lashes out at those people.
You can’t spread hate and pretend that it has no consequences.
The good news is, there were some stark departures from the script. Anderson Cooper on CNN refused to name the shooter but did an extraordinary segment where he, choking back tears, mentioned every victim and gave as much information about them as he knew. Don Lemon, also on CNN, did powerful interviews with both the mother and the cousin of Akyra Murray, the youngest victim.
By the day of the shootings my wife Joanne and I had reached Key West, site of a huge Gay Pride parade. Dozens of participants carried hastily completed “Key West Stands With Orlando” signs. Politicians and police also demonstrated solidarity.
We have come so far in the support of the rights of the LGBTQ community over the past three decades. The parade was an astonishing example of the power coming from a group that has made more progress than many imagined possible.
The terrible events in Orlando show we still have a way to go – but they also demonstrate the resilience of a community that isn’t going to allow us to go backward.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.