(WOMENSENEWS)— We are in the midst of LGBT Pride month, a time for coming together in the streets of American cities, celebrating our diverse sexual identities and marking how far our country has come in ensuring all people, regardless of sexual orientation, can live a life of dignity.
But the Orlando massacre this weekend has cast a dark shadow.
In the wee hours of Sunday morning in Orlando, Florida, Omar Mateen walked into a nightclub where he gunned down 49 people and wounded another 53.
The horror Mateen inflicted on innocent civilians is the deadliest mass shooting our country has ever seen.
The media has reported Mateen called 911 shortly before the attack and pledged allegiance to ISIS. But at its core, the attack was a hate crime. Mateen’s father reported to the media that his son became angry recently when he saw two men kissing in public. Given that the attack took place on Latin night at Pulse, a well-known gay nightclub in Orlando, Mateen’s actions were almost certainly motivated by hate.
The shooting is a sobering reminder to all of us how far we really are from making the United States a place where all people can live, work, pray and love free from discrimination or the threat of violence.
After the Supreme Court one year ago declared laws that prohibit same-sex marriage unconstitutional, many of us rightly rejoiced and celebrated our country’s progress in securing rights and liberties for LGBTQ people.
Rise in Backlash
But since then, we’ve also seen backlash and a rise of intolerance, in the form of hundreds of laws and policies that discriminate against LGBTQ Americans. For example, in Mississippi conservative policymakers passed a law that allows businesses to deny services to same-sex couples for religious reasons. In North Carolina, the governor signed a bill prohibiting transgender people from using bathrooms that match their gender identity.
The rate of violence against LGBTQ individuals has fallen overall, but the risk of violence for the LGBTQ community is still much higher than for the general population. In fact, based on its analysis of FBI data, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that “LGBT people are far more likely to be victimized by violent hate crime than any other minority group.”
Simply put, it is more dangerous to live in the United States as a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person than it is a heterosexual.
The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reports that in 2014 there were 1,459 documented cases of hate violence against LGBTQ and HIV-affected individuals in the United States.
And while transgender people have gained more visibility and attention than ever before, violence (including murder) against transgender people has actually increased dramatically. Being LGBTQ and a person of color raises the risk of violence even more; 80 percent of LGBTQ homicide victims in 2014 were people of color. The majority of those killed in the Orlando massacre were Hispanic.
Just this past weekend, when the names of the victims of the Orlando attack were still not known, an Indiana man was arrested with a car full of weapons and explosives that he planned to use in an attack on the Los Angeles Pride festival.
As Americans, these reports and statistics should shock and alarm us.
We’re talking about the very fundamental right to be able to live in this country without the constant threat of violence because of one’s sexual identity, and as a country we’re simply not there yet.
Incendiary politicians such as Donald Trump only exacerbate matters by tapping into the worst parts of the American psyche, where intolerance and hate breed. Trump’s candidacy has made it clear that homophobia, racism and sexism are still alive and well in our country.
That’s not to say Trump himself has made people sexist, racist or homophobic—those attitudes have always existed within the American public—but Trump has energized these groups by igniting their hate and making the use of bigoted speech more normalized, if not more acceptable.
Hate-filled people such as Mateen will always exist. But our response has to be a lot more than saying prayers for the victims and their families. Yes, the LGBTQ community needs time to heal, and we all should express our deepest sympathies for this tragic loss of life. But after that, we need to fight back.
As a society, we need to emphatically reject political leaders such as Trump who only ignite and perpetuate the most vile, hateful parts of this country.
We need to send a strong message that we’re not going back to the days where hating people who are not like us and using legislation to deny them basic rights and freedoms is in any way acceptable, or tolerable in America. For starters, we need to demand that elected officials call the Orlando massacre what it was—a hate crime, something that many Republican lawmakers in particular have so far refused to do.
On Tuesday President Barack Obama told the LGBTQ community: “You are not alone. The American people and our allies and friends all over the world stand with you.”
We need to live by Obama’s words but also take it a step further—we not only need to stand alongside, but stand up against hate and combat it with love, in the name of equality, liberty and justice.