Over the Rainbow

The Pulse Massacre, and the Meaning of LGBT Pride

Monday marks the first anniversary of the Pulse nightclub massacre. It is also Pride Month, with LGBT communities feeling their rights are more imperiled than ever before.

The deadliest mass shooting in American history, at Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12, 2016, happened in an LGBT venue, and it was aimed at LGBT people. 

Yes, it was a national tragedy. Yes, it affected people who were not LGBT. But whatever specifically motivated the ISIS-inspired Omar Mateen to kill 49 people a year ago and injure 58 more, he went to Pulse, an LGBT club in Orlando, to do it—and LGBT people were the prime focus of his murderousness.

The repeated emphasis is deliberate, because at the time—and still today—reporters and commentators have struggled to articulate and contextualize the tragedy as one aimed at LGBT people

It happened in report after report, and at press conferences after the event, which motivated me that Sunday morning to write a broadside against what quickly became an insulting, fact-omitting, and extremely painful erasure.

If LGBT people queried this “tragedy for all” umbrella coverage, or insisted that the media contextualize the tragedy in a more nuanced, sensitive fashion, they—like journalist Owen Jones in Britain—were told that they were being the narrow-minded ones.

But the problem wasn’t LGBT people’s—it was a mainstream culture that has always had difficulty reporting, evoking, and covering the full spectrum of LGBT experience. 

As time has gone on, the media has improved that reporting, and it will be instructive to see how nuanced, sensitive and aware it will be today, Monday, itself.

A year on, and the first anniversary of the Pulse massacre falls the day after the Equality Marches, themselves motivated by a different kind of grief and anger.

June is Pride month, and the prevailing mood of these months is heavily governed by the victories and losses wrought in the ongoing struggle for LGBT equality. Pride month is a marker month: a time to examine and take stock. 

The anniversary of the Pulse massacre, which will be marked in Orlando and in cities across the country today, Monday, is a sharp and corrective one.

If you have time, read and watch the testimonies of those who lost loved ones, and who are still confronting grievous injuries today. That is what happened that night; these are the real people facing it. The traditionally marginalized—LGBTs, people of color—are here the mainstay of the story.

What happened at Pulse, and its residue, reminded LGBT people of the violence and worse they face just because of their sexuality. Omar Mateen is one individual, for sure, but his targeted hatred that night is a hatred known and experienced by many.

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Hearing the news late at night or waking up that Sunday morning, any LGBT person, as well as feeling a deep sense of horror and upset, may have also recalled moments when they had faced homophobia and violence because of what an aggressor had derangedly deduced about them as people based on them being LGBT, or perceived to be LGBT.

The people at Pulse that night—many Latino and black—were killed and injured when they, like so many of us, were in a space they thought was safe, and more than that a place of pleasure, friendship, fun, escape. 

Suddenly, in New York City, a visit to the Stonewall Bar in Greenwich Village came with an armed guard outside.

And so it was that “Pulse”—and it only needed a one-word descriptor—fit into the zig-zagging, forward, backward, stalled, forward again progress of LGBT equality.

It wasn’t so long ago that a book proclaimed in its title, Victory, in this fight for equality—but that turned out to be premature. The general arrow may point in one direction, but that arrow has all manner of breaks and anomalies in it, and progress now must be fought for harder than ever.

Those old enough to have marched on Pride marches in the 1980s and 1990s (indeed before those decades) will recall a time when protesters would hurl abuse at marchers from the sidelines, police warily watched the progress of the marches, and the general public would stand, bemused, watching all the signs and marchers passing by.

At that time, with so many laws and social and cultural mechanisms against us, the motivating force to march was anger and resistance; the same mood that underpinned the original Stonewall Riots. HIV and AIDS, and the terrible tragedies accruing from that pandemic, gave the marches another animating focus.

Sure, there was a feeling of celebration and an immense feeling of togetherness and belonging, but Pride—not just the march, but the concept—was political, necessary, vital. 

Harvey Milk said the most powerful person thing an LGBT person could do was come out; Pride marches were the most literal, visible, and vocal manifestation of the strength of doing just that.

As the years went by, there was progress: And it is important to note that the brilliance of the LGBT rights movement combined the bravura actions of direct action protesters like Act Up, with the setting up of organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD and later Freedom To Marry, who lobbied in offices, boardrooms and courtrooms, as well as on the streets; LGBT campaigning was furnished with wildly differing tactics, and sometimes in conflict with another, but ultimately complementary.

In the last six years, karma or good planning has meant that some momentous LGBT advances have happened on the eve of Pride themselves, including most dramatically in 2015, the Supreme Court ruling enshrining marriage equality. That night, the Obama White House was lit in rainbow colors. In some politically golden years, Pride has felt like a celebration.

The contrast with the current presidential administration couldn't be more stark. With the many attacks on LGBT equality, particularly on trans people, has come a new spirit of resistance—and this was evident in the Equality Marches of Sunday, and perhaps in the Pride marches happening around the country.

If that spirit of anger and determination to confront and “resist” feels collective, Pride itself is also becoming a more complex concept.

The fractiousness of identity politics radically altered Toronto Pride last year, and possibly this year too, as Black Lives Matter demanded that that city’s police not be allowed to march in the parade.

In D.C. this weekend, the day before the Equality March, the city’s Pride march had to be diverted when a group of protesters, No Justice No Pride, called on Capital Pride, the main march’s organizers, to “bar corporate entities that inflict harm on historically marginalized LGBTQ2S people from participation in Pride events.” (2S means “two-spirited.”)

The Huffington Post reported that the group also posted a petition on its site pushing Capital Pride to “break ties” with “police, prisons and pipelines.” Reuters reported the protesters particularly objected to the participation of Wells Fargo & Co. and weapons maker Northrop Grumman Corp.

Capital Pride responded, “We encourage a robust, civil, and healthy conversation within the community about all of the issues that impact us and look forward to having a mutually respectful conversation in the days, weeks, and months ahead.”

In Toronto, any police marching in the Pride festivities this year will not be allowed to wear their uniforms. New York City Pride has invited those officers to march in the city. A few days ago, Toronto Police raised the rainbow flag at their HQ for the first time.

The question facing Prides is: Can the police and these companies be made answerable for whatever it is that protesters are vexed by, as well as maintaining a marching or parade presence within Pride; and do a majority mass of those attending Pride feel the same as the protesters targeting their participation?

The commercialization of Pride is something that has rankled many LGBT people for years; just as the name of Pride shifting from a “march” to a “parade” rankled many. Yet somehow, just by their very nature, Pride marches, or parades (you choose) have accommodated all viewpoints—at least until now.

When companies first started sponsoring Pride, there wasn’t much in it for them, rather than making a political stand themselves. There was a bravery there. And sure, soon that bravery didn't seem so brave when “gay” became a cool marketing bracket to plunder. But the logos of companies was a badge of progress in itself, and something to celebrate.

These same LGBT-supporting corporations and companies have been key in the fight against states’ discriminatory “religious liberty” laws, merging commercial and moral arguments in their alignment with activists.

With a greater focus on what these companies do away from LGBT issues, Prides today look set to become an arena for a new set of moral and cultural arguments to be played out on.

Many LGBT people, who do not see themselves as particularly conservative, find it moving and significant to see police and military personnel marching in the Pride march, for example: the fact that they do shows bravery on those individuals’ part and progress made in those institutions when it comes to LGBT employment. If “diversity” and “inclusion” are key to Pride marches, then what invalidates the presence of a company deemed by some activists to be morally flawed?

A spirit of diversity and inclusion also underpinned the moving memorial events following “Pulse,” which became a moment of coming together across many sexual and social divides in grief, remembrance, anger, and action. Contextualizing it an LGBT tragedy gave “Pulse” an important and educative depth, but it didn’t isolate it.

As we remember Pulse’s victims, and prepare for more Prides this June, activists might also confront the value of demanding exclusions from marching at Prides, particularly at a time when LGBT people attending these events do so with a unifying desire to march, and be seen and heard.

This isn’t the first time such arguments have played out, and the durability of Pride speaks for itself. These events have been held, in one form or another, since 1970, the year after the Stonewall uprisings. They are likely strong enough to shift meanings and emphasis whatever the political climate is in any given year.

Ultimately, a Pride event’s mood and focus is determined on the day—hopefully sunny and not too bakingly hot—by the broad mass of LGBT people participating in it.

As anyone who has been to a Pride march knows, it can be angry for 200 yards, and then people start singing, kissing, hugging, whistling, hollering, and waving again. It can be, very humanly, all kinds of a march, all kinds of a mood, all kinds of a day, with all kinds of people involved in it.

The most moving Pulse-related testimonies also remind us of their breadth of the LGBT community and its allies. You will find on YouTube news reports of people trying to stand again, and regain use of their limbs. These survivors, as well as those bereaved, are surrounded by “family” of all kinds: LGBT, straight, biological, same-sex partnered, embracing communities.

In celebrating their bravery and fortitude, and the love and dedication that exists around them, there may also be timely value in remembering what “Pride” really means.