On Sunday, June 12 at 7:17 a.m., I awoke to a frantic text message from my best friend of over twenty years informing me of a shooting at a gay club in Orlando. Not yet fully awake, the seriousness of his text or what I’d learn upon searching for details online didn’t fully register in my mind until I turned my television to CNN. I’ll never be able to erase the images of wounded victims being dragged from Pulse nightclub along the sidewalk to the safety of ambulances and police vehicles from the massacre that we now know claimed 49 innocent lives and injured 53 others.
They just wanted to dance—in a safe place where their sexual orientation, gender identity or public affection wouldn’t be subjected to disapproving looks, verbal harassment or physical attacks. And in a matter of hours, Omar Mateen, the gunman responsible for the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history violated their sanctuary and dimmed their light forever.
A lot has been uncovered about Mateen in the days following his horrific and cowardly act, yet questions remain. Was he gay? Was it an act of terrorism? Should the shooting be labeled an LGBT hate crime? Is this God’s way of punishing the LGBT community for embracing what some consider ‘sinful behavior’ based on their limited and often homophobic interpretation of scripture?
There are no easy answers to these questions, and a vigorous discussion should and will continue about the years, days and hours that led Mateen to Pulse to shatter the lives of 49 individuals and their families along with the perceived safety and progress of LGBT people and our allies around the world. What I do know for sure is that Mateen repeatedly pulled the trigger, but it was the society in which he was reared that supplied the bullets.
America, your hands are not clean. Churches, your hands are not clean. Anti-gay politicians, your hands are not clean. Parents whose love is conditional for your LGBT children or completely withheld because of your inability to acknowledge their humanity, your hands are not clean.
A culture that fosters and promotes anti-gay sentiment —and for some, in recent days, refused to even acknowledge the victims as LGBT people of color, thereby erasing their identities even in death—must share some of the responsibility for the hatred Mateen and others like him harbor.
Americans have mastered praying for victims of gun violence in one breath, and in the case of LGBT Americans, condemning us to hell in the very next. Activist and public intellectual Darnell Moore said it best in one of the many Facebook status updates he’s written since the Orlando tragedy: “And for my church-going friends now praying for the dead, who might otherwise be in sanctuaries where we LGBTQI folk have been called hell-bound sinners and demons and much else, take some time to pray for your folk, too, because tragedies like this are a consequence of the violent theologies preached from the pulpits many support.”
I don’t cry often, but in the two weeks since Mateen walked into Pulse and unleashed a wave of terror, the tears have come swiftly and with a heightened awareness that it could have been me. When I think about the fear that surely engulfed the victims as gunshots rang out, or as they witnessed the bodies of those around them drop to the floor upon impact, or as Eddie Jamoldroy Justice sent his last text message from the bathroom floor of the club to his mother informing her that he was going to die, the tears come and they don’t relent.
This is our America.
Where it’s easier to buy an assault weapon than it is to guarantee that every citizen will have access to a quality education or the right to vote. Where same-sex couples can be married on Friday and fired on Monday. And where anti-gay/trans hatred is written into law and the deaths of LGBT people are praised and deemed God’s will.
This is the culture that loaded his gun.
The potential for Mateen to commit additional acts of terror may have died with him, but the lessons in internal and external hatred and homophobia that he learned lives on. Americans now have an opportunity to change the lesson plan. And LGBT Americans must remain vigilant, aware and unwavering in our truth. A bullet can kill the body but it can never kill the soul.