LGBT support will it last

Members of gay community react to prayers and pledges in wake of Orlando massacre, writes Katie Zezima.
There have been shows of support for Orlando's LGBT community, including from Washington. Photo / AP
There have been shows of support for Orlando's LGBT community, including from Washington. Photo / AP

In the wake of the massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando, there have been prayers and pledges of solidarity with the gay community from many people who have actively fought against gay rights.

But despite the outpouring of emotion, few think it will change hearts or minds in a state that has waged a long and bitter battle over equality for gay men and women.

"Of course not. Of course not," said Terry DeCarlo, executive director of the LGBT Community Centre of Central Florida. "Everybody is, 'LGBT, oh, we love our LGBT, oh, we're there for our LGBT community'. They're there now because there's a tragedy. Will they be there next week or the week after or a month from now or two months from now?"

The fight over gay rights in Florida has been contentious for a decade and flared anew earlier this year. For months after the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal nationwide, Florida's law barring it remained on the books and the heavily Republican legislature failed to take up legislation to ditch it. A federal judge declared two laws and provisions of the state constitution that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman unconstitutional in March.

Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, the state's largest gay rights advocacy organisation, said the shooting has laid bare the fact that many elected officials still do not support equality for gay men and women.

"People say there are stages of grief," Smith said. "Today I am feeling angry. The question has now been called upon the people of Florida: Will you uproot this toxic dehumanisation of the LGBT community, or will you, by action or indifference, allow us to be treated as inferiors in laws that protect our basic rights?"

Since 2009, gay rights groups have lobbied lawmakers to pass the Florida Competitive Workforce Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations. The bill failed to pass again this year.

Smith, who has been director of Equality Florida for two decades, says the state continues to undermine federal legislation passed to ensure non-discriminatory policies for LGBT people. After the Supreme Court's same-sex marriage ruling, Republican Governor Rick Scott signed the Pastor Protection Act, a 2016 law that shields religious entities and individuals from lawsuits if they refuse to administer same-sex weddings.

"They wanted to insult us and deliver the message that even if you get what we have, we are going to put an asterisk by it," Smith said.

Scott has been criticised for offering thoughts and prayers after years of doing little for the gay community, and for waiting several days before explicitly noting that the attack on the Pulse nightclub targeted gay people.

"We pray for our LGBT community. Our Hispanic community. Our state. Our nation. This was an attack on every American. We are #OrlandoStrong," Scott, who wept as he visited a memorial in Orlando, tweeted on Wednesday. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

In a contentious interview this week, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper asked Florida's Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi, who defended the state's ban on same-sex marriage in court, if it was hypocritical for her to call herself a champion of the LGBT community after the shooting.

Bondi noted that some gay partners of shooting victims were having trouble getting information because they were not married. "Isn't there a sick irony that you for years were fighting that very idea?" Cooper asked.

Bondi said she was defending the state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, which voters approved in 2008. In a statement yesterday, Bondi said she visited with people at a homeless shelter that serves LGBT teens this week and learned that "they may be targeted by human traffickers", something she raises awareness about and is trying to prevent.

"I question the motives. Where was she months ago?" said Bryan Douglas, a 39-year-old real estate agent who lives in Orlando and is gay. "There was really no recognition of the community before what happened at Pulse."

But Douglas remained optimistic that Bondi and other politicians may have a sincere change of heart. In Utah this week, the state's Republican lieutenant governor gave an emotional speech saying his "heart had changed" and apologising for being unkind to gays and lesbians.

"This could be the catalyst for change," Douglas said. "That's the hope."

But some who have witnessed the fights over gay rights up close at the Capitol in Tallahassee are sceptical.

"People have been arguing about these types of things for a decade and have dug in," said Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Republican strategist, adding that the shootings "probably did not change their attitude in any significant way".

Nelson Diaz, the former chair of the Miami-Dade GOP, said he is supportive of gay rights but doesn't believe that the Pulse shooting has anything to do with the issue. Instead, he said, it was an act of terrorism and a human tragedy.

"I don't think this is going to turn any kind of tide because it's not really a gay issue, per se," Diaz said. "Had it been at an African American club, would that necessarily improve race relations? I don't think so."

But in some places in Florida, the shooting has led to changes. At First Baptist Church in Orlando, a congregation that spent years loudly fighting against expansions of gay rights, a pastor and an LGBT activist invited those in the audience who were lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning to come on stage and be prayed over.

Dozens from the crowd of more than 1000 came forward, joining a host of clergy from several faiths who gathered to pray. A Pentecostal minister said he was praying for LGBT people because it's what Jesus would have done.

The Reverend Joel Hunter of Northland Church noted his own inability to empathise with those who were attacked and invited a gay rights activist, Victoria Kirby York, the national campaigns director of the LGBTQ Task Force, to lead a prayer in his place.

"I've never been a part of a vulnerable community," Hunter said.

DeCarlo was sceptical that long-term support would come out of the vigil.

The prayers were felt and he thanked those who offered them, he said, but he wants more.

"It's nice to have that done," he said, "But how about standing with us throughout the rest of the year in the non-tragedy times?"

Amy Moshier, a 30-year-old student, agreed.

"Everyone who is using this to further their own agenda, it's kind of annoying," said Moshier, who is a lesbian.

"Forty-nine people lost their lives. It makes me sad."

Thalia Ainsley, a 67-year-old transgender woman who retired from the army, said anti-gay politicians who offered thoughts and prayers were "phonies". She wanted action and was upset because "they use the LGBT all the time as a whipping boy, a political thing, to get their career going with hatred. Once a tragedy happens, they come running -- 'I support you'."

But Ainsley said this central Florida city was one the most welcoming places for LGBT people she has ever been in, and she said she thinks the shooting could spur a shift in attitudes both in Florida and across the nation.

"A lot of times great change comes out of great tragedy," she said. Washington Post

- Washington Post

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