On the Pulse Nightclub Massacre

Candle at a vigil for the victims of the Pulse Orlando shooting. Photo by Callen Harty.

Candle at a vigil for the victims of the Pulse Orlando shooting. Photo by Callen Harty.

Within a couple minutes of waking up on Sunday morning several posts on Facebook had alerted me to yet another mass shooting in the United States. A moment later I saw that it had taken place at a gay nightclub in Orlando and my heart sank. Even if the club were more than a thousand miles away the people there would be my queer brothers and sisters and allies. Then I heard that it was Latino night at the club and my heart sunk a bit further. Two groups that are oppressed, two groups that are treated as “less than” or “other” in our culture and we were being slaughtered, most likely for no other reason than our identity.

Really, I had no definitive way of knowing whether the shooter knew it was Latino night or even whether it was a gay club, but my heart knew. I did not need to find out from NBC that his father said that the shooter was outraged by witnessing two men kissing and holding hands in Miami a couple months before the shooting. My heart knew. And even if it turns out that he did this as an Islamist extremist I do not need to be told that he hated LGBT people. My heart knows. My heart knows that he chose Pulse for a reason.

As a gay man I have expected something like this to happen for years, although I expected it would be a homophobic, right-wing Christian who doesn’t really understand the love of Jesus rather than a homophobic right-wing Muslim. It doesn’t much matter. So many right-wing interpretations of various religions teach people to hate. People are hated for their sexuality, their race, their religion, their place of origin, their status (or lack of it), gender, and on and on. Hatred crosses many lines.

Pulse is not the first time and it won’t be the last. Any queer person can tell you that. Look up the Upstairs Lounge arson fire in New Orleans where 32 people died. Look up the Otherside Lounge bombing in Atlanta where fortunately nobody died. Look up violence against LGBT people and you will find a litany of brutal beatings, torture, and killings of people simply because they were queer. Harvey Milk, Allen Schindler, Brandon Teena, Matthew Shepard, Billy Jack Gaither, name after name after name, and those lists only include the ones that were somehow considered newsworthy. They don’t include my queer Native American friend, Earl Greely, who was beaten to death by a man in Superior, Wisconsin. They don’t include the store owner whose bloody body was found in his store on the Capitol Square in Madison. They don’t include the still unidentified person whose biologically male body, dressed in women’s clothes, was found stuffed in a chimney on the University of Wisconsin campus in a case that is still unsolved. They don’t include the countless nameless faceless gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender citizens of the world who are killed every day. Or who are beaten to within inches of dying. Or harassed or threatened.

As a gay man I live with the whisper of violence in my ear. I hear it whenever I walk the streets, whenever I gather with my queer brothers and sisters. I hear it when I lay in bed at night or when I dare to kiss my life partner in public. While I have not yet suffered a physical assault I have been verbally harassed and had my life threatened many times. I understand that at any moment I could be attacked or killed just for being who I am. This is not to say that others aren’t also possibly in danger in this gun-slinging violence-crazed country, but there is a higher probability of someone in a minority community facing violence. According to a recent article LGBT people face a significantly higher risk of violence than other minorities (The Atlantic, June 12, 2016)*. This because of who we love. That is all.

At least in this country the possibility of dying for being gay is not officially government-sanctioned. In many countries the punishment for homosexual acts is death. Still, there are politicians, religious leaders, and others who with their rhetoric encourage the type of thing that happened Sunday. The underlying message is that gay people are evil, worthless beings. The killer of my friend who was bludgeoned to death has been out of prison for years. The judge felt that he had come from a good family and that what he did was not indicative of his true nature and that if he could continue college he could become a valuable contributing member of society. He was sentenced to prison, but only for a relatively short period of time. Earl’s death did not lead to justice. Earl’s life was deemed of little value by the judge. Earl, as I noted, was both gay and Native American.

My thoughts are jumbled still. The massacre in Orlando has shook me up pretty badly. It has brought to the forefront all the lifelong fears, the anger over injustice, the incredible deep sorrow that I was born into a world that does not value all people as equals and seems not to value life at all. I know that is not true, of course. I know that for every murderous person filled with enough hatred to do damage to others there are thousands upon thousands of people willing to stand in long lines to give blood to those in need, to risk their lives to save the lives of others, to stand up for those who can’t stand for themselves. I know this, but still I grieve for the state of the world.

But I will not live my life in sorrow. I will not live my life in fear. I will not give in to hatred and bigotry and become hateful myself. Instead I will dig deeper into the well of love in my queer soul. I will survive and I will love and I will help make this world a better place. After hearing that the Orlando shooter became outraged by seeing two men kissing I decided to change my profile picture to one of Brian and me kissing. I am too old and too stubborn to go back in the closet. My love will not hide. Ever. You can put a bullet in my heart but you don’t have a weapon that can take my soul. You can destroy my body but I will not let you destroy my spirit.

That is where I am at today. I am in a place of love and that is where I will dwell all the days of my life.

*from the Atlantic, June 12, 2016: “In a 2011 analysis of FBI hate-crime statistics, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that ‘LGBT are more than twice as likely to be the target of a violent hate-crime than Jews or black people,’ said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the center. Because the population of LGBT Americans is relatively small, and the number of hate crimes against that group is significant, LGBT individuals face a higher risk than other groups of being the victims of an attack. ‘They are more than four times as likely as Muslims, and almost 14 times as likely as Latinos’, Potok added. Sexual orientation motivated roughly 20 percent of hate crimes in 2013 according to the FBI; the only factor that accounted for more was race.”

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on Amazon.com (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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