I came out as gay during my sophomore year at UNC. Chapel Hill in many ways was a great place to come out, a supportive academic environment in a town with a history of leadership on LGBTQ rights.
Yet even in our progressive community, there were times as an undergrad that I was reminded that my LGBTQ identity made me an “other.”
I remember insults hurled at my friends and me on Rosemary Street. I remember public policy decisions, like Amendment One and discriminatory language in our state’s sex education law, which told me I was different from “normal.” I remember reading reports of trans and gay individuals beaten and killed in the streets in cities across North Carolina.
Being an “other” forces LGBTQ people to find our own safe spaces. My friends and I found them in gay nights hosted at bars and clubs on Franklin Street – Vespa on Friday nights, Stir on Sundays at East End – or, on the occasional trip to Raleigh, an actual gay bar.
That may be why the mass-shooting and terrorist attack Sunday morning in Orlando was devastating.
Though LGBTQ life and gay love are more normalized in 2016 than when I came to UNC in 2007, in most of our state and country, it still doesn’t feel safe to be LGBTQ. Gay bars offer protection, community, and resistance. A riot at the Stonewall Inn in New York City in 1969 was a catalyst for the modern gay rights movement. As students, we made plans for our own political advocacy, organizing lobbying trips to Washington, D.C., to speak out against Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and in support of employment non-discrimination over gay trivia at East End.
As news poured in Sunday, we mourned, we prayed, and then we asked what we could do.
When our nation responds to tragedy, we often look to service as a way to support those lost or injured and to help find our humanity. One such way we give is to donate blood at our nearest blood bank or Red Cross. For countless in our community, that hasn’t been an option in response to the Orlando shooting.
Gay and bisexual men are prohibited from donating blood if they have had sex with another man in the last year. This federal policy was updated at the end of 2015; before that, any sexual encounter with a man meant a lifetime deferral. Neither policy is grounded in science. Donated blood is rigorously screened for HIV and STIs. Other communities at risk for HIV are not treated in the same manner, and the policy ignores the standards of peer countries like Italy and Spain that screen for high-risk activity rather than impose blanket bans.
At face value, a blood-donation policy many seem insignificant in the grand scheme of the fight for LGBTQ equality or what happened in Orlando. Yet when connected to other public policy decisions like HB2 in North Carolina, it reinforces how the LGBTQ community is still an “other” in our state and country. We were brutally murdered in one of the few spaces that we’re allowed to claim as our own, and the next morning were prohibited from donating blood for our loved ones and our community.
Policies like HB2 here in North Carolina and the blood ban cause acts of violence. They teach that gay blood is unclean and gay sex is dirty. They teach that the LGBTQ community shouldn’t be protected against discrimination. They teach that we don’t have the right to define our own identity.
These policies reinforce stigma and breed hate. On top of that, our political leaders have refused to pass even common-sense gun regulations. The political environment we live in matters, and has created a culture where tragedies like what happened in Orlando have become common.
My heart breaks for Orlando and those who tragically lost their lives. In their honor, we must hasten our efforts to repeal laws that discriminate against the LGBTQ community and all oppressed communities. Silence is unacceptable. The cost of inaction is too great.
Lee Storrow is a former member of the Chapel Hill Town Council and a resident of Chapel Hill. He can be reached at LeeStorrow@gmail.com.