On Thursday, at the White House’s annual pride event, President Barack Obama took note of the extraordinary violence that members of the LGBT community face around the world. “We’ve got work to do when LGBT people around the world still face incredible isolation and poverty and persecution and violence, and even death,” the president told a rapt audience. Naturally, he had no idea how violence and death would play out at a popular gay club in Orlando but three days later.
For gay men and lesbians of a certain age, the fear of violence – not to mention the real thing – has long been part of our consciousness. We remember all too well the assassination of gay civil rights leader Harvey Milk in 1978. Dianne Feinstein, then president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, announced that Milk had been shot and killed.
That late November day, I sat in the dark in my apartment in Durham, debating with myself whether it was safe to come out. I decided it wasn’t.
Alas, fear is not limited to LGBT boomers, who came of age in the shadow of Stonewall. It also affects millennials and Gen X’ers.
Jacob Tobia, 24, a genderqueer writer and advocate, told me how “people like me are constantly subjected to immense violence. I expect violence walking alone late at night. I expect violence in the prison system. I expect random acts of hate violence on the street.” But, Tobia added sharply, “I do not expect violence when I am dancing at an LGBTQ club or when I am visiting the LGBTQ center.”
James Parker Sheffield, a director at an LGBTQ-focused nonprofit, echoed Tobia. “It scares me because it could have been just about any queer space. … I feel scared because someone could just walk into my workplace, a queer workplace. It’s terrifying to me.”
LGBT people, of course, are not the only ones to experience the sudden shock that comes with murderous violence intruding into a formerly safe space. In recent years we’ve seen killings in a movie theater, elementary school, prayer group and too many workplaces and college campuses to bear. We all now go about our days with a new anxiety percolating beneath the surface, a new fear of shopping malls and other formerly benign places.
But for LGBT people, this is different. This shooting reinforces the deep-seated fear that, for us, nowhere is really safe. We’ve long known that violence can erupt on a sidewalk, in a park, a diner or a rest room, whether we’re alone, with a partner, even with our families – anywhere we are identified as LGBT in front of the wrong person. But this, a focused attack on a clearly LGBT crowd, shakes us to our core.
As the president noted in his solemn remarks: “This could have been any one of our communities …. The shooter targeted a nightclub where people came together to be with friends, to dance and to sing and to live.”
And yet the president took careful note of how heartbreaking this massacre is for the LGBT community. ([It) is more than a nightclub. It is a place of solidarity and empowerment.” Yes, it is – especially for those still seeking to come out, to find like-minded friends in our communities that, despite much progress, remain too unaccepting of LGBT people.
On Sunday, I had an emotional conversation with Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage. Before we ended the conversation, I asked him one last question. “Are you afraid, personally?”
“That is absolutely there,” he said without hesitation. “That’s always a risk when you stand up and fight for something that others don’t want, but I try not to think about it to that level. I can’t let that paralyze me or stop me from my advocacy work. I can’t let that stop me from fighting for others.”
At that moment, I thought I was speaking with Harvey Milk, who had once said prophetically: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”
I hung up the phone and, before I cried, I said to myself: “This is not who we are. History cannot repeat itself.”
Steven Petrow addresses questions about LGBT and straight etiquette in his column, Civilities, for the Washington Post. He lives in Hillsborough.