For gay community, Orlando a sign threats remain amid growing tolerance

The past decade has seen America make a significant shift toward public acceptance of the LGBT community. Yet currents of hate remain, and a mass shooting in Orlando has become the most tragic example. 

David McNew/Reuters
Kristen Jaeger holds a sign of remembrance for mass shooting victims in Orlando, at the 46th annual Los Angeles Gay Pride Parade in West Hollywood, Calif., on June 12.

For more than a decade, mainstream America has begun to accept and embrace its gay minority at a pace that took many in the community by surprise. In 2012, President Obama said he supported same-sex marriages. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of such unions.

Yet over the same period, the same community of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people has reported a steady drumbeat in hate speech and violence directed against them. This climate of vitriol reached a new low on Sunday when Omar Mateen murdered 49 people celebrating gay pride month at a nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

The motives of Mr. Mateen, a US-born Muslim of Afghan heritage, remain unclear; he pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in a 911 call and had previously been investigated for links to Islamic extremism.

But the targeting of gay revelers gathered at a club to celebrate is a blow not just to the LGBT community but to a majority of Americans who have begun to see tolerance ​as the new national norm, even in a polarized political climate. That tolerance has indeed been rising, but the currents of opposition and even violence haven't yet ​faded out.

“The reality is that LGBT people have made huge advances in last couple of decades. They’re clearly being accepted by a wide swath of society in ways they weren’t before. But they are still subjected to intense hatred by a large minority of people,” says Mark Potok, an expert on hate groups at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The Orlando shootings put the weight of this challenge front and center Sunday in Los Angeles at the city’s annual gay pride parade. Police were a very visible presence in the march, and many participants wore black armbands to mourn those slain in Orlando.

“We cannot allow this kind of violence to silence us,” says Lorrie Jean, who runs the Los Angeles LGBT Center and spoke at the end of the march. “Today’s march was about pride, but it was also an act of protest against fear, bigotry, and violence, so that’s how the whole community is responding.”

Along Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, a group of young students attending Sunday’s march reflected on the tragedy that hung in the air.

“We’re here to celebrate, but we’re never safe,” says Evelyn Garcia, a college student. “I think [the shooting] made us more anxious to show up. Show we’re not afraid.”

“We had to celebrate for the people who lost lives,” adds Michelle Ventura.

“Yeah, there’s been so much progress, but we’re still getting stepped on,” says Ms. Garcia, who had draped a Mexican flag with rainbow stripes – the colors of gay pride – around her body.

While Sunday’s nightclub massacre was the worst mass shooting in US history, it wasn’t the first incident of indiscriminate anti-gay violence. In 1973, 32 people died in a bar in New Orleans after an arson attack. In 2000, a gunman named Ronald Gay shot dead one person and injured six others at a gay bar in Roanoke, Va. The gunman told police that he was angry that he had been teased about his surname. 

The FBI reported 5,462 “single-bias” hate crimes committed in 2014. Of these, 18.6 percent were motivated by sexual orientation, equal to the number attributed to religious hatred; race was the largest determinant with 47 percent of the reported crimes.

In absolute numbers, the trend for anti-gay violence has been flat for the past decade, based on the FBI’s tally. Still, on a per capita basis LGBT individuals are four times more likely than Muslims to be the victim of hate crimes, says Mr. Potok. He points to anti-gay propaganda by some religious-right groups as one root of the hatred.

Potok also notes a precedent for Sunday’s mass killing: A failed arson attack on a gay club in Seattle on Dec. 31, 2013, by an American of Libyan descent who poured gasoline in a stairway and set it alight. Club goers reported the smoke and it was doused in time. The man, who had expressed anti-gay views, was sentenced to 10 years in jail for arson.

Surveys show a majority of Americans now support LGBT rights, including same-sex marriage. The Public Religion Research Institute found in 2013 that 53 percent of respondents agreed that gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to marry. A decade earlier, only 32 percent of respondents took that view. 

This shift in attitudes followed a sharp generational divide: 69 percent of Millennials supported same-sex marriage; that was true for only 37 percent of respondents who were 68 and older. Tolerance is also skewed by political party affiliation, with a widening gap between Democrats, who widely support gay rights, and Republicans, who are generally opposed.

Asked about Islamic extremism, Ms. Jean pointed out that the gunman was an American. “We don’t have to look overseas to see the bigotry that spawns this kind of violence. When religious leaders say we can’t adopt children or call us a danger to morality – it’s not a big leap from those things to someone murdering a bunch of us,” she says.

Winston Palma, who carried a rainbow flag marked “peace” to Sunday’s march in Los Angeles, said he had just celebrated his birthday the previous day. He woke up to the news from Orlando and said it had “brought the whole day down.”

“It’s hate. We hate what we don’t understand. Hate begets hate. This guy was using Islam as an excuse to foster hate,” he says, referring to the gunman in Orlando.

Mr. Palma, who works as a project administrator for a construction company here, is gay. On the back of his red sleeveless shirt was another message: “Take Action. #speakout”

He says his family loves him for who he is, and wishes that others could do the same. “Everybody I know is saddened by this.”

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