LGBT community leaders say the appropriate response from Washington after the attack at Pulse nightclub early Sunday morning is actually quite simple: offer empathy, and back it with policy.
Utah Lt. Governor Spencer Cox did the first when he spoke to an audience at a vigil for the 49 victims Monday night, the majority of whom were gay.
“Usually when tragedy occurs, we see our nation come together. I was saddened yesterday to see far too many retreating to their over-worn policy corners and demagoguery. Let me be clear, there are no simple policy answers to this tragedy,” said Lt. Governor Cox.
“What our country needs more than ever is less politics and more kindness. If nothing else, as we can see here tonight, this tragedy has the potential to bring us closer than ever before.”
And while policy action and compassionate well wishes are not mutually exclusive, some members of the LGBT community say the latter must come before the former.
“It’s too early to see how this is going to fall,” Roddy Flynn, Director of the Congressional LGBT Caucus, tells The Christian Science Monitor, in regards to future legislation on LGBT equality or gun control. “When public leaders talk about [the shooting] there are going to be debates about guns and LGBT discrimination and those conversations are good, and it's good we turn towards policy as lawmakers. But we always need to remember the humanity – a community was victimized by this attack.”
“Some Congressmen and women don’t even recognize that the victims were LGBT. Pete Sessions for example said it was a Latino club,” says David Stacy, Government Affairs Director at the Human Rights Campaign. “Just the insensitivity of that is palpable.”
Mr. Stacy is referring to Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, who told the media Tuesday that Pulse was “a young person’s nightclub” with mostly Latino, not LGBT, visitors.
“From the standpoint of ‘Where do we go from here?’ people’s attitudes will turn from their hearts to their heads, but the community is not there yet,” adds Mr. Stacy. “The community is looking for members of Congress to recognize the impact of the crime on the community and to be empathetic to how everyone is feeling – that’s an important way that elected officials represent their constituents.”
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights haven’t been openly debated in the immediate aftermath of such a devastating shooting. But the absence of complete, verbalized support from the political sector to the LGBT community is also painful.
“Some lawmakers haven’t mentioned the LGBT community and haven’t recognized the particular suffering of this community,” adds Mr. Flynn. “This person may have had a lot of motivations, but at the end of the day, he chose Pulse nightclub for a reason.”
And Lt. Governor Cox summarized the subtle discrimination in two questions:
“How did you feel when you heard that 49 people had been gunned down by a self-proclaimed terrorist? That’s the easy question. Here is the hard one: Did that feeling change when you found out the shooting was at a gay bar at 2 a.m. in the morning? If that feeling changed, then we are doing something wrong."
And as Cox – a self-described “middle-aged, straight, white, male, Republican politician” – proves, empathy can be not only possible but natural.
Mr. Flynn says fellow members of the LGBT Caucus, Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo, who are also middle-aged, straight, Republican politicians, have actively voiced their support for the LGBT community. And while they represent Florida, he says, they help demonstrate that support for the LGBT community should be an obvious choice for political leaders.
“This tragedy is particularly painful because it takes place during LGBT Pride Month,” Representative Curbelo said in a statement after the shooting. “My thoughts and prayers are with the family members of the victims and with many of my constituents who are celebrating Pride Weekend in the Florida Keys.”
And as Colorado Rep. Jared Polis points out to the Monitor, many members wore rainbow pins this week to stand in solidarity with the victims and the larger LGBT community.
But some senators and representatives have ignored the attack’s ramifications on a specific sector of the American electorate, instead choosing to see the attack as an issue of gun rights, terrorism, or both.
“Sometimes when people are hurting, talking about policy isn’t the way. You have to meet people where they are,” says Stacy. “Every LGBT person sort of thinks, ‘Oh my gosh, this could have been me.’ It’s something that really resonates on an emotional level. Hate crimes don’t just impact the victims, they send hurt and fear through an entire community.”
After the mourning, the LGBT community will be calling for action, adds Stacy, such as pushing even harder for hate crime prevention laws at the state level. But for now, even small tokens of congressional solidarity are appreciated.
“Incidents like this can really bring things into sharp focus for people,” says Mr. Flynn. “It allows people to see the community a little more as a community.”