The following article is based on a talk given by Sarah Sloan at a Party for Socialism and Liberation Community Forum in Washington, D.C., on June 17, 2016.
Forty-three years ago, on June 24, 1973, someone approached the ground floor entrance to the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans, poured lighter fluid on the stairs, started a fire and rang the doorbell. When the door was answered, a fireball burst into the room where congregants from the local chapter of the Metropolitan Community Church were gathering after services. Most of them were gay men, and they were targeted for that reason. In total, 32 people died. That was the largest mass killing of gay people in U.S. history until the early morning hours of last Sunday, June 13.
While most of us here were probably asleep, many of us after having marched in D.C.’s annual Pride Parade, where the PSL got a great reception to our message of fighting for socialism and liberation, 49 people who had gone out to a club to dance and relax were murdered, with many others injured physically and emotionally.
The dead ranged in age from 18 to 50 — an 18-year-old, a 19-year-old, 25 people in their 20s, 18 people in their 30s, three people in their 40s, and a 50-year-old. Almost 90 percent of those killed were Latino, more than half were Puerto Rican, some born in Florida and others part of the exodus from the island caused by the U.S.-created debt crisis and poverty. Some of them were undocumented immigrants. Almost all of them were gay men, lesbians, bisexual, trans and queer people. This was both a terrorist attack and a hate crime.
Advances, setbacks and contradictions
While this massacre shows just how deep rooted anti-LGBTQ bigotry and violence are, the pain of the families of those killed, as horrible as it is, is also a testament to how far things have advanced.
Many of the bodies of the 32 victims of the UpStairs Lounge fire were never claimed. For those who were, many churches refused to host funeral services. Three bodies were never identified — no one came looking for them and they were buried in unmarked graves. There was an oft-repeated joke that they would be buried in “fruit jars.” Even the mother of the reverend of the church, who was burned to death, would not come to pick up his ashes because she didn’t want to be known to have a gay son.
The police never carried out an investigation and no one was ever charged. The survivors couldn’t say that they had been there for fear of being fired, evicted and socially ostracized. It was almost lost in history until a semi-revival in awareness on the 40th anniversary (which was three years ago) and now in the wake of the Orlando massacre.
While we do not want to be naive about the world we live in now, it is certainly a different world, so much so that it is hard for us to understand the ways in which those men suffered.
Today, by contrast, we watch the suffering of the families on the nightly news and read about it online — the families who were desperate to find out the fate of their loved ones, one mother raising money to bring her son’s body back to New York City, other parents planning a joint funeral for their sons who were planning to get married, one of the victims actually a mother who was out dancing with her gay son and died shielding him from the gunfire.
One 30-year-old was texting his mother between 2:06 and 2:51 a.m., until he was shot to death. He was telling her that he loved her and asking her to call 911 to get him help, and she was desperately trying to save her son.
This is a period that has seen both advances and setbacks in the realm of legal rights and of public opinion, one of many contradictions that abound.
This massacre took place in a state with both a vibrant gay community and one where state law does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and where the anti-sodomy law ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2003 has not been removed from the books. In 2008, nearly 62 percent of Florida voters were in favor of the state Constitution banning same-sex marriage and civil unions, and same-sex marriage was not legalized until January 2015, just six months before the Supreme Court struck down all state marriage bans. The Florida legislature only repealed the ban on same-sex couples’ ability to adopt in 2015.
Since the shooting, countless elected officials in Florida have offered their condolences to the victims. Yet the governor, Rick Scott, has repeatedly spoken about the massacre without using the word “gay” or the terms “LGBT” or “LGBTQ,” intentionally avoiding addressing the basis on which the victims were targeted.
Florida Senator and former candidate in the Republican Party primary Marco Rubio, who was at one point the favored candidate for the Republican establishment, expressed his condolences but is no friend to the LGBTQ community. In 2013, he voted against the ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the piece of legislation that has been repeatedly failing in Congress since 1994.
Think Progress published an article detailing this same contradiction from many congresspeople: Rep. Ron DeSantis (R) tweeted, “My thoughts & prayers are with the victims, families & people of Orlando” and called it a “barbaric terrorist attack.” Rep. John Mica said in a statement, “The whole community is shocked and our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and the families from these events.” Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R) said he “mourn[s] the tragic loss of life,” adding, “Orlando, we are all here for you.” Rep. Dennis Ross (R) called it an “evil act” and added, “I ask all Americans to join me in prayer for the victims and their families.” Rep. Vern Buchanan (R) tweeted, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.”
Yet just last month, all of them were part of a group of 12 Florida Representatives who voted against an amendment that would have prohibited federal funds from going to contractors who discriminate against their employees on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
And a bill in the Florida legislature that would have added employment and housing protections for LGBTQ people died when it failed to pass out of a Senate committee in February thanks to objections from Republicans who feared transgender girls using women’s bathrooms and locker rooms. One of the state Senators who voted against it, Jeff Brandes (R), posted on Facebook, “Praying for our Orlando neighbors.”
And it’s not just Florida elected officials. After offering their condolences on Sunday, on Tuesday an amendment attached to a Department of Defense spending bill that would enforce a 2014 executive order issued by Obama prohibiting discrimination by federal contractors on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity was blocked by Republican leaders in the House, including Speaker Paul Ryan, who the night before had called for a moment of silence on the House floor in honor of the victims, and the house and rules committee chair, Pete Sessions, who had tweeted that his “thoughts and prayers” were with the victims.
Of course, some haven’t even made empty expressions of condolence on the internet, instead expressing their support for the attack or threat to carry out a similar attack.
We live in a time where in the year since the Supreme Court’s historic decision 12 months ago that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, over 200 anti-LGBTQ pieces of legislation have been introduced in over 30 states. Even without these new bills that restrict and rollback rights, over 50 percent of people live in states that lack protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations. No such federal legislation exists, and this battle is taking place on the local and state level. Full federal equality has not been achieved.
We live in a time where in the year since a Girl Scout’s chapter in Washington State raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in a show of support for their inclusion of trans girls after they returned a large donation, 21 trans women, mostly trans women of color, have been murdered, 12 in 2016 alone.
We live in a time where Mark Carson, an African American gay man, can be gunned down on a crowded sidewalk in the West Village of New York City, the center of LGBTQ life in that city, but then his killer is sentenced to 40 years-to-life — a far cry from when so-called “gay panic” and “trans panic” defenses used to get people off (though California is the only U.S. state that has banned their use in murder trials).
We live in a time where people responded en masse to an emergency call for blood donations in Orlando, waiting in line for over five hours to help those who are fighting for their lives, but where the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration, a U.S. government agency, maintains a reactionary, backwards, discriminatory and unscientific ban on blood donations by men who have had sex with a man in the past 12 months. Imagine being a gay man in the wake of this tragedy turned away from giving blood.
Just hours after the shooting, as the news was breaking, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — an elected official, the second highest ranking official in the second most populous state — tweeted a Biblical verse that includes “A man reaps what he sows.” He later deleted it after public outcry, but of course he still believes it, and still went to work and went about his business on Monday morning.
Trump and Clinton’s cynical manipulation
The presumptive Republican nominee for president of course is taking full advantage to further his demonization of Islam and fear mongering against Muslim people. Despite widespread coverage that the shooter was born and raised in the United States, Donald Trump referred to him as being “foreign born” from “Afghan.” His Tweets focus entirely on so-called “radical Islamic terrorism” and then he went on to goad Hillary Clinton for not using the term “radical Islam.” Not surprisingly, he has called for increased bombing of ISIS.
The presumptive Democratic nominee for president is clearly not much better, also taking advantage of the shooter’s religion and his parent’s country of origin to advance her warmongering agenda and she too has called for an increased U.S. bombing campaign. Hillary Clinton’s response to Trump, far from standing up to his anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ bigotry, was simply to embrace the term “radical Islam.”
Despite the widespread, passionate and financially generous support Clinton receives from mainstream LGBTQ organizations and their supporters, she can barely even acknowledge the truth about what happened. Her first Tweet that morning said that we are waiting for more information and fails to mention that the target was a gay club. Once she issued her statement, she did not mention LGBTQ people until the third paragraph. She opened talking about threats at home and abroad, then went on to talk about international terror groups, and then went into domestic gun control — all before she could even acknowledge that this massacre had as its target LGBTQ people.
And I should add, that she wasn’t alone. Much of the media did the same. The original New York Times article failed to identify the target as a gay club, and much of the media followed suit. They didn’t want to call it terrorism until they found out the shooter was Muslim, and still would rather talk about innocent human victims rather than LGBTQ people targeted by hate.
Clinton also claimed in her initial statement that ISIS had inspired the attack. But of course, it’s clear that no inspiration from outside of U.S. borders is necessary to carry out anti-LGBTQ violence. If the Democrats were as strong on LGBTQ rights as they claim to be when they speak to their liberal donors, they would take this as an opportunity to expose the bigotry and hate of the right wing for what it is — the basis and the seed for violent acts. Instead, they offer empty words just like the right-wing politicians, and divert focus to their other agenda items, from war abroad to gun control at home.
Attempts to whip up Islamophobia fail
It is clear that while the issue of gun control is very popular among liberal people and has been picked up a lot in the wake of the shooting, the attempt to whip up even more Islamophobia and xenophobia has not succeeded amongst the LGBTQ community, organizations and movement.
Of course there are LGBTQ people who have bigoted views towards other oppressed groups just like there are in all oppressed groups, but the statements issued by organizations and the sentiment reflected in the vigils and meetings has been an immediate and strong stand against using this tragedy to fan the flames of Islamophobia or carry out any type of attacks against Muslim people. I attended what was called a “community dialogue” earlier this week that was attended by hundreds of people, and what elicited the biggest round of applause was when the audience was told that if they encountered any Islamophobia at their jobs, or amongst their family or friends, that they should immediately shut it down.
There has also been a very strong response from Muslim and Arab organizations. Here in D.C., a Muslim women’s organization held a vigil to condemn homophobia, transphobia and Islamophobia that 1,000 people attended in Dupont Circle. CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim advocacy organization in the United States, immediately issued a statement and held a press conference to say that they stand with the LGBTQ community.
Despite attempts by the media and elected officials with their own agendas to portray it otherwise, LGBTQ people and progressive people in general recognize that anti-LGBTQ bigotry, anti-LGBTQ violence and the threat of anti-LGBTQ violence is so pervasive in this country that it’s not about religion or any international organization or the country of origin of someone’s parents — it is about this country’s history and present.
There is a popular graphic circulating on Facebook that reflects what a lot of people feel. It says:
You say, “How could this tragedy happen?” It happened because Omar Mateen’s hate was born and bred in America, not overseas. Just 2 weeks ago you were calling trans women child predators. 1 year ago you were saying that our marriages shouldn’t be recognized. 10 years ago you told us we didn’t deserve job protections. 13 years ago it took Lawrence v Texas to decriminalize our sex lives. 18 years ago you took Matthew Sheppard. 23 years ago you took Brandon Teena. 36 years ago the American government began their 5 years of silence as 10,000 gay men were massacred by the AIDS virus. 43 years ago we were still considered mentally ill. And 47 years ago the riots of Stonewall began. For centuries this country has bred homophobia into our history, into our schools, and into the very fabric of society. Omar Mateen was the product of American hate. …
The Rev. Kevin Swanson, who calls for gay people to be executed on his radio show and from the stage of large events he organizes, made some headlines last November when three then-contenders for the Republican Party nomination — Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and Bobby Jindal — spoke at a conference he organized. Three people seeking to be the president of the United States shared a stage with this man, and it isn’t the reason they didn’t get the nomination.
Capitalist society fails to intervene
The shooter, Omar Mateen, is said by those who knew him to have both deeply held anti-gay views and to himself be gay. Regardless of his own sexual orientation, it is clear he carried out a premeditated attack targeting this gay club, and that he had made many anti-gay statements over the course of several years, and recently expressed that he was upset at the sight of two men kissing. Regardless of whether this is because he was repressing his desire for men or was just a bigoted person, or both, it is clear his violent act was nurtured in a deeply homophobic society.
He is someone who had untreated mental health issues. Who had a history of domestic abuse.
He had attended police academy and though he never became a cop, despite his desire to, he clearly had an affinity for the police, posing for selfies in various NYPD shirts and posting them online.
For nearly the past decade, he worked for G4S Secure Solutions, a British-based firm that provides security services for various governments around the world. That work included placing him as a correctional officer at a juvenile detention center where G4S Youth Services was contracted to provide security. This is an entity that has faced charges in multiple cases of sexual and other types of abuse, and excessive force, with one of the facilities they run being characterized by a grand jury as “a disgrace to the state of Florida.”
G4S has a record of tolerating bigotry in the United States. In late 2015, four former security officers filed a lawsuit claiming they were fired after they complained about their senior supervisor’s anti-gay bigotry and expression of Christian extremist views, talking about gay family members going to hell, posting Bible verses on the walls and holding “prayer circles” at work.
Mateen’s own co-worker’s complaints about him were not pursued, and the co-worker ended up quitting him after Mateen stalked him in retaliation.
Some describe him as quiet, and some describe him as someone who was unstable and expressed racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and anti-gay views, and talked about killing people.
Some — including his ex-wife and father — say he was not religious, while others say he was becoming increasingly religious. He apparently asserted himself as a supporter of Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda and ISIS at different points, showing a lack of true allegiances and understanding of politics in the Middle East.
There are many questions that will never be answered about exactly who he was and what motivated him, but it is clear that there were many signs that he was a potentially dangerous person. What is also clear is that this society is not one that makes a preventive intervention like would happen in a socialist society, where there would be an immediate and direct response to someone who is or who shows a tendency to be violent and bigoted.
In this society, there was no intervention to stop him beforehand. His co-worker says that when he complained about his bigoted comments and death threats, the company took no action, so this co-worker quit his job. His ex-wife’s family had to come to rescue her from their home — there was never any state intervention in response to his violence against her.
As the shooting was in progress, after the initial response, it took the SWAT team three hours to go inside to stop it, which is pretty amazing. There were many people from the club who stayed or went back inside to try to save their friends or even complete strangers, people who had no training or weapons or protection.
But the SWAT team, the Special Weapons and Tactics team, with all of their military equipment, weapons, armor and training, waited all of that time while people were inside dying from their injuries. When it’s a matter of shooting unarmed people or raiding homes at night when people are sleeping, the police don’t hesitate, but they said they needed to spend three hours on and off the phone with someone who had no demands. And now even the Orlando police chief has had to admit that some of the deaths and injuries were caused by police gunfire once they did take action.
Now, rather than taking aggressive and decisive intervention to confront every manifestation of bigotry that exists, the so-called political leaders simply want to take advantage to further their own careers, campaigns and agendas.
The significance of what took place
We have to expose and counter them; we have to build unity between the LGBTQ community, the Muslim community and all oppressed and targeted groups; and we also have to try to understand the significance of what happened. This was both a terrorist attack and a hate crime.
Wikipedia has memorialized this event as the largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, the deadliest attack on LGBTQ people in U.S. history and the deadliest terrorist attack since September 11. It has also been described as the largest killing of gay people since their targeting by the Nazis during World War II. While the media is less inclined to recognize massacres of Native and Black people as a part of U.S. history, this is certainly a massacre of historic proportions, and the largest in the type of mass shootings that are increasingly prevalent across the country.
Aside from the enormity of the event, of the number of people massacred by one person in one place in such a short time span, there is a deeper level of significance that people should try to understand.
If one compared a gay club to a church, some might react and say they are the opposite in terms of activity, that they have nothing in common. But for some communities, the church became a safe haven, a refuge, the one place to be together, to connect as a community. It may be hard for some to understand and envision this, but for the gay community, the bars and clubs have played that same role.
I want to read an excerpt from a blog written by Dorothee Benz, the communications director at the Center for Constitutional Rights:
The bar … is the place we always went to be safe. For many of us, it was the first place we could be who we are, accepted by others. It was a community space, a place to meet people, make friends, maybe find love, maybe find a hot hook-up. Before there were LGBTQI community centers, and where there are no community centers still, the bar was, is, our community center. A sanctuary in a society where condemnation and hate spews forth from our official religious sanctuaries.
And so when a gunman opened fire at the Pulse Club … it shattered the lives not just of the victims and their families, born and chosen. It shattered queer and trans Americans’ place of refuge. We awoke Sunday to the knowledge that we all have a target on our backs, even in – or especially in – the one place we considered safe. That is exactly what hate crimes are designed to do. This was an act of political violence meant to hurt and threaten our communities.
That night at Pulse was Latin Night, and I want to read from a statement from Radio Menea, a “Latinx music podcast:”
For so many queer & trans Latinxs in the United States, the queer club on Latin Night is the first time we felt whole, home in a way we never knew we could feel when our families of origin rejected our full selves. Many of us were born again on dance floors where we were free to defy gendered expectations of how – and with whom – to dance … We’re realizing that’s part of what felt so hard … – knowing that our fellow queer Latinxs were brutalized while celebrating our collective resistance. …
Of course, this is not the first time this has happened, and the UpStairs Lounge wasn’t either. The beginnings of the modern movement for LGBTQ rights is considered to be the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, when the patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York City rebelled against the constant, routine harassment they experienced by the police.
In 1980, a man went on a shooting rampage in the West Village of New York City, killing two and wounding six people inside and outside several bars. In 1997 in Atlanta, a bomb exploded in a lesbian bar, the Otherside Lounge, injuring five; a second bomb was set up outside but did not detonate. In 2000, one man was killed and six others wounded in a shooting at the Backstreet Cafe in Roanoke, Va. In 2014, a man set the stairs to a gay club on fire, but there were no injures despite there being 700 patrons inside.
This of course does not include countless acts of individual violence, which includes near-epidemic levels of violence against transgender women, to well-known murders like those of Brandon Teena in 1993 and Matthew Shepard in 1998, to suicide brought on by bigotry and bullying, to the violence of homelessness and unemployment and poverty.
It is crystal clear that despite much that was made of a relative level of privilege enjoyed by gay men within the LGBTQ community, especially in the wake of the legalization of same-sex marriage, that the targeting of gay men is still a significant issue, more so for gay men of color but for all gay men.
Fighting in this system and for a new system
There are a lot of questions before the LGBTQ community now, as well as for all progressive and revolutionary people in the United States.
Despite all their friendly statements in the wake of the shooting and their increased presence at Pride events, It is clear that the police have no will to protect LGBTQ people, and the Democrats lack the will to really stand up to and shut down the right wing.
For us as revolutionaries, we have to address what to do under this current system and how to fight for a new system.
Clearly, LGBTQ people and all oppressed people need to be organized to fight for legal rights, to fight against violence and hate, and to be able to defend themselves.
We in the PSL also believe, as we are doing that, we need to build a revolutionary party that is reflective of the diverse U.S. working class, and that we must have reflected in our membership and leadership people of all nationalities, sexual orientations, genders, sectors of the workforce and all of the diversity of the working class itself. We believe that only by coming together can we succeed in our fight for a new society.
Though what happened in Orlando over the weekend is horrifying and in some ways unique in history, it is not altogether shocking in this society.
This is a society where people’s rights are debated and put up for votes, passed and then taken away. Where a simple piece of federal legislation prohibiting discrimination fails to pass year after year after year. Where people can say the most vile, hateful things, in public, and have there be no significant repercussions. Where someone can be openly bigoted and the people who complain lose their jobs. Where someone can carry out domestic abuse without consequence.
This is clearly a society where we urgently need to organize and fight back, and that we need to replace with a new society, a different society in which people are equal in the eyes of the law, as well as in society, where there is zero tolerance for discrimination, bigotry, hate and violent attacks. Socialism is that society. We need to fight back right now, and we need to fight to build a socialist society.
Below are some videos that were incorporated into the talk as part of a multi-media presentation:
Learn more about the UpStairs Lounge arson attack.
See a video of two of the victims — Juan Ramon Guerrero and Drew Leinonen.
Watch Anderson Cooper interview Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.
Watch and listen to this powerful tribute to the Orlando massacre victims.