U.S. advocates see LGBT rights at a watershed after Orlando shooting
By Julia Harte and Jonathan Allen
ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) – In the days following the slayings of 49 people at a gay nightclub, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community pulled together in prayer vigils and benefit drag shows and basked in a broad showing of support many said they had never experienced.
For Victor Guanchez, that support was personified in President Barack Obama, who met Thursday with survivors at a sports arena in downtown Orlando. Guanchez, 24, was working at Pulse early Sunday when the shooter came in. He was hit in a leg but survived by diving under the bar he tended.
With his right foot in a walking cast, Guanchez attempted to stand as the president approached. Obama told him it wasn’t necessary, that Guanchez was strong and would recover well.
Guanchez said he was encouraged by the visit and the wave of well wishes he had received from around the world. He said he hoped the response would be a turning point for the way Americans view LGBT people.
“Everybody has their own mind. But with the [shooting], we are just one mind. And that will change everything, I think,” said Guanchez, speaking Friday from a hospital bed, a blanket draped over his legs.
Whether the groundswell of compassion Guanchez felt translates into change is unclear. The worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history will be closely followed by the first anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision that gay marriage is a constitutional right. LGBT advocates, taking stock this week, said the push for equality was far from over.
Job bias based on sexual orientation remains legal in many states. Some businesses are pushing for laws allowing them to reject LGBT customers.
And the most recent Justice Department survey found 57,000 people who said they were victims of sexual orientation-based hate crimes in 2014.
“Most Americans don’t realize how many of these crimes there are,” said Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, an advocacy group.
Beth Littrell, an attorney with the Lambda Legal advocacy organization, said it was a precarious period.
“The anti-LGBT rhetoric that has erupted since the marriage decision inevitably fuels the kinds of actions and prejudice that lead to tragedies,” she said.
People “who have relied on the law to keep minorities in their place no longer have the law to treat them unequally,” she said, “and if the law can’t discriminate, sometimes people take it into their own hands to enforce discrimination.”
Littrell said Lambda Legal was pushing for state and federal legislation workplace protections.
“We’re fighting battles in every state in every legislature this session,” she said.
For Raymond Michael Sharpe, the massacre brought back memories of the HIV/AIDS crisis, which was dawning in 1983, the year he came out.
“It was devastating,” said Sharpe, 55. “All the bars got boycotted on and off for years because people thought that they were going to catch HIV from the bartenders.”
On Wednesday night in Orlando, the response to tragedy was very different at Southern Nights, another Orlando gay club where Sharpe works.
Hundreds packed in for a benefit to raise money for Pulse employees. Pulse founder Barbara Poma made an appearance, hugging supporters and lip syncing to “One Love” by David Guetta featuring Estelle, alongside more than 40 drag queens, some of whom had come from as far as Ohio and New York.
Sharpe noted that, for some, the response to the shooting and the ensuing support for the LGBT community in Orlando was hopeful and very personal: Some younger friends had come out on social media for the first time in the aftermath.
At the GLBT Community Center of Central Florida in Orlando, one of the people answering the telephones this week was Thalia Ainsley, 67, a veteran who enlisted because her family believed military service might “cure” her of identifying as a woman. She lost a leg in the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. After spending much of her life as a man deeply withdrawn, she began hormone therapy last year to transition to womanhood.
After the shooting, Ainsley said she fielded scores of calls at the center from LGBT people seeking counseling, a few hostile calls and far more from well wishers.
“It’s like the consciousness of the whole world is being lifted,” she said, “and the LGBT community is being seen as human beings now, instead of just an issue that people argue about.”
(Additional reporting by Ned Parker and Mimi Dwyer; Editing by Lisa Girion and Cynthia Osterman)