On Saturday night in Orlando, Omar Mateen walked into a nightclub where he gunned down 50 people and wounded another 53. The horror Mateen inflicted on innocent civilians is the deadliest mass shooting our country has ever seen.
The media has reported Mateen called 911 shortly before the attack and pledged allegiance to ISIS. But the attack might have also been a hate crime—Mateen’s father reported to the media that his son became angry recently when he saw two men kissing in public. Given that the attack took place at Pulse, a well-known gay nightclub in Orlando, Mateen’s actions were likely in part motivated by hate.
The shooting is a sobering reminder to all of us how far we really are from making America a place where all people can live, work, pray, and love free from discrimination or the threat of violence. After the Supreme Court declared laws that prohibit gay marriage unconstitutional, many of us rightly rejoiced and celebrated how far we have come as a country in securing rights and liberties for LGBTQ people. But since then, we’ve also seen backlash and a rise of intolerance, in states like Mississippi, where there is a law that allows businesses to deny services to same-sex couples for religious reasons, or more recently in North Carolina, where the Governor signed a bill transgender people from using bathrooms that matched their gender identity.
And while the rate of violence against LGBTQ individuals has fallen overall, the risk of violence for the LGBTQ community is still much higher than for the general population. Simply put, it is much dangerous to live in the United States as a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender person than it is a heterosexual—the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) reports that in 2014 there were 1,459 documented cases of hate violence against LGBTQ and HIV-affected individuals in the United States. And while transgender people have gained more visibility and attention than ever before, violence (including murder) against transgender people has actually increased dramatically. Being LGBTQ and a person of color raises the risk of violence even more—80% of LGBTQ homicide victims in 2014 were people of color.
As Americans, these statistics should shock and alarm us enough to do something about it. We’re talking about the very fundamental right to be able to live in this country without the constant threat of violence because of one’s sexual identity, and as a country we’re simply not there yet. Incendiary politicians like Donald Trump only exacerbate matters by tapping into the worst parts of American psyche, where intolerance and hate breed. Donald Trump’s candidacy has made it clear that homophobia, racism, and sexism are still alive and well in our country. That’s not to say Trump himself has made people sexist, racist, or homophobia—those attitudes have always existed within the American public—but Trump has energized these groups by igniting their hate and making the use of bigoted speech more normalized, if not more acceptable.
People like Omar Mateen, who represent the lowest forms of humanity, will always exist, and unfortunately this most recent shooting will not be the last our country has seen. But our response has to be a lot more than saying prayers for the victims and their families. Yes, the LGBTQ community needs time to heal, and we all should express our deepest sympathies for this tragic loss of life. But after that, we need to fight back. As a country, we need to emphatically reject political leaders like Donald Trump who only ignite and perpetuate the most vile, hateful parts of this country. We need to send a strong message that we’re not going back to the days where hating people who are not like us and using legislation to deny them basic rights and freedoms is in any way acceptable, or tolerable in America. And finally, we need to combat hate with love, and embrace marginalized communities as strong, committed allies who will not only stand by, but stand up for all people in the name of equality, liberty, and justice.