After Pulse, After Trump: The Gay Rights Movement in an Age of Uncertainty
Christine Leinonen called her son, Drew, in the early evening of June 11. She knew that he and his longtime boyfriend, Juan, had spent the hot Florida Saturday at Seaworld. Drew told his mother about the theme park’s new rollercoaster, reflected on how watching the movie Blackfish made the excursion a tad bittersweet, and discussed a few logistics for her upcoming surgery. Drew had insisted on being his mother’s “right hand man” for the procedure, a promise that was not at all out of character. The call lasted about 20 minutes; Drew and Juan were tired, and they still had to drive home and prepare for a small pool party the next day. Recalling the night in an interview with The Politic, Christine said she ended the check-in the way she always did, by saying “I love you.” Drew responded as he always did: “I love you too, Mom.”
Early the next morning—at 2:02 A.M. according to an FBI timeline—the Orlando Police Department got word that multiple shots had been fired at a nightclub. Reportedly, an off-duty officer, who happened to be on the premises, exchanged fire with an armed assailant. At 2:08 A.M. officers deployed to the scene entered the building. One minute later, a warning was posted to the club’s Facebook page: “Everyone get out of Pulse and keep running.”
Drew and Juan were among the 49 people who could not escape. The couple had decided, late Saturday, to serve as “wingmen” for a mutual friend who was anxious about an upcoming date. Drew and Juan were sitting at a small table near the dance floor when the shooter entered the nightclub. Christine would not learn of her son’s death until late Sunday after waiting nearly 12 hours inside a local hospital.
On the other side of the country, I was Ubering home from a restaurant in West Hollywood. The California primary had just ended, Clinton had secured her nomination, and my schedule as a campaign reporter had been granted a few free days to enjoy the Golden State. About halfway through the ride, an AP alert flashed onto my cell phone. I didn’t sleep that night—I packed a change of clothes into an athletic bag and bought a ticket to Orlando.
Sometime later, I found myself in the corner booth of a Subway Restaurant on South Orange Avenue. My t-shirt was soaked, as were my pants, boots, and camera bags. Violent thunderstorms had rattled through Orlando, forcing the city’s visitors to take shelter anywhere they could. Around me, the large, burly bodies of video technicians were packed tightly against airbrushed on-air talking heads. Producers, junior producers and assistant junior producers sat together in compact herds, glued to their laptops and Android phones. The few seats left open were retooled into makeshift docks for gangly wifi routers.
And yet, despite the bizarre chaos of the scene, the room was silent—gripped by a mixture of anxiety and grief. Every few minutes an Orlando resident or two would walk through the Subway’s glass doors—either to escape the rain or buy lunch. For a split second, they would gawk at the sight before them, pause, and then they too would slide into the quiet sobriety. I sat across from CNN’s Jim Sciutto and a young female producer. They would whisper back and forth every now and then, wearily exchanging notes and contact information across a table half covered by untouched sandwiches.
The massacre, its victims, and its survivors dominated the news cycle for the last two weeks of June. The press seemed to take over Orlando. Fat Winnebago RVs plastered with three-letter logos lined the closed-off streets that surrounded the nightclub. On-air talent was flown in from across the country, and live reports from the scene ran every few minutes on cable channels.
Headlines varied but stuck to similar themes. The event was labeled the deadliest single-gunman mass shooting in U.S. history, the deadliest incident of violence against sexual minorities in U.S. history, and the deadliest terrorist attack committed on U.S. soil since September 11.
Donald Trump, then still in the midst of a race for the White House, was quick to issue his thoughts on Twitter early Sunday morning:
@realDonaldTrump, 8:07 A.M.: “Really bad shooting in Orlando. Police investigating possible terrorism. Many people dead and wounded.”
Several more tweets followed, including:
@realDonaldTrump, 1:58 P.M.: “Is President Obama going to finally mention the words radical Islamic terrorism? If he doesn’t he should immediately resign in disgrace!”
@realDonaldTrump, 4:47 P.M.: “What happened in Orlando is just the beginning. Our leadership is weak and ineffective. I called it and asked for the ban. Must be tough.”
One statement, however, ignited a considerable degree of controversy:
@realDonaldTrump, 12:43 P.M.: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!”
The tweets, in many ways, epitomized Trump’s larger campaign effort—brash, provocative, and ostensibly unscripted. Some, like Joseph Murray, an openly gay contributor to Breitbart News and the Orlando Sentinel, lauded the remarks: “There are a lot of populist politicians that will say a lot of things to get elected; I don’t think that’s the case with Donald Trump.”
In an interview with The Politic, Murray said that he thought Trump’s response wasn’t just appropriate—it transformed the dynamic of the presidential race: “[The shooting at Pulse] enabled Trump to change the dialogue and do something that no Republican candidate has ever done, which was take up the LGBT mantle, but do it a way that isn’t an “us versus them” in terms of social conservative Christians versus the gay community but more like LGBT and all Americans versus this radical threat that comes from abroad.”
But others took offense at the GOP nominee’s reaction. “Trump tried to use Pulse to his political advantage. His tactics are about instilling fear in people. Using the Pulse tragedy to do that was despicable,” Russell Roybal, Deputy Executive Director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, told The Politic. “Trump’s strategy to attack and scapegoat Muslims was wrong and is wrong.”
By Wednesday June 15, the media frenzy around the carnage had attracted a host of alt-right figures to Orlando. Milo Yiannopoulos, then a Breitbart editor, and Gavin McInnes, a conservative commentator, held an impromptu press conference a block from Pulse. The setup was simple: The pair stood on a street corner about 500 feet from the main media camp. About a dozen cameras were lured out to film the spectacle.
Against the backdrop of a rainbow flag and some half a dozen teenagers donning red “Make America Great Again” hats, Yiannopoulos railed against U.S. immigration practices, gun free zones, and the political left. The speech lasted about 30 minutes, but the self-proclaimed “provocateur” made sure to close by applauding “one of the presidential candidates” and his idea to “protect homosexuals” by preventing Muslims from entering the country.
Despite Yiannopoulos’ stamp of approval of Trump’s response to Pulse, the proposed travel ban was blasted by both sides of the political aisle. Democrats and Republicans alike labeled it xenophobic and un-American. Even so, a groundswell of voter turnout and the electoral college carried the real estate tycoon into the White House five months later. The outcome caught many by surprise, but it served as a particular shock to activists like Roybal who anticipated at least four additional years of left-leaning leadership in Washington.
Now, nearly ten months after the Pulse shooting and with a Republican president, LGBT advocates find themselves in a new era of uncertainty.
“There was a time a year ago when we were making progress and were headed in the right direction. Now I think the fear is that the progress is coming to a halt, and we’re going to have to fight with every ounce of being that we have just to try to retain what we had achieved up to this point,” Mary Meeks told The Politic. She works as an Orlando-based civil rights attorney who served as co-counsel on the Florida marriage equality lawsuit (Pareto v. Ruvin) that struck down the state’s same-sex marriage ban.
When asked to point out the specific issues currently being litigated across the country, Meeks and Roybal highlighted nearly all the same theaters of conflict: antidiscrimination protections in employment, housing, and public accommodations, religious freedom legislation, and state initiatives around the country to pass laws similar to North Carolina’s House Bill 2, also called “Bathroom Bills.”
While many battles are being fought in state courthouses and legislatures, Roybal expressed equal concern over rhetoric and policies coming from the White House: “I think [Trump] is an opponent to LGBT equality. I think during the campaign he talked a good game, but his and Vice President Pence’s administration is set up to be the most anti-LGBT in our nation’s history.”
Roybal noted that Pence supports conversion therapy. “[Pence] believes that LGBT people can be cured,” he said.
“I don’t think this administration is any friend to LGBT people,” he continued. “In fact, some of the actions they’ve already taken like pulling back guidance for school districts on trans students is just the first in a series of things that we will see from them attacking our community.”
Even in early June, there was anxiety over what a Trump presidency could mean for sexual minorities. When I covered a massive candlelight vigil convened in Los Angeles for the victims of the Pulse shooting, Lorri L. Jean, chief executive of the LA LGBT center, even went so far as to assert that the attack was not provoked by radical terrorist groups abroad but was a product of “divisive” figures in the U.S.—namely, Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and Trump. The assertion, made before a crowd of more than 2,000, was met with significant applause.
Chadwick Moore, a contributing writer to The New York Times, OUT Magazine, Playboy, and The Advocate, said that he believes this fear of the president is overblown. “Trump was the first and only presidential candidate to take office supporting gay marriage,” Moore told The Politic.
Many took note when, as president-elect, Trump stated he was “fine with” same-sex marriage during an interview with 60 Minutes last November. Trump went on to declare the issue is “irrelevant” and “done.”
Trump’s proponents also point out he was the first Republican nominee for president to include sexual minorities in his convention speech. In July, he told the Cleveland crowd, “As president, I will do everything in my power to protect LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.” Then, reportedly, Trump went off-script: “I have to say, as a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said.”
The remark (and the response it received) was particularly stunning considering how only five years prior, at a September GOP primary debate on Fox News, boos erupted from the Republican audience after a gay soldier, then serving in Iraq, posed a question regarding “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” and the role of sexual minorities in the U.S. military.
“You’ll never get a majority of the LGBT community to say they love Donald Trump, but what Trump did was weaken the presence of social conservatives in the Republican party,” Murray explained. “[Trump] did so because we’re in a post-marriage equality world. In a post-marriage equality world, the losers aren’t relevant anymore.”
Referencing incidents of bakeries refusing to cater gay weddings, he continued, “Some might say now it’s the cupcake wars—well look, you can fight all you want over cupcakes and wedding cakes. But when you have people tossed off of rooftops half a world away, that’s a lot more pressing.”
The Pulse nightclub shooting and Trump’s election seem to share one aspect: Both led Americans to question whether the culture war over homosexuality and gay rights was over. Many people staunchly believe that the day the Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage to be the law of the land, in Obergefell v. Hodges, LGBT equality had been fully realized. Others saw it as only a step on a path to justice. To some, like Murray, the most significant ongoing challenges largely exist abroad. People of that view point to the threat that radical extremist groups like ISIS pose to sexual minorities in the U.S. and eerie reports of Chechen police officers kidnapping and murdering gay men. But Meeks and Roybal believe there is far more work to be done at home.
Meeks is still working on the ground for LGBT rights in Florida, not too far from Pulse nightclub, even after the Supreme Court ruling. “We had clerk officers here like [Kim Davis in Kentucky] who refused to serve gay couples. We had to actually file another lawsuit against the state because they would not issue birth certificates to same-sex couples in compliance with the Florida statute. We had to bring another lawsuit because the state of Florida would not issue death certificates to same-sex couples,” she said.
“Even in the realm of so called ‘marriage equality’ those rulings barely got us halfway to the practical realization of that equality,” she reflected.
Roybal also pushed back against the notion that the U.S. is as LGBT-friendly as some public opinion polls suggest. “Even today all queer people have a calculus in the back of their heads when they go to show affection in public. They think they may get called a name. They think they might get beat up. They think they may get murdered,” he said.“There is a long history of violence against us.”
Jim Downs, a Harvard University Fellow and associate professor of history at Connecticut College, has researched violence against sexual minorities in the U.S. extensively. In an interview with The Politic, Downs explained, “Before Orlando, the worst instance of anti-gay violence was in New Orleans.” In the 1973 mass murder, 32 patrons of a gay bar burned to death after an unknown attacker doused the club’s only entrance with lighter fluid. Similar cases occurred throughout the 1970s, as arsonists targeted LGBT churches and speakeasies.
During an interview with The Politic, Maria Trumpler, Director of Yale’s Office for LGBTQ Resources, also acknowledged many of the troubling episodes that sexual minorities have faced. But she argued that considering the public outpouring of sympathy and grief after the Pulse attack, it is hard not to acknowledge how far America has come. “Some of the young men spent their last living moments on a cell phone talking to their mothers. On the one hand that’s horrific, on the other hand that’s absolutely fascinating…even though they were out gay men at a gay club…they had close familial relationships.”
She continued, “Compare that to the nightclub massacre in [New Orleans] where many of the bodies were never even claimed by family members. They wanted nothing to do with their gay sons.”
Several months into the Trump administration, the future of LGBT rights is unclear. Legislative battles will continue across the country. Clear civil rights victories like Obergefell v. Hodges are not as final as one might imagine. And despite significant gains in America’s acceptance of sexual minorities, years of data on anti-LGBT violence along with stark case studies like Orlando cement the fact that it is still unsafe to be queer in the U.S. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 20 to 25 percent of lesbian and gay Americans will be the victim of a hate crime in their lifetimes.
Nearly ten months after the Pulse massacre, the surrounding community is still rebuilding. Valentina Guerrero ’19, an Orlando native, told The Politic that her hometown has not yet recovered, and she doubts if it ever will. No mural or memorial can salvage all that was lost.
But the community has rallied all the same. Thousands of people flocked to blood banks after Pulse—700 reportedly lined up to donate at just one of the facilities in Orlando. “That image has power,” Guerrero said. Meeks watched city officials—Republican and Democrat—address enormous vigils across the state. And millions of Americans stood in solidarity with Christine Leinonen when she appeared on television to describe losing Drew—her openly and unapologetically gay son.
“Pulse doesn’t have a silver lining. I know it will emerge, though. The hero Drew needed didn’t surface in time… but everyday Americans can choose to have zero tolerance for hatred and bigotry. They can give Drew’s story and the Pulse story that silver lining.”