When I learned the horrifying news of the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, I immediately began experiencing the stages of grief. I didn’t want to leave my house or be in the company of others, mostly to protect myself from the hateful political and religious backlash that I knew — in my country — would inevitably come.
You see, for many of our fellow citizens the lives lost in this tragedy were not “people.” They were “homosexuals.” (Not unlike how blacks in the 18th and 19th centuries were “Africans” suited for slavery since they were not considered human.) And ours is a nation — despite the civil rights advances by the LGBT community — in which people can still claim to be respectable citizens while openly spewing anti-gay hatred. Indeed, many public officials at all levels claim that their “religious beliefs” prevent them from acknowledging the basic civil rights of gays and lesbians. (Remember Kim Davis?) And this is the context in which it didn’t take long for the extreme backlash I had been dreading to surface and go viral.
In his video diatribe, Pastor Steven Anderson from Tempe, Ariz, repeatedly equated gays with pedophiles: “The good news is that there’s 50 less pedophiles in this world, because, you know, these homosexuals are a bunch of disgusting perverts and pedophiles.” Not to be outdone, Pastor Roger Jimenez of Sacramento, Calif., joined the chorus: “People say, like, you know, ‘Aren’t you sad that 50 sodomites died?’ … Um, no, I think that’s great! I think that helps society! … The Bible paints the picture that these are wicked people.”
Two months prior to the Orlando shooting, Sheikh Farrokh Sekaleshfar spoke at the Husseini Islamic Center in Orlando. This is the same Islamic cleric who had also spoken at that facility in 2013 delivering a message of “death to gays”: “Death is the sentence. … We have to have that compassion for people. With homosexuals, it’s the same — out of compassion. Let’s get rid of them now.”
And the infamous, even if tedious, Westboro Baptist Church shortly after the shooting tweeted out: “God opened His armory to deal with proud fag america (in mass shooting at #Pulse nightclub).”
It’s difficult to believe that we still have to re-litigate the provenance of these so-called holy books that the feeble-minded — with access to microphones — read and simplistically commit to memory as the “inerrant word of God.” Let’s take the Christian Bible, for example. Which version did God actually speak and to whom? There are, after all, many versions. As a set of documents passed down through the ages, the Bible is at best a highly curated, incessantly translated, thoroughly edited and redacted, and deeply politicized document representing great compromise among Christian factions, that has been used throughout history for nefarious ends.
Even in the context of our relatively young nation, the Bible was used to justify racial slavery. It provided the underpinning of imperialist American so-called “Manifest Destiny” and the decimation of Native Americans and the seizing of their lands. Conservative Christians used the Bible as a tool for fighting against the women’s suffrage movement’s advocacy for women’s voting rights (astonishingly less than 100 years old in the U.S.). It justified laws banning interracial marriages until the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case struck them down. This is a past that ought to embarrass us, that we should want to learn from, and that certainly has a great deal to teach us about the perils of theocracy that abound when the separation of church and state is chipped away at by simplistic fundamentalist dogmas.
There is an old adage many of us learned in grade school civics class — “Your rights end where mine begin.” Like the people who went to Pulse nightclub on that fateful Saturday night, the vast majority of LGBT people are just trying to find our own “pursuit of happiness” in this great American democratic experiment. My right to live in a world where my identity isn’t defiled by hate-speech from my elected officials, and where my government recognizes my relationship in the way it does that of my heterosexual fellow-citizens. My right to personal safety, to know that who I am won’t be the reason I’m targeted for abuse, violence, or worse.
Whatever your personal or religious beliefs, it is unacceptable for my fellow citizens (especially my political leaders) to say that you “think homosexuality is wrong,” “it’s a sin,” or you think “God will punish gay people.” Indeed, it should be no more acceptable today to say these things about LGBT folks than it would be to say you don’t believe black people are human. As a society we must deplore and reject such rhetoric for the dangerous hate-speech it represents. Indeed, it is in a world that accepts and naturalizes such hateful attitudes as these that incidences like the Orlando massacre not only happen, but the foundation is laid for it to happen over and over again.
The only decent and appropriate response to this senseless taking of life in Orlando is for us to come together, denouncing hate in all its toxic forms, and to give no safe harbor to those who think that this brand of homophobic hate is okay, and who would continue to divide us in ever-more destructive ways.
Dwight A. McBride is the Mellon Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at the American Antiquarian Society and Dean of The Graduate School & Associate Provost for Graduate Education and the Daniel Hale Williams Professor of African American Studies, English, and Performance Studies at Northwestern University.