Five years after Pulse massacre the LGBTQ community is still fighting for protection
JOHN A. TORRES
It's hard to believe it's been five years since that dreadful Sunday morning, waking to horrific news on the TV and wondering whether my best friend was among the casualties.
I was lucky not to have lost anyone.
See, my friend is a real homebody and rarely goes out. But it just so happens that he had been urged to meet a female co-worker at Orlando's Pulse nightclub that night. Luckily, watching television seemed like more fun to him.
Others were not as fortunate, waking to unimaginable personal loss when a deranged Fort Pierce man, Omar Mateen, shot and killed 49 people in what officials called an act of terrorism and a hate crime. Mateen was killed by police hours after he fired his first bullets.
But one beautiful thing did come from the Pulse nightclub tragedy: Orlando, the state, the country and even the world came together and wrapped their collective arms around a vulnerable, often marginalized community.
It was a nice reminder that we are all human beings deserving of pursuing love, joy, peace and happiness regardless of sexual orientation.
People lined up to donate blood. The city of Orlando donated cemetery plots. Hospitals forgave bills of those who survived. The Orlando Family Assistance Center was formed, aiding survivors and families of the dead.
You could feel the anguish but you could also feel the love.
Now? Not so much.
On the first few days of June, which is Pride Month, Governor Ron DeSantis vetoed funding for programs the LGBTQ community in Central Florida had championed, and signed into law a bill barring transgender athletes from playing on female sports teams in public schools.
Specific anti-discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community aren't as strong or as prevalent as many hoped they would be -- or think they should be -- by now. LGBTQ people continue to share stories of encounters with landlords and businesses that leave them feeling less than welcome.
Yes, some great strides have been made in LGBTQ rights and acceptance over the years, but not enough. And that's why so many are pinning their hopes for a better future on the Equality Act, which would offer federal protection for those discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Tyler Winik, director of public affairs for the Brevard County Clerk of Courts, says the legislation is long overdue despite last year's Supreme Court affirmation in the Bostock case, where the court wrote: “it is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex."
Bostock refers to the U.S. Supreme Court case Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia in which three men were fired for being gay.
While the Supreme Court opinion offers protections for the LGBTQ community, many say it is not enough and the Equality Act goes further.
"Evolved organizations and most metropolitan states, counties, and cities have already added sexual orientation and gender identity to their discrimination policies," Winik said. "This legislation (Equality Act) puts one of the last vestiges of legalized discrimination to bed, and it’s about time."
That Bostock decision is the main reason the Brevard County Board of Commissioners decided against adding its own policy after the idea was presented by students pushing for more protections. County Commissioner John Tobia said the policy became moot with the Supreme Court decision.
"Even the students that were showing up, pushing for the change, stopped coming," Tobia said.
In fact the Florida Commission on Human Relations fully implemented the Bostock decision on a state level, essentially eliminating the need for local legislation on the matter, as evidenced by the county commission putting the matter aside. Not everyone agrees, though, and Winik said the Equality Act remains important. But it continues to face opposition from conservative religious groups.
Winik, like many others, is nostalgic for the compassion for and acceptance of the LGBTQ community that arose in the aftermath of the Pulse mass shooting.
"Neighbors who had never met became friends. Businesses which hadn’t taken a public stand on LGBT issues flew rainbow flags. People across the country donated blood to help the dozens of victims who were hospitalized in the wake of the (at the time) deadliest shooting in America," he said. "But the embrace of the LGBTQ community in the years that have ensued has lessened. Policies have been shopped by national and state leaders which tend to shun opportunities, not create them, for LGBTQ persons."
Transgender woman Andrea Montanez of Orlando says she hears the hurtful snickers and laughter when she goes to restaurants. She believes that her landlord discriminated against her by not renewing her lease last month.
After living in the same Orlando apartment for five years, she mailed her lease renewal paperwork along with a copy of her new identification card only to find that suddenly the apartment was no longer available.
"The owner said she was going to live there now, but I don’t believe it," Montanez said a day after moving into her new digs.
Originally from Colombia, Montanez has lived in Central Florida for 25 years.
"There's still a lot of discrimination around," she said. "I was so happy when I started transitioning but this hit me very hard. It’s like you don’t have dignity . We are just people. We are not going to damage you or hurt you."
Bill McKay, community director of Space Coast Pride, said people typically do not change their minds or opinions of the LGBTQ community until it affects them personally.
And that reminded me that only a few years ago my good friend, a pop singer from Sweden, was visiting. I helped him book a few singing gigs in town and was stunned when the owner of one Cocoa Beach venue cancelled because my friend performs wearing a dress. I wanted to argue with the owner, explain to him that my friend is straight, married and has four children and that the dress is just part of a stage persona.
But then, I thought, why should I? It was the venue's loss.
"We're still a fighting community and we're not going to stop fighting," McKay said. "This last year seemed a little more hateful and the rhetoric seemed more public. People used to keep their feelings to themselves."
Christine Leinonen's son Christopher — who, along with his boyfriend Juan Guerrero — was one of the 49 people killed at the Pulse Nightclub shooting five years ago. She hasn't been shy about voicing her opinions, echoed by others, that the LGBTQ community and the tragedy in particular have been politicized.
"The common sense LGBTQ see the way Orlando is handling the massacre as exploitative," she said. "So, any love and feel good examples or stories, which yes, are fewer, are seen as a tactic for Orlando to use gay death as a tourist attraction."
Leinonen has been critical of the City of Orlando and the Pulse nightclub owners for plans to build a museum that will end up just another tourist attracting in a city full of them. She said she doesn't like the idea of someone capitalizing on her son's murder. Leinonen said she would be in favor of a memorial.
Others, like McKay, said the LGBTQ community continues to be marginalized and continues being used for political gain. He pointed at the recent vetoes by DeSantis of $900,000 in funding for Central Florida programs serving the LGBTQ community including money earmarked for mental health services for family members of victims of the Pulse shooting as well as for those who survived that night.
Another program killed by DeSantis was for a proposed safe space for LGBTQ youth shunned by their families.
The vetoes were announced June 2, the second day of Pride Month and only one day after the governor banned transgender female athletes from participating on female high school and college sports teams with a new law.
Either DeSantis was oblivious to the date or he was making a political statement.
But when you consider the state currently boasts a multibillion-dollar surplus, it's difficult not to look at the vetoes as anything but a deliberate insult to gay voters and those who support the LGBTQ community.
"There are no coincidences," McKay said. "He's using his manipulative powers to garner (anti-LGBTQ) votes. This is what is going on nationwide."
And, Winik says, the rest of the country is watching.
"Florida isn’t alone in these endeavors, but as one of the largest states, what we do is watched by many," he said. "How we treat our neighbors affects our economy, our tourism, and our way of life. Being more inclusive instead of exclusive has its benefits that we may not be able to identify for decades to come."
It's easy to understand Leinonen's anger and mistrust after losing her son that night in a nightclub where disputes remain as to whether exit doors were operable and clearly marked. She is also critical of Orlando's police waiting three hours before breaching the club.
"When you put that (police) uniform on, you get a lot of perks but it also means that you have to put your life on the line," said Leinonen, a Florida attorney and former Michigan State Trooper. "One out of every six people were killed in that club and one out of every three was shot. That's not heroic police work. That's cowardice. But this was a (LGBTQ) community that couldn’t demand better."
The broader community was so shocked by what happened that they pulled together in the immediate aftermath, but Leinonen said she wonders where they have been since. Five years later, she doesn't hide her disappointment.
"I didn't think I would ever get over the pain," she continued. "I still have the pain but it has dulled significantly. I cry periodically when the memories pop up and memories pop up all the time. It’s just now it’s normal crying and not that painful wailing cry."
The memories will pop up until Leinonen and her son are reunited.
And then all that will be left is the legacy we leave behind as either a loving accepting society or one that is intolerable of how others live.