After Deaths in Orlando, GOP Leaders' Silence on Homophobia at Root of Attack Only Deepens Wounds

This is the second installment of a two-part reflection on the Orlando murders at the gay nightclub Pulse. The first segment is available here. Both were published June 15, 2016.There is nothing special about the burden gays and lesbians carry in this world. A white man, with a good job, a couple of degrees, strong family ties and many friends? I've hit the lottery in terms of built-in, and mostly unearned, advantages in navigating the world as we know it.And yet Sunday's slaughter in Orlando has shaken me profoundly. It's not just because of the obvious sense of vulnerability that an attack so specifically aimed at people like oneself is bound to trigger. What's been unsettling has been the silence of so many of our leaders on the homophobia that helped make that attack what it was.The gay aspect of the tragedy is hardly the only one worth mentioning. Many of those slain and injured were Latinos, a fact that has no doubt driven a knife into the heart of Latinos across the country. Muslims in America now find themselves under more scrutiny and increasing suspicion. And for all of us, the connection between the shooter and terrorism waged in the name of Islam, however tenuous it may turn out to be, makes us feel less safe.But gays like me experience the effort to write over that gay aspect of the story like violence. It feels like an attempt to erase people like me. I don't expect people who aren't gay to understand that, though I have a feeling members of other often-targeted groups have a sounder grasp on it.So I offer this concluding segment of this two-part reflection. It's personal, and yet I should add that I am not writing this to share myself with you. We're not friends, we're neighbors. But it's my hope that by understanding a bit about my journey, about things I've seen, you'll have a better sense of why these past few days have been so fraught for people like me.I was born in a time and in a place in which homosexuality was rarely discussed. Two years before I was born, the modern gay rights movement got its start in the summer of 1969 in a low-rent gay bar in New York's Greenwich Village named the Stonewall Inn. Drag queens, hustlers and other hangers-on were in the bar when city police raided, armed with a statute that made it illegal in New York City for gay people to drink in public. The police were over-zealous in their enforcement, and their treatment of some of the people they were tossing in the paddy wagons caused outrage among onlookers. Rocks were thrown, police got tough, and the crowd rioted.America's first gay rights movement was launched. And activists popped up in cities across the nation. Around that time, activists in Texas sued Texas Tech to start their own gay student group. A former priest disrupted the Methodist church's annual meeting in San Antonio.The year before I was born in Louisville, Ky., two lesbians, at least one of them a prostitute, tried to get a marriage license at the courthouse. Almost everyone in the room, including the clerks, started to laugh. They sued, and lost, but it was the nation's second gay marriage case â€" 45 years ahead of its time.But by the time I could walk, all that excitement had peaked in Louisville, and gay people there and in most cities went back into the shadows. In 1973, an arsonist burned a gay club in New Orleans, killing 32. Anti-gay feeling was so pronounced and so ingrained that churches there refused to bury the victims.In Louisville, gay rights activism didn't start again until I was in high school â€" and it started entirely without my knowing it. At my Catholic boys' school, the only talk of homosexuality was done in whispers or slurs. I kept my head down. That passivity shames me now.Our senior year, a graduate came back to tell us about work he was doing in San Francisco with AIDS patients. We saw him as a missionary and something like a saint. No one, of course, thought to tell us he was gay. At that time, and for many years afterward, I had never met anyone who was openly gay. We didn't even know Walt Whitman had been gay. But as for Dr. Mark Lambertus? He was dead of AIDS himself before any of us high school seniors had finished college.No one had to tell me explicitly that if these homosexual impulses I was experiencing didn't go away, I was probably going to lose my family, my friends, my faith, and any chance at a normal life. It was a kind of knowledge that floated in the air we breathed, and came across in a hundred little stories, taunts, headlines, Sunday sermons, friends' facial expressions and more. Under that kind of pressure, I am not surprised I told myself the impulses were temporary and easily addressed by force of will.I point this out just to give you an idea of the table stakes many gay people coming of age 20 or 30 years ago carried into their adulthood. When, a few years ago, older gay people began making YouTube videos to tell suicidal middle school kids that it gets better, they knew what they were talking about.I had long since come out to friends and family by my late 20s when I quit as managing editor of one newspaper to return to writing. I landed in Owensboro, Ky., as the daily paper's first-ever, full-time investigative reporter. One day, with the newsroom short-staffed, I was pressed into service for a small daily story. I went to write a feature about World AIDS Day and the traveling AIDS quilt.The next day, one of the old-timers stopped me in the hall. "Thank you," she told me, "for your story yesterday. It took courage."I asked her what she was talking about and she told me no one had ever had the guts to put the name of, much less quotes from, an AIDS patient in the morning newspaper. I told her I hadn't been courageous, just ignorant. How in the world could you write about World AIDS Day without talking to people with the disease?The next year I was recruited to Dallas, where I was astonished to find a large gay neighborhood in Oak Lawn. One of the older men I met there who became my friend told me that 20 years before, he had been part of a gay men's weekly dinner club. There had been about a score of them. By the time the AIDS crisis had peaked, he told me, he was the only person still living in that group.I know now a little bit about the experience that gay people had in the 1980s when AIDS was first coming along. Terror and hate were everywhere. Many gay people were terrified of getting it, and terrified eventually even of each other. The rest of the world seemed to loathe them. Three times in the early 1980s, reporters asked President Reagan's press secretary if his boss was ever going to fund research for AIDS. Three times, spokesman Larry Speakes and the press corps guffawed.By the time I arrived in Dallas, AIDS was no longer routinely fatal. But it was still scary, and a page one Dallas Morning News story asserting that about a third of all people my age at the time were HIV-positive scared the fun right out of my social life for longer than I'd like to remember.Still, I was 29 when I arrived and Oak Lawn was the first place I ever lived where gay people could be themselves, whether sitting with a coffee in Crossroads bookstore or dancing like a cowboy next door. But even then, fear of violence was talked about frequently, as it is today.A few years later, about the time it stopped being illegal to be gay in Texas and many other states, I took a job back in Kentucky, which required me to live about 30 miles from the city and travel extensively throughout the state. I knew instinctively that I wasn't in Oak Lawn anymore, but by then I was in my early 30s and was long since past feeling any kind of fear or discomfort about who I was. Still, the message that gay people were worth less than others was consistently broadcast in ways big and small. It was impossible to miss.Driving around listening to rural radio was a nonstop sermon on the evils of homosexuality. In Louisville, where gay rights ordinances had finally and fitfully passed, it would be years more before intensely anti-gay rhetoric would cease playing a big role in local politics. On the state level, that day hasn't yet come.I covered the U.S. senate race in 2004, when Mitch McConnell joined his "best friend in the Senate" Jim Bunning to try to salvage Bunning's sinking campaign for re-election. Standing at his side, McConnell said nothing, and later defended, the rally the state Senate president poured on for Bunning. Vote for the former MLB pitcher, he said, because he's no "limp wrist" or "switch hitter" like his surging opponent, a single, handsome, young â€" and thoroughly straight â€" physician. (It did the trick, and Bunning narrowly kept his seat.)But the messages got personal in 2005, when I went to town of about 30,000 to cover a capital murder trial less than an hour south of Louisville. A young man named Joshua Cottrell, 21, had been a bit of a drifter, with previous criminal charges, when he met an openly gay man named Richie Phillips.Phillips, a petite man in his mid-30s, had been driving Cottrell around to put job applications in around town. Afterward, back at Cottrell's motel, he went into his room with him. Cottrell would later tell police that Phillips had attempted to kiss him and had pushed the younger man's head down toward his lap.Cottrell reacted by jumping up and putting Phillips into a headlock and choking him until the older man slumped onto the floor. Then he testified that he beat him again and again and again until he stopped moving. He stood up and realized the man was dead.He opened a large suitcase he had bought a few days before and stuffed the body inside. He placed it in the back of the dead man's truck and drove to a nearby lake, where slack-jawed fishermen would find the body a week later.On the stand, his attorney asked him why he had killed Phillips. "Ma'am," he replied, "he put his hands were a man's hands should never go."The so-called gay-panic defense worked like a charm. The jury refused to convict on murder charges and instead found him guilty of manslaughter. He was eligible for parole in two-and-a-half years.Afterward, I asked the commonwealth's attorney what he thought of the verdict. He looked at me and said it was the last time he'd bring murder charges against someone who kills a homosexual for making a pass. Too hard to convict, he said. Too many other crimes to prosecute.These stories and many others came back to me this week as I considered the silence of so many politicians in the wake of Sunday's attacks. Some were silent, others weirdly clueless. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, told a reporter in Washington this week that the club wasn't really a gay club. "It was a young person's club" that just happened to have some gay people in it.His staff later walked that statement back, explaining he had been misinformed. But really?How hard is it for these guys to just say, "Hey, you know what, I bet it's really hard to be gay this week and you're probably feeling extra blue about the terrible tragedy in Orlando. We don't always agree, but we got your back this week."What they don't understand is that clubs like Pulse were and sometimes still are the only places in the world where gay people could let their guard down. One person I interviewed about his early coming-out years, in the 1970s, told me his first trip to a gay bar was after seeing the original Godfather with some friends. When he walked out of the club hours later, he compared it to walking out of a movie theater, and back into the real world where being gay was dangerous.Lots has changed since then, of course. Most gay people are themselves all day long. But those clubs still serve a role as a safe space and a source of community. That's apparent to anyone who has walked into one of the Oak Lawn clubs.If you still don't understand, think of them how you might think of the role black churches have played for African-Americans â€" as places of worship, yes, but also as community gathering places and safe houses, too.When Dylann Roof walked into a historic black church in Charleston and began shooting, he became more than just another terrorist working his evil will on America. More than a footnote in the gun control debate. He violated a hard-earned sense of security and he quickly embodied the worst form of racism.Can you imagine how weak it would have been for the politicians and pastors who condemned the murders to have said nothing about racism? To have sent prayers to the city, but not to black people too? To simply not acknowledge that extra pain and fear that many blacks were feeling?That leaders like Sessions or Cornyn and others can't understand that is a kind of double-violence. How twisted it is that they can't go where their heart surely would lead them if only they listened to it.  Continue reading...

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