On June 24, 1973, an arsonist set fire to the UpStairs Lounge, a third story bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans. It was there and then that an LGBT congregation of the Metropolitan Community Church had hosted a worship service on the second floor of that same building during Pride week. After the service, the church hosted a free beer and dinner event at the UpStairs Lounge. 125 people were at the event when the arsonist struck; thirty-two people died—including both pastors.
It was the deadliest malicious attack on a gathering of LGBT people in the history of the United States.
That horrible historical status is no longer true.
At 2:00 AM, on June 12, 2016, the UpStairs Lounge arson attack became the second worst attack on our community.
As we now all know too well, it was at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida that 50 of our LGBT brothers and sisters (and probably our allies too) were killed by a gunman, and more than 50 others wounded—resulting in causalities of more than 100 people.
Not only has this resulted in the most deadly coordinated attack against LGBT people in the United States, many in our government and media are saying that this marks the most deadly mass shooting in American history.
How does a person respond to such tragedy? How do we?
While any violent attack on anyone is an attack on all of us, this attack wasn’t just a terrorist attack in such general terms, even if all terrorism is itself heinous, painful, and evil.
For the sake of justice, and to truly name the layers of this pain, we need to be clear: this was an attack on our people. The days ahead will likely reveal exactly what kind of ideology was the trigger by which the gun was fired in our direction—specifically at LGBT people. As reports are even now coming out, it appears that the trigger was, in fact, religious ideology. If that turns out to be true, then this attack stands in an even larger history of religious violence against LGBT people.
In centuries past we were killed by the church for being sodomites. In more recent decades we have been beaten and killed in the name of Christian scriptures for being abominations. In places around the world, we have been thrown off buildings, stoned, and beheaded. In the name of God, we have been objects of inquisition, sodomy laws, and jihad.
How does a person respond to such a history of violence, especially so specifically targeted? How do we?
Do we, in our just anger, engage in wrathful rhetoric of broad condemnation? Do we take the specific religious identities of particular terrorists and criminals in order to cast blanket condemnations of anyone religious? Do we take to violence? Do we hide away?
As one of my heroines once said in a moment of vulnerability:
“I don’t understand. I don’t know how to live in this world, if these are the choices. If everything gets stripped away. I don’t see the point.”
But the point, I think, is to see beyond what can sometimes appear to be the only choices of vengeance, blanket condemnation, or hiding away.
We can, and, we must do better.
There are, in fact, other options.
First, I think that to stand with and for those killed and wounded in Orlando (LGBT and ally), we must continue to do what queer folk have always done: we gather. Even under pressure of persecution and condemnation, we have created sacred spaces to gather: bars, salons, churches, homes, Boystowns and Castros, urban warehouses, ocean-side docks, and parks known only by reputation. We have gathered to be with one another, and we have gathered to be one with others—even when such gatherings came with the threat of punishment, violence, and yes, even death.
So we must gather again. Even when our sacred spaces have come under attack, we must return to reclaim our space.
Second, I believe we must stand for justice, with pride—our deeper love.
Our justice work must not only confront LGBT injustice; but we must now, more than ever, understand that violence and injustice is multilayered:
We must look at gun violence as a real LGBT issue, and as an LGBT issue, a human issue.
We must look at anti-LGBT public and political rhetoric not just as zingers in political races and retorts among the crass and loud, but as the soil in which the seeds of injustice and violence grow.
We must look at terrorism now, not only on the international stage, not only as a domestic issue threatening all American citizens—and persons of every creed—but now even more specifically: terrorism has become an LGBT issue here, as it has been for our brothers and sisters in other lands.
And as we stand for justice, with pride, I believe we should choose the path of restorative justice. As Ghandi said so well, to simply pay people back “eye for eye makes the whole world blind.” Restorative justice is grounded in a deeper love—a love that promotes the kind of justice that, yes, holds people accountable, but which ultimately seeks to make a better world, not just to pay back for the wrongs we’ve suffered.
That’s how we change the world.
And so, if we cannot change that we suffer this loss, this deadliest mass shooting in American history, and upon the LGBT community, then let us allow our deeper love to transform wild rage into righteous anger with a restorative purpose. Let it also transform the wrathful specter of violence into the dove of peace.
Today, we have the opportunity to show our fellow American citizens, if not the world, that when attacked, we do not run headlong into more conflict with bloodlust; but that we are a people who can mourn together; who can put our minds together, who can leverage our democracy together, and who can move the flag of pride and equality forward for the sake of a better world.
May it be so.
+Reflection by the Reverend Dr. Richard W. McCarty
+ Image by Jessica Cole Robinson (C) 2016