The massacre of 49 and injury of many more GLBTQIA people most of whom were Latino/ Latina in the early hours of Sunday June 12th at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida is a game-changer. In the aftermath, acute questions about public safety emerged and Democrats staged a sit-in in the House of Representatives to push for votes on gun control. GLBTQIA people spoke openly about constant harassment and persecution whilst holding media and other descriptions of the event to account for not identifying gay people as targets of the shooting. Larger than ever Gay Pride parades specifically honored Orlando: in NYC commemoration of the 49 dead was followed by a large contingent of a new group “Gays Against Guns.” Pope Francis said that Catholics should apologize to gay people for ways the church has harmed them, and many religious communities faced internal and external questions about how welcoming they really are to gay people.
Concerned responses to Orlando have been global and local: yesterday, the Human Rights Council of the UN voted to appoint an independent expert to monitor and report on violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Mexico, which led Latin American states that were the main sponsors of the text, said that thousands of people are exposed to violence and discrimination due to sexual orientation. “Remember Orlando,” the Mexican ambassador Jorge Lomonaco said. “Let us give hope and dignity to millions.” One major national response is the establishment of a new political action committee (PAC) called the PRIDE Fund to End Gun Violence, which seeks to focus efforts from the LGBT community to elect to representatives and senators who will support meaningful gun safety legislation and defeat those who won’t.
One of the lessons of the slaughter is that no one is safe and there’s no place left to hide. The PPRI Brookings Survey released on June 23rd reports that 51% of Americans feel “somewhat or very worried that they or a member of their family will become a victim of terrorism. Concerns have increased 18 percentage points since late 2014, when one-third (33%) of Americans said they were at least somewhat worried about being a victim of terrorism.” We’re not safe travelling on trains, buses or planes; we’re not safe in the office or on campus or in elementary schools. We’re not safe in shopping malls or driving our cars, and we’re certainly not safe praying in synagogues, mosques or in church. No skin color, class of people, or religion is exempt from threat by individuals or groups who as self-appointed arbiters with easily available weapons judge our existence to be morally or religiously unjustifiable and an offense to God.
If no one and no place is safe, are we now to live in abject fear, anxiously confined to certain places, inhibited from living a full and free life, resolved to build walls around our houses, communities, or across our borders both to keep others out and to keep us safe, and perhaps even buying guns? Surely not.
Whilst a majority of us now concede that our public spaces, our sacred spaces, and we ourselves are vulnerable, some of us have known it for much longer. Yes, gay bars have always been safe and sacred spaces. Jared Misner in Charlotte Magazine(June 2016) writes, “… A sanctuary is defined as a place of safety. Is this not what a gay bar is—a place of safety for those persecuted on the outside? It is a place of salvation, of safety, of refuge in a world that so often demonizes us in our bathrooms, in our families, in our schoolyards. Here is where we go to escape the sideways glances we get elsewhere. Here is where we go to shield ourselves from things like HB2, the controversial new North Carolina law that makes it legal to discriminate against people like us. Here is where we go instead of churches that don’t want us in their pews. Here is where we go to hold a boyfriend’s hand without worry, to dance, to kiss the person we love. The outside world becomes a faraway place, forgotten, even if just for a while.”
We can and must now take all sensible precautions to make sure that such places are safe. We can install security procedures including metal detectors. We must also look at security and evacuation plans. But we cannot stop there. In the political arena, we can make sure our legislators enact and enforce anti-discrimination bills at the local, state, and federal levels. Rep. Dan Frankel, D., Allegheny, one of the sponsors of anti-discrimination legislation in PA noted in the Philadelphia Inquirer of June 22nd, “When you relegate a category of people as second-class citizens, you make it more likely that violence will be perpetrated against them. They are viewed as less than you or I.” The 15 hour sit-in of Democrats in the House of Representatives was as much a request to claim the house as a place of justice for all whose lives are lost to gun violence and their families as it was an attempt to force a hearing for gun control legislation.
What Orlando affords all of us is an opportunity some have already embraced: to ask how our sacred texts and our religion have been and are still be used to marginalize and discriminate against gay people. People have reduced scripture to a few texts that preach exclusion, but such a reading exploits scripture marginalizing statements that prioritize loving God and our neighbors, and which speak of God’s love for the world. Indeed, gay public figures themselves in the aftermath of Orlando find new insights into sacred texts. When Pastor Joel Hunter invited Victoria Kirby York, of the National LGBTQ Task Force to an interfaith service at First Orlando Baptist because he said that he felt unfit to speak for a persecuted community, never having been part of one as a straight white male, Victoria Kirby York told the congregation that in the gay community, “far too many have never witnessed a sight like this. A church where they can come, be prayed over, and not be asked to change who they are.” In her talk she cited John 3:16: “That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” and then added her interpretation: “It didn’t say whosoever who’s black, or whosever that’s white, or whosever that’s Latino or Asian or indigenous. It didn’t say whoever that’s cisgender or transgender or lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer or questioning. It said whosoever, full stop.”
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer described her address to First Orlando Baptist church that night as an event that stood out in his week of horror. “I saw a lot of hearts change there,” he added.
Judaism and Christianity include those who exclude gay people and other minorities. Yet this is not the whole picture, for these same religions understand and proclaim vulnerability and fragility at the heart of their belief systems. Quinn G. Caldwell, Pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church, Syracuse, New York wrote on June 14th in an article “Sanctuary” for a UCC daily devotional,
“…Every sanctuary will be invaded, by madness or death or slow decay, sooner or later. Even the Temple in Jerusalem fell. Even the body of God was penetrated. But here’s what Christians believe: that body is still our refuge and our might. That the lord of the dance(hall) wouldn’t stay dead. That his pulse wouldn’t stop pulsing. That they couldn’t take our Sanctuary away.”
We know that we are not made for fear but that the power of God can transform fear and anxiety into courage and joy. We know that alongside and in response to shootings and attacks is a refusal of humans of all and no faiths to live in fear. We can make make determined and courageous attempts to take back places of death and injury and create them safe for all. Whilst many have already given their lives to do this, others make these efforts on a daily basis.
On 9/11/2001, passengers and crew on United Airlines Flight #93 bravely attempted to wrest back control of the hijacked airplane. There were pilots amongst the passengers who could have landed the plane safely. They almost succeeded. One of four planes hijacked that day, United Airlines Flight #93 was the only one that failed to reach its intended target, perhaps the Pentagon or the White House, crashing instead in a Pennsylvania field.
On June 17th 2015, nine members of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston SC including its pastor, The Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, were shot during a bible study and prayer session in the church. But the families of those who were shot responded to the tragedy with love and forgiveness not hate immediately after the event and in the days to come. Church doors stayed open throughout the following year and the church became a shrine and a destination. Then the church expanded their actions into the community to counteract hate by designating June 21st as Acts of Amazing Grace Day. Their Facebook page explains: “On this date, everyone is encouraged to perform their own personal Act of Amazing Grace. With thousands of acts of grace being performed around the world, we will surely make the world a better place. No act of kindness or grace, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”
Rep John Lewis, severely injured in the March to Selma with Dr MLK Jr., calls actions like the Freedom March “good trouble.” Of that March and the recent sit-in at the House of Representatives with other Democratic lawmakers attempting to force votes on gun-control legislation in the wake of the mass-shooting in Orlando, he said:
“Sometimes you have to do something out of the ordinary. Sometimes you have to make a way out of no way. We have been too quiet for too long. There comes a time when you have to say something, when you have to make a little noise, when you have to move your feet. This is the time. Now is the time to get in the way. The time to act is now. We will be silent no more. The time for silence is over.”
Fear, a natural reaction to danger, imprisons, inhibits, and paralyzes us, sometimes indefinitely. How can we resist feeling terrorized, anxious and fearful, “to make a way out of no way”? Because “No one can imprison you except yourself,” Shahbaz Taseer, captured by gunmen in Lahore, Pakistan in August 2011 months after his father Salman was killed for opposing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, wrote May 19th 2016 in the NY Times after four years in captivity. We cannot manage fear. But we can cultivate rejection of fears over which we seem to have little power. We can choose not to dwell on them and to embody instead life-giving spiritual practices. We can actualize older religious principles articulated for example in Jesus’ words, “perfect love casts out fear.”
Not from fear but from a perspective of love and in awe of God, we can then take positive steps to make our public spaces and places of worship truly welcoming to all people. To understand that our public spaces are not safe only means that we go to them with an awareness that, as Episcopal priest Elizabeth Edman says after Orlando, “there is something bigger than each of us that connects us to one another. Telling the truth about that connection, living into it together, is how we survive as a people — even though many of us will be injured or even killed by those who hate us for who we are.”
Deirdre Good is Theologian in Residence at Trinity Wall Street and Interim Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Drew Theological School. She dedicates this article to all who do not have safe space, and all who work for it.