ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDEST

My phone began to ring at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday. Calls were from friends in Jacksonville, Orlando, and points beyond. They were sure I would have insight or knowledge about the shooting at Pulse Orlando. I had no answers for anyone. As the hours wore on, I spoke to friends, activists, and colleagues throughout Florida to find out more about what we would come to learn was the most devastating mass shooting in our country’s history ‑ so far.

I felt completely helpless, 140 miles from the scene. However, the calls, texts, and messages told me that action was necessary. As a native of Jacksonville, I’ve been at the forefront of the LGBT rights movement here for two decades. I’m connected to activists in Orlando, Tampa, Miami, and all across the nation. All of which amounted to nothing at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday as the death count was revised up from 20 to 50.

So I began to make my own calls. Fellow members of the Jacksonville Coalition for Equality (JCE) were getting, and making, similar calls. I quickly grew weary of the tweeted admonitions to #PrayForOrlando. JCE members were ready to #ActForOrlando. We put together a vigil in Memorial Park as quickly as possible.

Twelve hours after learning of the tragedy, Jacksonville came together to assemble a program that reflected the diversity of our city. We heard from clergy of varying denominations, members of the community, and civic leaders including elected officials like city councilmembers Joyce Morgan and Tommy Hazouri. Over 500 people gathered together in Memorial Park Sunday night to honor our LGBT family in Orlando, and to affirm our own pride and sense of community. We held hands; we held each other. We cried, we stiffened our resolve; we sang “We Shall Overcome.”

It may be odd to imagine, but bars and clubs are sacred space for the gay and transgender community. As such, it’s not unusual to see oppression and violence directed against the LGBT community in these sacred spaces. In 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, it was New York City police who oppressed our people with violence. When we fought back, finally, at Stonewall, the modern LGBT movement for equality truly began. By 2016, it was police and other first responders helping the victims at Pulse Orlando, not oppressing. Progress, I’d say.

In 1973, 32 were burned in an arson attack at the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans. In 1997, a domestic terrorist who had already bombed the 1996 Olympic games bombed the Otherside Lounge in Atlanta. Attacks on gay bars, and on LGBT people, have been in the headlines for decades.

Years before his passing, my relative Monroe Midyette was a pioneer in the Jacksonville gay bar scene. He owned the most popular clubs and bars in Jacksonville. Older readers will remember College Station, Club M, and Rumours. Monroe, Roverta “Bo” Bowen, along with their employees and patrons, built the LGBT community in Jacksonville in their bars. Don Strickland, Michael Burton may he rest in peace, Jerry Rosenberg, Staci Ybarra, and so many others have carried on that legacy and created a real community for us in Jacksonville. We owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.

We have continued to build community in this city. We have churches, JASMYN, PFLAG, choruses, and a wonderful annual LGBT Pride celebration. It’s because of the community we’ve built together that we were able to come together so quickly to mourn the Orlando massacre.

At the vigil Sunday night, there was a political undercurrent moving among the sadness and loss. There was a real resistance to blaming other minority groups; we intentionally heard from a Muslim leader at the vigil. There was the bitter memory of our as-yet-unsuccessful work achieving a fully inclusive human rights ordinance for our Jacksonville LGBT community. And there was resolve. The work that began at Stonewall is unfinished here. We will bring this emotion, and energy, and urgency to our work and we will pass the HRO this year.

Ultimately, the tragedy of Orlando will pass from the headlines. It will turn into an annual remembrance, much like we now mark each September 11. But I have to hope that the actions in June 2016 will be as consequential to the LGBT rights movement as were the actions in June 1969. To accomplish our goals, we need a revival of the activist spirit ignited by Stonewall. Pulse Orlando should be our generation’s Stonewall. That is how we should #ActForOrlando.

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