As I type, federal and state authorities are working around the clock to determine the motives and granular details of Sunday’s brutal massacre. By now we all know the worst details. The gunman, motivated by hatred of LGBT people and with quick and easy access to a mass killing machine was ruthlessly efficient. But LGBT people have already learned important lessons about the cold-blooded murders on Sunday. There is no question that this was a hate crime as the gunman’s father has confirmed: “Mir Seddique told NBC News that the sight of two men kissing angered his son.”
Hate crimes are depressingly familiar to LGBT people, but nearly every American is familiar with our absurd gun violence routine. First, there is a mass shooting. Tweets, condolences, and prayers immediately follow from elected officials. Then there is a halfhearted call for legislation. Next opponents mobilize and claim the government is trying to take their guns, debate stalls, and nothing gets done. Elected officials pat themselves on the back for trying, and we start over again. What is unique about this tragedy, however, is the underlying contempt, and in some cases, hate toward the LGBT community from some elected leaders wrapped up in a larger national crisis of gun violence.
Inexcusably, some of our elected officials chose to use the occasion to fan the flames of hate. Texas lieutenant governor and professional homophobe Dan Patrick was forced to delete a tweet sent mere hours after the tragedy that read: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” Aside from the jaw-dropping hatred, Patrick also seemed to excuse the violence while simultaneously implying that the victims deserved their fate because they were LGBT. Let that sink in: The lieutenant governor of Texas, a statewide elected official whose power arguably exceeds that of Texas’s governor, wasted no time after the tragedy to blame the victims and remind them that divine justice led to their fate.
Patrick has said the tweet was unintended and swears it was a miscommunication, but this is the same state leader who has told Texas judges they can ignore the U.S. Supreme Court and refuse to marry same-sex couples, applauded the repeal of Houston’s antidiscrimination ordinance because it offended “common decency,” and has promised to openly defy the Obama administration’s direction to schools on transgender rights.
Patrick’s disgusting rhetoric notwithstanding, it should remind us that that anti-LGBT hatred is still a reality and that inexcusably, much of it comes from elected officials. For too many of our LGBT brothers and sisters, living openly, freely, and with the same rights and freedoms as everyone else is still an unrealized dream dashed in state legislatures, at the ballot box, and in public forums.
After Orlando, you may be asking yourself why the Dan Patricks of the world matter at all. However, they are arguably the most important factor because they set the tone for acceptable political discourse and the framework for public policy, which is the only solution to our gun- and hate-crime crisis. Need proof? Donald Trump continues to scramble the limits of acceptable political discourse as he travels the country on a platform of Islamophobia, magical thinking, misogyny, fearmongering, and outright racism. Unsurprisingly, protest, rage, escalating fear and violence are now features, not isolated incidents, of the Trump show. While there are elected demagogues all over the country setting the stage for hate, violence, and fear, they simply aren’t as good at it and can’t command as large a stage.
But arguably, these smaller stages, in state legislatures and city councils, are much more important. Since the landmark Supreme Court decisions over the last several years, many LGBT Americans have come to believe that our long struggle for equality is over. They reason that with the protections afforded by legal decree, we are now equal in the eyes of our countrymen and can thus luxuriate in complacency. Make no mistake, this struggle is nowhere close to over, and our work cannot and must not be limited to the courts while bigoted elected officials in states legislate our rights away, ignore federal law, demagogue about protecting the sanctity of bathrooms, or single out LGBT people for hate and violence.
This week we’re reliving our surreal national gun violence routine. Americans are horrified, and politicians have responded with the usual platitudes of thoughts and prayers. But wonder and platitudes won’t solve 20 dead children at Sandy Hook or 32 dead kids at Virginia Tech or 50 dead clubgoers in Orlando or nine dead churchgoers in South Carolina or the countless, appalling horror-show episodes of murdered Americans who paid for the absurdity of our gun “laws” with their lives.
Let’s mourn this loss, but I want to dissuade our community in particular from wishful thinking. Don’t waste time wondering when our elected officials will stand up. Instead, get to work replacing them with leaders who will. Our community, especially, needs fearless leaders in state legislatures fighting our fights, protecting our rights, and consolidating the precious, hard-won gains that many in previous generations have died to achieve.
I am often asked why I think LGBT leaders make good public officials. That’s easy: because they’re forged in fire. Our lives, economic livelihoods, rights, families, and freedoms have been on the ballot and up for debate more times than can be counted. No victory, no gain, no inch of progress, however small, has ever come without a price. Some of us, especially some of our trans brothers and sisters, have had to fight every day to be who we are. To exist. We know how to fight because we’ve been doing it our entire lives.
Lest there be any confusion about what I’m getting at: I’m talking about you, dear reader. This movement needs and is built by you. Run for public office. Your vote is precious, use it. Remember Orlando when you’re standing in the voting booth. You may be making a life-or-death decision. Get to work changing the laws that made the tragedies in Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown, Aurora, Charleston, and Orlando possible. Support candidates who aren’t afraid of the gun lobby or the haters in state legislatures. Demand that your leaders fight for reproductive freedom, economic empowerment, and for the rights and freedom of all Americans to live openly, freely, and safely. Florida LGBT leaders like Carlos Guillermo-Smith, David Richardson, Beth Tuura, and Ken Keechl, all running for state legislature, exemplify a better way forward.
So as we celebrate Pride this month as a community, hug your loved ones, remember the victims, and hold your heads high. Go to your Pride parade, celebrate each other, and remind yourselves and each other how hard we’ve worked to get here. Our community has fought and earned our right to this celebration of Pride with our work, our tears, and in some tragic cases, our lives. But more than celebrating, I want you to develop a long memory.
Never forget Orlando. Never forget that opponents of equality used tragedy to propagate bigotry and negate the humanity of the Orlando LGBT victims. Remember this. Never forget the timidity in Washington and your state capital masquerading as concern. Don’t let your elected leaders hide behind empty tweets offering “thoughts and prayers” for the victims while they accept massive campaign contributions from the gun lobby. Hold them accountable. Run for office yourselves or support your elected LGBT leaders and candidates. Remember this day, always. But most of all, never forget that you don’t have, and have never had, the luxury of complacency.
AISHA MOODIE-MILLS is the president and CEO of the Victory Fund, which helps thousands of openly LGBT candidates win election to local, state, and federal offices. Follow her on Twitter @AishaMoodMills.