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The Paradox of Orlando: LGBT Americans Have Never Had More and Never Had More to Lose

There is a price to pay for progress: ‘Sometimes it’s a fatal price.’


John Gaul came to San Francisco in the late 1940s for the same reason so many people continue to come here to this day: To be who he is. Gaul, now 90, was a gay man fresh off a stint in the U.S. Army occupying postwar Japan. Decades before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, nobody needed to ask Gaul not to tell. In San Francisco, though, it was different. The city, Gaul says, “was a Mecca for being gay and not being trashed or spoken disrespectfully toward. There was a fair amount of freedom.”

But only a fair amount. You could still be beaten up—and, even 30 years after Gaul arrived here, gay men who were brutalized often found themselves arrested when the cops arrived. You could be denied service. You could be denied employment. You could be rounded up. You could be incarcerated. “Oh, you could be put in jail,” recalls Gaul. “that was very common. You were ‘one of them.’” 

The litany of social and legislative achievements LGBT people have fought for and won in the ensuing six decades were not conceivable to Gaul and his contemporaries. They had a circumscribed worldview; the things taken for granted in the present were not even a remote dream. “I never thought there’d be the freedom to speak up and be accepted,” Gaul says. “I never thought I’d see it. But I do see it now.”

Until 44 years ago, LGBT people were, according to the American Psychiatric Association, mentally ill. Until 40 years ago they were, according to the State of California, felons. Until 17 years ago they could be legally denied jobs and until 13 years ago, they could be legally denied housing. Same-sex marriage is now federally approved in all 50 states; same-sex couples can now be wed by LGBT elected officials or ministers. And yet, it’s in this America—not the socially mandated peripheral existence of Gaul’s youth or the McCarthy era or the Wild West—that the most lethal massacre of LGBT men and women has just taken place.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, a self-proclaimed ISIS devotee (and, it overwhelmingly seems, closeted homosexual) named Omar Mateen gunned down at least 49 men and women on Latin night at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. On Sunday night, thousands of people gathered in the Castro and in the Castros of cities across the world to grapple with this sudden, terrifying reversal of progress. They sang and cried and laughed and felt whatever feelings one feels when one is reminded that equality is a race without a finish line.

“In your heart, you want this resolved tomorrow. But history is not linear,” says former supervisor and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano. “Civil rights is not linear. It doesn’t go from A to B. We go backwards. We have tragedies.” Progress, and the individual and collective strength necessary to enact it, does not come free. San Franciscans know this. “One of the things about Harvey Milk and some of the early people is how much courage they really did have,” Ammiano says. “There is a price to pay. Sometimes, it’s a fatal price.”

Like most self-styled jihadis,
Mateen was a loser, an unstable person, and a man who apparently didn’t devote his life to the five pillars of Islam (Mateen’s ex-wife describes him as abusive and erratic—harking to the former wife of one of the Paris attackers, who described her jihadi ex as an unemployed pothead). Despite boasts of terror affiliations that twice caught the attention of the FBI, Mateen had a clean criminal record when he legally bought an AR-15 assault rifle. Once armed, he was free to slaughter the attendees of a gay dance club’s Latin night for whatever ideological reason he saw fit.

Or maybe it wasn’t just ideology. Mateen, it turns out, was a frequent attendee of the club he would later terrorize; he was registered on same-sex dating apps and, according to a former police academy classmate, was a closeted gay man who asked him out on a date.

So, while the specter of a “lone wolf” domestic jihadi slaughtering LGBT people is new, the specter of a gay-basher misdirecting his internal self-hatred towards those whom he secretly and shamefully desires is anything but—this likely first happened in a cave somewhere. The targeting of LGBT people in nightclubs is not new, either. In 1973, 32 people died in the arson burning of a New Orleans gay bar. In 2014, a man named Musab Masmari was sentenced to 10 years for attempting to burn a packed Seattle gay nightclub. LGBT people are harassed every day; legislating away their rights has become a populist wedge issue.

Overt public violence, however, is something even middle-aged LGBT people in this country have largely been able to avoid. “When I tell people about walking down the street with my partner—in San Francisco!—and having someone come up and snarl at us ‘I wish Dan White was here right now,’ they are just shocked,” says Gwenn Craig, a longtime LGBT activist and Harvey Milk lieutenant. “If you carry that threat to its natural extension, they’re saying, ‘I wish someone would kill you.’” 

For those old enough to remember Milk as a person and a murder victim instead of an ideal or a smiling face on a stamp, the reaction to Sunday’s massacre is that of shock—but not surprise. “It really brings home the generational divide,” Craig says. In short, LGBT people have never had more in this country—more equality, more exposure, more opportunity. And the more you have, the more you have to lose. On the day after the shooting, Ammiano asked his 16-year-old niece, who had recently come out, what she thought. “And, of course, she thought it was terrible. But she didn’t say she wanted to go back in the closet. I admire that.”

Those days are done. “There’s freedom of all sorts of things that I didn’t see before,” says Gaul. “You can be gay or straight. You can get something done and have a good life. You can make a difference in the world. Get to work at it.”


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