BY AJ TRAGER
FERNDALE – On June 12 the LGBT community experienced what President Obama has called an “act of hate” and what many are calling a direct attack on the LGBT community. The massacre that took place at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida resulted in the murder of 49 people and the injury of 53 others. It has impacted hundreds of thousands of LGBT lives across the country. On June 14 over 700 people gathered at Affirmations to honor the LGBT men and women who were murdered and injured. It was one of many vigils across the state this week, along with hundreds more across the country.
Michigan’s largest LGBT community center, Affirmations, was filled to capacity inside, with hundreds more people gathered outside. Law enforcement officers were stationed at both entrances to the center – as well as on the roof – to ensure safety. The room was silent, save the sounds of tears and sniffling, as faith, community and political leaders spoke at the vigil honoring the victims.
Affirmations Executive Director, Susan Erspamer and Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow, senior pastor at the Metropolitan Community Church of Detroit, opened up the vigil.
“It’s overwhelming seeing everyone here and I know not everybody could get in. It really warms my heart that there are so many people here today,” Erspamer said. “Thank you for being here as we mourn the lives lost and those that have been injured during Latin night at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Our hearts go out to all the friends and family touched by this horrific act. We know their lives and our lives will never be the same again.”
Erspamer was followed by a welcome from Stringfellow and Deacon Angela Marie Lippard from Christ The Good Shepherd church.
In an impassioned speech, Rabbi Jeffrey Falick of Congregation for Humanistic Judaism and president of the American Humanist Association of Southeast Michigan, called out national and local political leaders who, since the shooting at Pulse, have come forward to show their solidarity for the LGBT community.
He added, “When narrow-minded and bigoted religious leaders and politicians, who for years have demonized and dehumanized our community for the way we love and the way we live, now take their victory laps on the bodies of our dead while they demonize and stigmatize another group of people, they despise all in the cynical pursuit of power. Power which they will then exploit,” Falick said.
Since last Sunday, conversations and news reporting surrounding the event have shifted from grief and heartbreak to Islamophobia and tightening gun control laws.
As the investigation probes into the shooter’s history and the facts surrounding the night of the massacre continue to be uncovered, investigators are discovering that despite having called 911 during the attack to pledge his allegiance to ISIS, Omar Mateen appears to be a “typical mass shooter,” rather than an individual radicalized by ISIS. Early reports painted Mateen as a practicing Muslim man of Arabic heritage who had been radicalized by ISIS. However, Mateen had a history of violent behavior and was not described as particularly religious by his family and ex-wife.
Nour Sulaiman, representative from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee of Michigan, expressed solidarity with the LGBT community and criticized some of the national dialogue.
“Islamophobia, xenophobia and homophobia come from the same place of hatred and exclusion. Our communities are often not separate ones but convergent ones. LGBT Arab-Americans have been marginalized on multiple levels as they are doubly vulnerable because they are both Arab and LGBT. In these trying times we cannot afford to be divided,” Sulaiman said. “These deplorable actions do not represent Islam or the views of the Muslim community at large. We strongly repudiate any person or group that uses any ideology to defend their violent actions. The shooter alone is responsible for this deplorable hate crime,” she continued.
“Our movement started as a peaceful response to violence against us. And almost 50 years later, here we still are being peaceful in the face of violence against us,” Stephanie White, executive director of Equality Michigan said.
Despite years of lobbying, the Michigan legislature has yet to amend the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA), and add sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to a list of protected classes that would extend protections in state housing, employment and accommodation.
“Lawmakers in Lansing and around the country use words against us,” White continued. “I’m frustrated when lawmakers paint us as a threat to public safety and when lawmakers in Michigan fail to pass laws in our state that send a clear signal that we are full and equal participants of this state.”
There is a vocal group of Michigan lawmakers actively engaged in trying to extend state protections for LGBT Michiganders. A few of those lawmakers and political leaders came out to show their solidarity with the LGBT community including State Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Macomb County; Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown and State Rep. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield.
Moss is one of two openly gay members of the Michigan House of Representatives. His tweet following the news of Orlando went viral and was retweeted over 79,000 times. Moss wrote, “I literally never want to hear again that LGBT people in the bathroom are a threat to public safety.”
White encouraged members of the audience to stand up and join an LGBT organization, including Equality Michigan, in fighting back against bigotry and hatred by educating the public and finally amending ELCRA.
Lilianna Angel Reyes, youth program manager at Affirmations, shared her initial reaction to the horror, telling those gathered,”When I first heard the news, I didn’t truly process it. I felt like I couldn’t in that moment. For me it was because I constantly, as a Latina trans woman, live in fear. The act of violence wasn’t surprising to me. But it was still heartbreaking.”
Clubs have been considered essentially safe spaces for LGBT individuals for years, although they have historically seen their share of violence. In the week since the Pulse attack, some news sources recalled the 1973 arson attack on a New Orleans gay bar that left 32 patrons dead – an event that went largely unreported at the time and a crime that has never been solved.
Reflecting on the shooting at Pulse, Reyes reminded people of the importance of safe spaces and said Affirmations will serve as a safe space for all those who need it.
“In a space where we were to be safe. In a month that we are supposed to be proud. We are taken out. I say we because ‘We are Orlando.’ It could’ve been any one of us,” she reflected. “It could’ve been Gigis, Pronto, The Woodward, Menjos, our families could be the ones mourning right now. I think it’s so important now that we practice self-care.”
Others in attendance included the plaintiff couple from Michigan’s legal case that fought against the state’s same-sex marriage ban, Jayne and April DeBoer-Rowse and their five children, as well as Dave Coulter, mayor of Ferndale; a representative from Oakland County Prosecutor; a representative from the Oakland County Treasurer’s office; the Michigan Muslim Council and Barbara McQuade, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. In addition to Affirmations, community partners included ACLU of Michigan, BTL, Black and White Men Together, EQMI, Ferndale Pride, Gender Identity Network Alliance, PFLAG Detroit, Ruth Ellis Center, Stand With Trans and Trans Sistas of Color.