Three years after the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting, I still live in fear
For LGBT+ people like me, the biggest peacetime shooting in US history was both sign of the times and a frightening warning of what was still to come
I’ll never forget waking up three years ago. It was a Sunday morning and, in London anyway, it was sunny. Any hopes of a relaxing, lazy day were dashed, however, when I reached for my phone. A barrage of news notifications informed me that a gunman had opened fire at Pulse Nightclub in Florida, killing dozens of people.
More details soon began to emerge: Pulse was an LGBT+ nightclub and the vast majority of victims were LGBT+ people of colour. I had only recently moved to London and, just a few hours previously, I had spent my Saturday night dancing at a gay club in Hackney. As the death toll quickly rose to 49, the deadliest mass shooting in US history at the time, I clutched my boyfriend’s hand and texted my parents to say I loved them.
Perhaps selfishly, I found myself thinking: “This could have been me”. But it wasn’t me. Thanks to the privilege of living in a country with sensible gun laws, I was still alive. Meanwhile, 49 LGBT+ people lay in a Florida morgue.
It's too easy to paint what happened in Orlando as a freak act of barbaric terrorism, which could never happen anywhere else. Pulse wasn't an isolated incident: it was both sign of the times and a warning of things to come.
Just a few weeks later, the UK voted to leave the European Union, causing a wave of hate crime to spread. According to Stonewall, one in five LGBT+ people has experienced a hate crime in the UK in the last 12 months. This number has risen further since the Brexit vote.
In America, Trump was elected just three months after the Pulse shooting, even winning the support of the majority of Florida’s voters. Towns that held a Trump rally saw a 226 per cent rise in hate crime. Nationwide hate crime rose 17 per cent during his first year in office, and a fifth of these incidents directly referenced the president by name. In 2019, the average life expectancy of America’s black trans women is just 35.
Of course it's far too simplistic to blame anti-LGBT+ hostility on Trump alone. He might be a symbol of anti-LGBT+, as he unpicks Obama-era trans protections and introduces the trans military ban, but an assault on LGBT+ rights was well underway before he took office. In the six months preceding the Orlando shooting, Republican lawmakers had introduced more than 200 anti-gay state-level bills. In Orlando, a survivor of the Pulse attack could have walked into work the following day and been lawfully fired just for being gay. Trump has vowed to sign further “religious freedom” bills, which would enable anti-LGBT+ discrimination in more areas, from housing to healthcare.
The Orlando shooter was, as far as we can tell, neither a Trump nor a Republican. We may never know whether Omar Mateen’s actions were motivated by Islamist extremism or self-loathing, as there were reports that he was “a regular” at Pulse before the shooting. The thing we do know is that this attack was motivated by a hatred of LGBT+ people. A hatred that, as I write this three years on, has continued to rise on both sides of the Atlantic.
It’s the same hatred that saw two queer women beaten up by a group of men on a London bus last week. It’s the same hatred that makes people view our blood as unworthy for donation, or which that causes services and medication that stops the spread of HIV to be withheld from us.
It’s the same hatred that motivates people, both Muslim protestors in Birmingham and elected officials, to support erasing LGBT+ existence from the school curriculum. As the “debate” into LGBT+-inclusive education has raged on, LGBT+ people have had to witness the UK’s national broadcaster frame our existence as a “moral issue” while others debate whether we’re “age appropriate”.
A disturbing alliance between religious protestors, politicians and right-wing commentators has also emerged. Candidates for prime minister, such as Andrea Leadsom and Esther McVey, have made clear that they think parents – even homophobic ones – “know best” when to “expose” their children to LGBT+ people. Figures such as Katie Hopkins travelled to Birmingham to support anti-LGBT+ Muslim parents. Independent Charedi Jewish schools are reportedly considering “civil disobedience” in order to avoid teaching LGBT+ lessons.
It seems that the one thing that the Christian far-right – the notoriously Islamophobic and anti-semitic force rapidly gaining momentum across Europe and America – have in common with Muslim and Jewish fundamentalists is a hatred of LGBT+ people. Make no mistake, when people advocate for erasing LGBT+ people from the curriculum, they are facilitating violence against us. When right-wingers oppose a tightening of gun laws, they're doing the same.
In the aftermath of Pulse, LGBT+ people were told that the shooting had nothing to do with us. Writer Owen Jones famously walked off Sky News when host Mark Longhurst refused to accept that the incident was a homophobic act of terrorism. Longhurst said that the shooting was carried out against “human beings” who were “trying to enjoy themselves, whatever their sexuality”.
But since then, new LGBT+ voices come to the fore to claim space and demand to be heard. Whether responding to tragedies like Pulse, the persecution of LGBT+ people in Brazil and Chechnya, or the relentless campaign against trans people in the UK – emboldened by pockets of the media and, as we’ve now seen, even children’s charities – our community won’t go down without a fight.
The day after the news broke, I went to Soho to mourn with London’s LGBT+ community. Standing just metres away from the Admiral Duncan, the gay pub where a nail bomb was detonated by a Neo Nazi in 1993, we sang “Bridge over Troubled Water” as we released 49 balloons into the sky. In that moment, I felt connected to the global LGBT+ community and loved my new city.
Though the “troubled water” did not end with Pulse. Just recently, three people in one afternoon called my boyfriend and I “faggots” as we held hands in central London – a reminder of why two thirds of LGBT+ people feel too unsafe to do so. As the UK continues to slide down Europe’s LGBT rankings, it’s clear that not everyone – even in the diverse, progressive city that I love – loves me back.
The Pulse shooting made many of us go bed feeling a little more scared. But three years after bullets ripped through our community, stealing 49 lives and shattering many more, homophobia is still mainstream. An atmosphere of hatred pollutes the air and I’m not ashamed to admit that it terrifies me.
I can’t stop the fear from trickling into my mind that, the next time a story like this happens, it might be me.