At a news conference Sunday afternoon, LGBT community leaders in the Orlando area gathered at The LGBT Center of Central Florida to stand in solidarity with the victims of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub early Sunday morning.
They also made it a point to stand against hatred and bigotry of any kind.
Led by Equality Florida Transgender Inclusion Director Gina Duncan, the 30-minute news conference was a series of the leaders in the community thanking the larger Orlando community for support and decrying bigotry, fear and hate.
LGBT Center President Tim Vargas, visibly emotional, called the day “surreal and unbelievable.”
“What we’re here to do is start healing,” he said. “And help those people start healing in their time of need. Through the next 24, 48 hours, as more victims’ names are released, we just ask that the community stand in solidarity. Reach out, hug your loved ones, because nothing matters more than that right now.”
Rev. Nancy Wilson with Metropolitan Community Church, who was also a member of President Barack Obama‘s Faith Council for the White House, led a short prayer to begin the conference, and when she stepped up to speak, she used her time to denounce gun violence.
“How obvious can it be that we have to ban assault weapons in our country?” she said. “President Obama said today that in this event, terror and hate crimes met each other in a powerful way. In many ways, this is our Charleston, for the LGBT community. With all the progress we’ve made, with marriage equality and other things, there is a deep level of fear and hatred, often stemming from religious groups who are aligned with right-wing politics. We who are people of justice have to stand up to this. We have to be in solidarity and stand up for an end to violence in our country because we refused to take a stand against the banning of assault weapons.”
Equality Florida Policy and Outreach Coordinator Hannah Willard said she thought it was “prescient” that the shooting happened during LGBT Pride Month, but also talked positively, saying the community was now “stronger than ever,” with so many supporters wanting to know how they could help in any way.
Carlos Guillermo Smith, Government Affairs Manager with Equality Florida, opened by saying he was “a gay Floridian, a Latino Floridian and an American.” He went on to say there should be solidarity between the LGBT community and the Islamic community, along with the general population, against hatred.
Drawing a parallel between the shooting and the infamous Stonewall Inn riots of 1969, of which this month is the anniversary, Smith wove historical context into the present tragedy. Gay clubs, he said, were significant parts of LGBT history and long-standing safe spaces for the LGBT community – and the shooting, therefore, was symbolic.
“There is no question that this senseless act of violence that happened at during LGBT month at a gay nightclub, was intended to send a message of hate and terror,” he said. “Equality Florida and the entire Orlando LGBT community, we stand with all people, including Muslim and Islamic community, with in opposition to the intolerance, discrimination and hate that both of our communities experience.
“That hate, bigotry and intolerance is our common enemy. We need to keep this community safe from gun violence, which has once again destroyed lives of people in Florida and around the country. We will stand together against all phobias – homophobia, transphobia and Islamophobia.”
Equality Florida Executive Director Nadine Smith spoke positively of the outpouring of support from all over the globe – everyone, she said, is watching Orlando right now.
She then went on to say that everyone should be strong against the impulse to give in to hateful messages that may come about in the wake of the tragedy.
“We have to ask ourselves: what kind of culture feeds the kind of hatred that had to animate what horror unfolded in Orlando?” she said. “What kind of messages have become normalized, that could allow someone to do what was done, and the steady stream of violence that has become so normal? And we have to ask ourselves why, when someone has that hatred, why are they given access to weapons of mass slaughter?”
She ended on a more positive note, turning back to the ways of the community at large had rallied to help the victims.
“So from Equality Florida, all of the organizations standing here, we should be heartened to the fact that the lines to donate blood wrapped around buildings,” she said. “And should make sure that through our grief and through our tears, what remains absolutely constant is our unshakable resolve that we will uproot the bigotry, fear and hatred at the core of the horror we’re enduring right now.”
Several of the speakers also noted the GoFundMe page for victims of the shooting, which had raised $737,000 as of Sunday night.