It starts at an early age. Usually in elementary or middle school with kids saying, “That’s so gay” in a derogatory manner, uncorrected by parents and teachers.
From there it escalates. To the playground, bus stops and school hallways where LGBT students first encounter overt and violent displays of homophobia and transphobia.
In preparation for college, I’ve had students ask me if they should self-identify as LGBT on resumes and college applications, whether to list membership in Gay Straight Alliances and other LGBT-specific organizations. Already, the calculating begins.
The process starts anew while hunting for that first job. Yes, even in 2016 — in industries as diverse as finance and construction. Do you come out during the interview process or stay closeted and quiet until you’re in the door and getting rid of you would be something of an HR problem?
All that bigotry stoked and affirmed by legions of politicians — mostly Republicans — who have cynically used social issues for decades to court former rural, southern Democrats to the GOP cause on promises of attacking minorities. Abortion restrictions for women. Voter ID laws for African Americans. Immigration restrictions for Hispanics. Marriage bans, bathroom bills and “religious freedom” laws for LGBT people. The Republican establishment may yet live to regret that strategy, which led to short-term success, but that ultimately deposited Donald Trump at their doorstep. After all those bigoted, empty promises to mostly poor white Americans, the GOP failed to stop marriage equality. Or the success of a two-term black president. Or end abortion or thwart immigration. They failed and those voters finally figured out they were being exploited by a Republican Party that didn’t really care much about those issues. Instead of returning America to a 1950s straight/white/Christian utopia for those voters, the GOP exported their jobs overseas and gutted the middle class while enriching their Wall Street masters. So now they’re pissed off and prefer the chaos of a Trump administration to four more years of Bush-Romney-McCain status quo.
What does this have to do with Orlando, which will haunt our movement and our nightmares for years to come? Orlando didn’t occur in a vacuum. It didn’t spring forth from the mind of a crazy, disconnected lone gunman. It took years to nurture that kind of hate. Years of our society tolerating anti-gay name calling and bullying. Years of political attacks on our right to work free of discrimination. Attacks on our right to marry. Or to serve in the military. Decades of messaging from political and religious leaders that we are less than. Second class. Other.
After the Obergefell ruling just one year ago, we got carried away and naively believed we’d won. That everyone loves the gays now. Every straight couple now has a fun gay couple next door that they barbeque with on the weekends, right? We’re finally accepted and equal, right?
Processing Orlando is a struggle. We all know intellectually that the proper response is love — to love those who hate us. To endure the taunts and insults and bullets with a patient smile, knowing we’re on the right side of history and that our time will inevitably come.
But the devil on my other shoulder isn’t so sure. Will they ever really accept us? Will we ever be truly equal? Are we forever relegated to second-class status? Remember that the Obergefell ruling was decided by a single straight, white guy — Anthony Kennedy — in a 5-4 decision that could just as easily have gone the other way. We thought the courts were catching up to popular opinion, but maybe we got it backward. Maybe the courts are leading the charge and the people aren’t ready for the sight of two men kissing after all.
So after years of political and religious messaging that LGBT people don’t matter, and fears that “the gays” (as Florida Gov. Rick Scott refers to us) were getting ahead of themselves after Obergefell, the backlash arrives. In the form of “religious freedom” bills. And states defying the Obama administration directive on trans bathroom access. And a gunman targeting one of our sacred spaces for an unprecedented massacre.
I still hope that love will conquer hate. But it’s going to take a lot longer than we thought.
Kevin Naff is editor of the Washington Blade. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.