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‘We’re still very much in the healing phase’

Saturday marks five years since Pulse nightclub massacre

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The interim memorial at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., on May 31, 2020 (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Saturday marks five years since a gunman killed 49 people inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

A remembrance ceremony will take place at the site, which is now an interim memorial. A number of other events to honor the victims will take place in Orlando and throughout Central Florida over the coming days.

“We’re still very much in the healing phase and trying to find our way,” Pulse owner Barbara Poma told the Washington Blade on Tuesday during a telephone interview.

The massacre at the time was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Nearly half of the victims were LGBTQ Puerto Ricans. The massacre also sparked renewed calls for gun control.

Poma told the Blade that she expects construction will begin on a “Survivor’s Walk” at the site by the end of the year. A museum — which she described as an “education center” that will “talk about the history of the LGBT community and its struggles and stripes for the last century or so … about why safe spaces were important to this community” and what happened at Pulse and the global response to it — will be built a third of a mile away.

“We really feel it is important to never forget what happened at Pulse and to tell the story of that,” said Poma.

Poma noted the onePULSE Foundation of which she is the executive director met with representatives of the 9/11 Tribute Museum and the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum to discuss the memorial. Poma when she spoke with the Blade acknowledged the plans have been criticized.

“This kind of opposition is not unique to these kind of projects,” she said.

“It’s just important to know that really what we’re trying to do is make sure what happened is never forgotten and those lives were never forgotten,” added Poma.

Poma on Tuesday declined to comment on the lawsuits that have been filed against her, her husband and the onePULSE Foundation in the wake of the massacre.

DeSantis’ anti-LGBTQ policies overshadow anniversary

The Blade this week spoke with Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith, state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Orlando) and other activists and elected officials in Florida and Puerto Rico who were part of the immediate response to the massacre.

Equality Florida raised millions of dollars for survivors and victims’ families. CEO Nadine Smith on Tuesday told the Blade during a telephone interview that Equality Florida in the massacre’s immediate aftermath pledged to honor the victims “with action by uprooting hatred at its source and from that time we have invested deeply in safe and healthy schools.”

“Schools are a shared cultural experience where the attitudes of ignorance and fear and animosity and violence towards others either get challenged or encouraged,” said Smith. “Five years later I look at how far this work has come and at the same time, I’m very aware of the backlash that we are facing, particularly in our schools with laws targeting trans youth specifically.”

Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on June 1 signed a bill that bans transgender athletes from participating in high school and college sports teams that correspond with their gender identity. The governor the following day vetoed funding that activists say would have funded programs for Pulse survivors and homeless LGBTQ youth.

Carlos Guillermo Smith, a gay man who represents portions of Orlando, on Tuesday described DeSantis as “callous.”

“The governor’s actions are a reminder that five years after the attack at Pulse nightclub, we have a lot of work to do to push back against homophobia and transphobia,” said Carlos Guillermo Smith. “The Orlando community is very supporting and accepting of the LGBTQ community, but when you see what’s happening at the Governor’s Mansion in Tallahassee, you realize that there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Pedro Julio Serrano, associate director of Waves Ahead, an LGBTQ service organization in Puerto Rico, described the massacre’s impact in the U.S. commonwealth as “permanent in our collective memory.” Serrano also noted violence against trans Puerto Ricans remains rampant.

“We are now the epicenter of anti-trans violence in the U.S. and its territories,” said Serrano. “After five years, we still confront this hatred that doesn’t seem to stop. We will continue to fight until all of us are safe.”

the Pulse nightclub massacre, gay news, Washington Blade
A plaque in Third Millennium Park in San Juan, Puerto Rico, pays tribute to the victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Tony Lima, a long-time Florida-based activist who is currently CEO of Arianna’s Center, an organization that serves trans women of color in Florida, the South and Puerto Rico, helped organize vigils and blood drives in the days after the massacre.

“We knew how important it was to aid our family in Orlando in this immediate crisis,” Lima told the Blade on Monday. “Orlando and South Florida are intrinsically connected. We often share resources in nightlife, events, advocacy and a lot of the same people … so I think there was a natural synergy there.”

Lima, like Nadine Smith and Carlos Guillermo Smith, sharply criticized DeSantis for signing the anti-trans bill and for vetoing funds for Pulse survivors and homeless LGBTQ youth. Lima also lamented the lack of progress on gun control.

A gunman on Feb. 14, 2018, killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Lima told the Blade there have been two deadly mass shootings in South Florida in recent days.

“We have a huge problem when it comes to gun control in this country, and sadly five years later we haven’t made a whole lot of progress,” he said.

The Florida Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla., on July 31, 2020. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has faced sharp criticism from activists over his anti-LGBTQ policies. State lawmakers have also been criticized over their inaction on gun control. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

Orlando’s support of LGBTQ rights part of ‘bigger call to action’

Felipe Sousa-Lazaballet is the senior specialist for inclusion, diversity and equity for the city of Orlando’s Office of Multicultural Affairs. He is also Mayor Buddy Dyer’s LGBTQ liaison.

Orlando City Hall on June 1 raised the Pride flag in commemoration of Pride month.

Sousa-Lazaballet noted the fountain in Lake Eola Park in downtown Orlando was the colors of the trans Pride flag in commemoration of the International Transgender Day of Visibility. Orlando in 2019 became the first city in Florida to include National LGBT Chamber of Commerce-certified businesses in its municipal contracting and procurement programs.

“All of that is part of that bigger call to action, which is we want to honor the 49,” said Sousa-Lazaballet. “But we also want to with action by making the city an even more welcoming place for all.”

Sousa-Lazaballet, Carlos Guillermo Smith and Nadine Smith all told the Blade the way that Orlando, Central Florida, the country and the world responded to the massacre remains a source of pride.

“I think about how many messages there were in the aftermath that called on the worst instincts in people to be fearful of each other, to hate people as a group, to cower and to hide and I will never forget and have been changed by the Orlando community, how the nation and in fact globally people responded to the absolute opposite,” said Nadine Smith. “That is a light that I hold on to.”

Poma echoed Nadine Smith.

“We hope that our goal is to create that beacon of light that can come out of such darkness,” said Poma. “Darkness is a really dangerous place to get stuck in and so while we all wish what happened on June 12 never happened, it did and it’s now our moral and social responsibility to do something with that and that for me is creating light and change from what we all endured.”

A mural in Orlando, Fla., in the months after the Pulse nightclub massacre. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
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The White House

Biden administration uses IDAHOBiT to highlight LGBTQ rights support

WHO on May 17, 1990, declassified homosexuality as mental disorder

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Biden administration on Tuesday publicly acknowledged the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia.

“Jill and I stand in support and solidarity with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI+) people in the United States and around the world,” said President Biden in a statement the White House released. “We join with Americans across the country to reaffirm our commitment to the ongoing work of upholding human dignity for all people and advancing equality globally.”

Biden in his statement noted there “has been much progress” since the World Health Organization on May 17, 1990, declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. Biden also highlighted “we continue to witness disturbing setbacks and rising hate and violence targeting LGBTQI+ people in the United States and around the world.”

“This is wrong,” he said. “LGBTQI+ people are entitled to all the rights, opportunities, and protections that belong to every human on this planet. LGBTQI+ people are an essential part of families and communities—teachers, first responders, public officials, doctors, lawyers, front-line workers and friends who enrich and strengthen every single country.” 

“And make no mistake: Hateful legislative attacks against members of our own LGBTQI+ community cannot be tolerated in America or anywhere else,” added Biden. “They spur discrimination and can stoke violence. And they are rooted in the same ignorance and intolerance that we see around the world. Hate is hate—and all of us have a responsibility to speak out against hate wherever we find it.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday issued his own IDAHOBiT statement.

“The United States affirms today, on the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT), that the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI+) persons are the same human rights to which all persons are entitled,” said Blinken. “As enshrined in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ‘[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’”

Bliken further noted that “too many LGBTQI+ persons live under the shadow of discrimination, violence and fear.”

“Global data makes clear that the dehumanization of LGBTQI+ persons is systemic, pervasive, and often violent,” he said. “Homophobia, biphobia, interphobia and transphobia are deeply entrenched in societies across the world, including here in the United States. Countless persons are at extreme risk for being themselves.”

Biden shortly after he took office in 2021 issued a memorandum that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ rights abroad.

The administration last June appointed Jessica Stern as the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ rights abroad.

The U.S. Senate earlier this year in a bipartisan vote confirmed Chantale Wong, the U.S. director of the Asian Development Bank, as the first openly lesbian American ambassador. The State Department on April 11 began to issue passports with “X” gender markers.

The State Department on April 28 released a report that details the federal government’s implementation of Biden’s foreign policy memo.

“We remain committed to ending this intolerance. Everyone deserves to live with respect, dignity, and safety,” said Blinken in his IDAHOBiT statement. “The United States affirms that all LGBTQI+ individuals, couples, and their families are valid and valuable.”

Biden in his statement also referred to the report.

“By openly reporting on our own progress, the United States hopes to inspire other governments to take similar action to address the needs of their LGBTQI+ communities,” he said.

“To the LGBTQI+ community, my administration sees you,” added Biden. “We stand with you. And we will continue to defend human rights and dignity, at home and around the world.”

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel and Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatović are among the other world leaders who have publicly acknowledged IDAHOBiT.

Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the independent U.N. expert on LGBTQ rights, and other U.N. human rights experts in a statement they released on Monday highlighted the plight of LGBTQ people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes.

“With the number of forcibly displaced persons continuing to rise, States, businesses and humanitarian and civil society organizations must invest in developing human rights-based policies and programs that take into full account the intersectional dimensions of forced displacement and sexual orientation and gender identity, fostering stronger collaboration and coordination among all actors responsible for the protection of displaced LGBT individuals,” reads the statement.

Advocacy groups around the world also commemorated IDAHOBiT.

“Today I want to thank my incredible team of Insight public organization who still works for LGBTQI+ people in Ukraine, saving life’s (sic) of our community during the war,” tweeted Olena Shevchenko, chair of Insight, a Ukrainian LGBTQ rights group. “We are here for equality.”

Sexual Minorities Uganda in a tweet said IDAHOBiT “is a significant day for the LGBTIQ+ community because it serves as a reminder of the ongoing violence and prejudice that our communities face.”

“The struggle for equality still continues,” added SMUG.

Pride House Tokyo in Japan also acknowledged IDAHOBiT.

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The White House

WNBA players back petition for White House to ‘prioritize’ Brittney Griner’s release

Phoenix Mercury center detained in Russia in February

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Russian state TV has released a photo of WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was arrested on drug charges in the country after Russian officials say cannabis oil was found in her luggage. (Screenshot)

The Women’s National Basketball Players Association has endorsed a petition that urges the Biden administration to “prioritize” WNBA star Brittney Griner’s release.

“It is imperative that the U.S. government immediately address this human rights issue and do whatever is necessary to return Brittney home quickly and safely,” reads the Change.org petition that Tamryn Spruill, a freelance journalist and author, created.

“The WNBPA and its members proudly join Tamryn Spruill, the creator of this petition, in demanding that lawmakers prioritize Griner’s return,” it continues. “White House and Biden adminsitration, we ask that you take action today—doing whatever is necessary—to bring Brittney Griner home swiftly and safely.”

More than 135,000 people have signed the petition.

Spruill on Saturday in a tweet said the WNBPA, a union that represents WNBA players, partnered with them and Change.org “in demanding that our elected officials work urgently to gain BG’s swift and safe release.”

Griner — a center for the Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife — was taken into custody at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February. Russian officials said customs inspectors found hashish oil in her luggage.

The State Department earlier this month determined Russia “wrongfully detained” Griner. A Russian court on Friday extended her detention for another month.

“The Russian system wrongfully detained Ms. Griner,” then-White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Friday during her last White House briefing. “We take our responsibility to assist U.S. citizens seriously.  And we will continue to press for fair and transparent treatment for all U.S. citizens when they are subject to legal processes overseas.”
 
“Now, because the State Department recategorized her as wrongfully detained, it means that our Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs — it’s quite a title but a well-deserved one — is going to be overseeing this case and leading the effort,” added Psaki. “Because it’s a deliberative process and we know from experience of bringing other Americans home, we’re just not going to detail what those efforts look like at this point in time.”

Griner faces up to 10 years in prison.

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Wyoming

GOP Sen. Cynthia Lummis issues ‘apology’ after transphobic comments during graduation speech

“My reference to the existence of two sexes was intended to highlight the times- times in which the metric of biological sex is under debate”

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Screenshot/University of Wyoming YouTube

During her speech delivered to the University of Wyoming’s College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Education commencement Saturday afternoon, Republican U.S. Senator Cynthia Lummis told graduates that “the existence of two sexes, male and female” was a “fundamental scientific truth.” 

The audience’s immediate reaction to her transphobic remarks were loud expressions of disapproval including jeering, boos, and demands she leave the podium.

The senator’s remarks came in the latter third of her twenty-minute address which had primarily focused on the critical need for teachers and in the fields of agriculture and other endeavors she noted were Wyoming hallmarks.

In a statement released by her office Sunday, a spokesperson noted that Lummis was apologizing to those who felt “un-welcomed or disrespected” by the comments.

“My reference to the existence of two sexes was intended to highlight the times in which we find ourselves, times in which the metric of biological sex is under debate with potential implications for the shared Wyoming value of equality,” the statement read.

“I share the fundamental belief that women and men are equal, but also acknowledge that there are biological differences and circumstances in which these differences need to be recognized. That being said, it was never my intention to make anyone feel un-welcomed or disrespected, and for that I apologize. I have appreciated hearing from members of the University of Wyoming community on this issue, and I look forward to continuing this dialogue.” 

An Assistant Professor in the University of Wyoming’s Sociology Program in the College of Arts and Sciences tweeted pointing out the graduate’s reactions along with the fact that the UW campus community had recently lost a Trans student to suicide, making the senator’s remarks more hurtful.

The university’s president also issued a statement Sunday expressing support for all members of the UW campus and community:

May 15, 2022

To the UW community:

On Saturday, the university celebrated spring 2022 commencement with a series of events that showcased the best of what makes us special: our students, our staff, our faculty and our ability to openly embrace and debate complex issues. One of our speakers made remarks regarding biological sex that many on campus take issue with. While we respect the right of all to express their views, from students to elected officials, we unequivocally state that UW is an institution that supports and celebrates its diverse communities that collectively make us the wonderful place that we are.

Thank you to the many students and families who celebrated with us this weekend. We welcome the incredible individuality and intellect of all our dynamic and diverse students and never want you to feel otherwise.

Sincerely,

Ed Seidel, President

Senator Cynthia Lummis’ remarks are at the 50:11 time mark:

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