Gay America hopes for change after tragedy

A woman visits the vigil site for the shooting victims at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, June 16, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young©Reuters

With Madonna’s greatest hits playing in the background, sorrow and anger blended with beer and cigarette smoke at St Matthew’s Tavern in Orlando this week. Regulars who had wept the previous night at a vigil for friends slain at the Pulse nightclub returned to another gay haunt to huddle around its bar.

They shared stories of those killed by the bullets of Omar Mateen and celebrated Orlando as a bastion of live-and-let-live tolerance. But on one subject opinions diverged: whether the massacre will trigger a sea change in attitudes to gay people in the US.

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In an election year when Donald Trump is redefining America’s “culture wars”, some hope the attack will mark a turning point towards greater acceptance of gays, lesbians and transgender people. But others fear the outpouring of sympathy this week will be no more than a blip.

Before the bloodshed, things had already been getting better, said Angel Merced, a Puerto Rican drinking at St Matthew’s. He pointed to the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that same-sex couples had a legal right to marry, and to his own mother, who kicked his sister out of her home when she revealed she was gay, but told Mr Merced when he came out later that she would “never make the same mistake twice”.

After the shooting, he said: “My customers and my bosses were all calling me to find out if I was OK. They’re straight people and they care. Some of them do. Not all of them. But in my heart I believe it is going to get better.”

Some members of the LGBT community see the rampage even prompting some conservative Christian leaders to embrace gay America. “They were basically saying, ‘Love your neighbour’,” said Patty Sheehan, an openly gay Orlando city commissioner, on CNN. “I’ve never heard them talk like that before.”

But while there has been barely a dissenting voice amid the grief, some worry that such unity will be shortlived.

Mateen himself hailed from a conservative stretch of seaside Florida, but whatever his motivations — which may turn out to be a mix of Islamic extremism, mental illness and his own tortured sexuality — his attack has reminded some gay people of enduringly hostile forces out there.

“It is getting worse,” said Brendan Martin, another St Matthew’s regular who knew eight of the 49 killed at Pulse. “For one, we won the right to marry. We got it. And now there is a backlash going on from fundamentalist Christian groups that are haters.”

In 2002 Orlando passed a law to protect gay people from discrimination at a time when such measures were rare. But Mr Martin said you did not need to travel far into rural Florida to find homophobia. “As soon as you get out of here you see hillbillies and rednecks, really,” he says. “I hate to say it but they hate people like us.”

Mr Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, has opposed same-sex marriage. But in an apparent play for votes he told the LGBT community in a tweet this week that “I will fight for you while Hillary [Clinton] brings in more people that will threaten your freedoms and beliefs”.

He was greeted with scorn. “He’s an asshole. You can quote me on that,” said Eric Rollings, a gay elected official and Orlando real estate agent. “I stand with my Muslim friends, with my Latino friends and with my black friends . . . He’s putting people on a slippery slope to saying it’s OK to hate.”

Opinion polls underscore a partisan divide in views, with 74 per cent of Democratic voters saying homosexuality should be accepted by society and only 48 per cent of Republicans agreeing with them, according to the Pew Research Center.

Rick Scott, Florida’s Republican governor, came under fire from activists this week for not acknowledging that the gay community was involved in the massacre for 48 hours after it happened.

At Tattle Tails, the lone gay bar in Port St Lucie, home to Mateen’s parents, a fiftysomething man who gave his name as Mike W said: “Now young [gay] people take it for granted, the freedom they have. With this tragedy in Orlando maybe they’ll experience what the gay struggle is all about.”

There have been other reminders that the US is not marching as one towards greater tolerance: this year North Carolina passed a law to stop cities protecting LGBT people from discrimination and to require transgender people to use public toilets matching the gender on their birth certificates.

An emerging split within US Christianity offers some hope for the gay community, as a number of populist feel-good churches soften their stance that same-sex relationships are forbidden by scripture.

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On the other side of the Christian divide is Al New, chaplain co-ordinator for the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, part of an evangelical group that says people can be “liberated from homosexuality” by Jesus Christ.

He was hovering near a flower-filled memorial site close to Pulse, eager to offer “spiritual care” to anyone who stopped by. Despite his group’s opposition to homosexuality, he said: “We’re looking at them as God’s children. It has nothing to do with doctrinal beliefs.”

At St Matthew’s Tavern, Monty Haight, 33, had no time for such sentiments. “We don’t want sympathy,” he said. “I don’t want [straight people] patting me on the back and telling me they’re sorry. I want them to tell me they love me. We went to the vigil last night. Half the people were straight. That was love.”

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