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By Kris Banks
As the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community moves from mourning the Pulse massacre in Orlando to finding solutions for how to prevent anything like this from ever happening again, the first instinct in this process is to ask why this happened. The instinct to ask why is rooted in the idea that we want to stomp out the cause.
Whenever an act of mass violence like this occurs, the most common reasons blamed are hate and mental illness. In this case, it looks like both might be applicable.
The problem is, addressing either is unlikely to prevent another club for LGBT people from being shot up. I would suggest we would benefit more from asking how it happened. And how these events happen is that a person has a gun that they shouldn’t have. What should be evident from the Sunday morning massacre is that the LGBT community is especially vulnerable to gun violence, and we should be joining the fight for better regulations on who has access to guns and what kind of guns should be available.
I certainly understand the instinct to react against hate. Fighting against bigotry has been the single largest focal point of the LGBT community for decades, and we should never give up. But it’s not the fight we need right now for preventing future massacres.
Much has been made of the killer’s connections to ISIS, a group that has been responsible for horrific actions against LGBT people in some parts of the world. Sen. Ted Cruz, that great LGBT ally, put out a statement saying that if we really wanted to help the LGBT community, we should act against ISIS. ISIS is an organization that engages in horrific acts of violence against LGBT people. But the killer’s connections to ISIS were at best tenuous. They didn’t order him to act, and they certainly didn’t sell him the gun.
And regardless, blaming this on ISIS, or Islam, is to pretend that it is the source of anti-LGBT hatred when it is, in fact, barely a drop in the bucket. The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified 48 active anti-LGBT hate groups in the United States. Most of them purport to reflect the beliefs of Christianity, not Islam.
It’s not just fringe organizations that contribute to homophobia and transphobia, though. How many times did we hear Cruz and other Republican presidential candidates take pot shots at the transgender community for cheap applause lines during the primary? The Texas Republican Party platform, passed just this past May, calls for forcing transgender people to use the wrong bathroom and calls homosexuality “contrary to the fundamental unchanging truths.”
We can and should condemn hatred everywhere we see it—against our community and against others. But hatred is pervasive in our society. Even as they were condemning the violence, powerful anti-LGBT politicians like Speaker Paul Ryan and Florida governor Rick Scott could not even bring themselves to mention our community, posting #prayfororlando as if the killer shot up a club there to protest Disney World. The need to stop these killings is urgent. We haven’t been yet successful in rooting out bigotry from elected officials in some of the highest offices of the land; how are we going to stomp it out of the darkest corners of society, where these mass killers reside?
Yes, let’s work to eliminate hate and bigotry. But as the Pulse massacre demonstrated, we are targets of violence now. During the AIDS crisis, we fought for long-term social change. But we also fought for survival: “Fund prevention and treatment right now, so our people stop dying.” In the same light, we need to organize to immediately keep those who would target us from having the weapons they need to inflict their damage or more LGBT people will die.
As for the other go-to whipping boy after every mass shooting: addressing mental health is so inadequate a solution to prevent these shootings that it misses the point entirely. Yes, fund our wholly insufficient mental healthcare system. But what of the fact that people who suffer from mental illness are, by a huge, huge ratio, more likely to be a victim of violent crime than a perpetrator? And what do we propose beyond that? Locking up everyone who is believed to be mentally ill? That suggestion—often made by people who are seeking to protect the “civil liberty” of owning an assault rifle—is horrifying. We should know. It wasn’t long ago that being gay or transgender was considered a mental illness.
We can work forever to stamp out bigotry. We can do everything we can to spot and treat mental illness. But we will get rid of neither. And as long as hate exists in this world, and as long as people who suffer from deep paranoia and delusions have the capacity to turn that hate into the deaths of dozens within minutes, populations vulnerable to hate are targets. And if the LGBT community doesn’t know after centuries of violent oppression that it’s a target for hate, it knows it after Sunday morning. And that’s why the LGBT community must stand strong for sensible reform for gun safety.
LGBT victims of gun violence are not limited to those killed at Pulse. We know of the inordinately high rate of transgender people who are murdered around the globe. In 2015, at least 18 transgender people were murdered in the United States. At least half of those died after being shot.
It’s time for the LGBT people to stand behind the efforts of organizations like Americans for Responsible Solutions—groups fighting for better gun safety regulations. It’s time for LGBT political organizations to ask candidates and elected officials to support sensible reforms on guns.
It’s time for the LGBT community to say that gun safety is an LGBT issue, like marriage equality, fighting workplace discrimination, HIV, and any other issue that directly and disproportionately affects people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender. If we don’t participate in the fight to find a solution, we will be the victims again.
Banks is the former president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus.