By Lauren Shapiro
Late into the night of Saturday, June 11, I fist-bumped to booming electronic music and twirled a rainbow flag at my favorite nightclub. As my friends and I observed D.C. Pride weekend in our familiar, shimmering temple, many communities like ours reveled in the holiness of June, Gay Pride Month.
When we awoke June 12, we had little to celebrate; 49 people had been killed at an Orlando gay club for doing exactly what we had been doing, exactly when we had been doing it. Those 49 people were killed simply for being queer and for honoring the simcha of Pride.
I use “observed,” “temple” and “simcha” on purpose. Gay Pride is a sacred and commemorative holiday for the LGBT community. It was created to ensure that our cultures and histories are not brushed aside in a society that largely focuses on the heterosexual and cisgender experiences. It honors those who, throughout the decades, have fought for our rights, from marriage equality and employment protection to our very safety in public.
LGBT people have been shamed for public affection and offered few spaces devoid of judgment or discrimination. The gay bar has always served as the refuge, the sanctuary, the transcendental escape from homophobia and transphobia. It is the defining institution of the LGBT community.
The security and nachas I feel inside a gay bar parallel my feelings when I am in shul, singing in Hebrew and taking a short vacation from a society in which Christianity is the default. For people like me, deeply enmeshed in both Jewish and LGBT life, an attack on a gay bar during Pride Month feels much like an attack on a synagogue during Simchat Torah.
This understanding gave the word “vigil” even more significance Tuesday, June 14, when I mourned the attack in Orlando outside the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Leaders from nearly 40 organizations joined a crowd of 3,000 to pray for the Pulse nightclub victims and their families.
Many speakers represented secular and political LGBT initiatives. Simone Bell, a former state representative and Southern regional director of Lambda Legal; Estrella Sanz of the Georgia Transgender Latina Coalition; and Jeff Graham from Georgia Equality (to name a few) passionately echoed the sentiment above: This was an attack on a sacred LGBT institution, and elected officials should recognize it as such.
Still, anyone at the vigil would have noticed the extraordinary variety of religious delegates. Rabbi Joshua Lesser of Congregation Bet Haverim organized and facilitated the entire event. Imam Plemon El-Amin of the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam and Josh Noblitt of St. Mark United Methodist Church offered prayers for the victims, as did Unitarians and the leader of a queer Native American group, who discussed death with the vocabulary of indigenous religions.
Each leader offered the same message: We must do more to make LGBT Americans feel safe now that hate has struck at the spiritual heart of the gay community.
The most powerful speech came from Amina Abdul-Jalil, representing a progressive Muslim organization. She said she is queer and Muslim and will “not apologize for either.”
She emphasized that a whole group of people (Muslims) cannot be persecuted for this act of evil against another minority (LGBT people). She said that pitting her two communities against each other would only allow hate and chaos to proliferate.
Accepting Abdul-Jalil’s message relies on recognizing the attack on Pulse as not simply another jihadist attack, but first and foremost as an act of calculated homophobia. Knowing this opens us up to acknowledging that while this attacker claimed one extremist homophobic ideology, homophobia is by no means confined to his ideology. It appears across religious and cultural lines, sometimes in subtle ways and sometimes in devastating ways, every day.
But confronting the ugly truth of pandemic homophobia is what made the vigil so powerful and perhaps reinvigorating for the Atlanta LGBT community.
At the podium stood representatives from major religions that, throughout history, have attempted to eradicate, ignore or save individuals from homosexuality. People from each of these faiths offered prayers of healing for the LGBT community — not simply because this community is composed of human beings, but because it is specifically, cohesively, the LGBT community.
It will take a long time for LGBT Americans to heal from this horrific moment in our history. It will take longer still for many Americans to recognize that homophobia exists in most religions and that any homophobia, no matter the scope, is dangerous.
Before the vigil, I had never before seen the major religions come together anywhere to honor the LGBT community. I had never seen a collection of religious leaders recognize LGBT culture and its defining institutions, the gay bar and Gay Pride, as sacred in their own right. I see this recognition, a small bit of light in an overwhelmingly dark time, as its own blessing.