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Vigil in response to the Orlando Pulse shooting
Vigil in response to the Orlando Pulse shootingPhotography Fibonacci Blue, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

How the LGBT community is fighting back one year after Pulse

Today marks one year since the tragic shooting at Orlando’s Pulse night club – we look at how LGBT rights have changed

“I was standing at the sink when the first shots rang out. I didn’t know what was happening,” says Brandon Wolf, a survivor of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida.

“As scared clubgoers piled into the bathroom, we tried to guess what was going on. The unmistakable sound of the second round of gunfire will haunt me for the rest of my life.”

On the 12th of June 2016, 49 members of the LGBT community lost their lives when gunman Omar Matteen opened fire as they danced to music on a Saturday night. One of the victims was Brandon’s best friend Drew Leinonen, a mental health counsellor and LGBT rights activist.

It quickly became clear that the gunman had specifically targeted Pulse, a central part of Orlando’s LGBT nightlife scene. As well as the devastating loss of life, the shooting brought with it the harrowing realisation that our safe spaces are never truly safe. None of us really know who could be next to us at a bar, or waiting at the end of a Grindr meet. Like many queer people, I went to bed that night feeling a little more scared.

In the aftermath of the shooting, vigils were held across the world, from London to Sydney. People came together to pay respects, sing songs and stand up for the values that bind us together. For Brandon, the international response to the attack was overwhelming. “Since the very moment the attack happened, Orlando has been shown nothing but love,” he explains. “Whether it was flowers from Stonewall or letters from Portland, LGTBQ communities from across the world showed why we have persevered in the face of hatred.” 

As the flickering glow of the vigil candles began to fade, the global queer community started to heal. As marginalised people, we’ve learned from a young age to not be defeated by our pain.

Yet it is important to remember those that we lost. Brandon is determined to use the attack as motivation to celebrate his best friend’s legacy of inclusivity. “Before that night at Pulse, I was complacent. I had a good life, good friends and a good job.” He says. “But my complacency has now been replaced with passion. I want to give the world the best of Drew: love, acceptance and hope.”

But it wasn’t long before these values would be tested.

“If Pulse taught us anything, it’s that our fight won’t end until the future is brighter than the present. To the Republicans that work to stand in our way – good luck” – Brandon Wolf

The 12 months since Orlando have been immensely challenging for the global LGBT community. Following the UK’s Brexit vote, homophobic hate crime rose by 147 per cent in three months. Across the pond, the US election saw a similar wave of anti-gay hate crime, with a fifth of incidents directly referencing President Trump. Queer families and couples have received threatening letters in the mail, and in the worst cases, people have been verbally and physically abused by attackers proclaiming “you live in Trump country now!

Since the US Supreme Court lifted the ban on same-sex marriage in 2015, over 200 anti-LGBT bills have been introduced at state level. In Florida, a survivor of the Pulse attack could have walked into work the next day and been legally fired for being gay.

The most worrying of these laws is the First Amendment Defence Act, a bill that President Trump has vowed to sign if it lands on his desk. It would allow businesses to discriminate against LGBT people based on their “religious belief or moral conviction”. Critics have warned that the vague wording of the bill could be interpreted to allow discrimination in all areas. In theory, the bill could permit a doctor to refuse to treat an LGBT person, even in a life or death situation. By making us feel less secure each time we go to work, visit a hospital or use a public bathroom, these bills are designed to chip away at our self-worth.

But Brandon is determined not to let this happen. “It would be easy for us to believe that a Supreme Court victory means we’ve turned the page on history. But if Pulse taught us anything, it's that our fight won’t end until the future is brighter than the present,” he explains. “To the Republicans that work to stand in our way – good luck”.

If we look at things with a wider lens, the number of countries that criminalise same-sex acts has fallen to 72, with Belize and Seychelles being the most recent to repeal such laws in 2016. Yet persecution and stigmatisation persist. The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) report that in 2017 less than 25 per cent of the world’s States recognise or protect LGBT people.

Gay men have also become victims of a systematic campaign of violence in Chechnya. Amnesty International has warned that Chechen authorities are imprisoning men suspected of being gay and subjecting them to torture. The most distressing reports reveal that the parents of these prisoners are being forced to murder their own children. The subdued reaction to these atrocities from world leaders – and deafening silence from the US (the country has yet to issue a visa to any refugees fleeing Chechnya) – feeds into a narrative that gay lives are worth less.

Paul Dillane of the Kaleidoscope Trust, a leading NGO working to promote inclusion and human rights for LGBT people globally, says: “The shocking atrocities in Orlando and Chechnya have sent convulsions through LGBTQ communities around the world. We owe it to the victims and survivors of these crimes to redouble our efforts in the struggle for equality and freedom.”

“We wanted to create a legacy that would honour Drew and continue the work he was most passionate about. Ultimately, we knew that his love for taking care of others meant we had to do the same” – Brandon Wolf

In the weeks following Pulse, Brandon and a few close friends founded The Dru Project, an organisation that establishes Gay-Straight Alliance programs in public schools across the US. The organisation aims to provide scholarships to send future leaders in the LGBT community to college. “We wanted to create a legacy that would honour Drew and continue the work he was most passionate about.” He explains. “Ultimately, we knew that his love for taking care of others meant we had to do the same.”

The Pulse shooting highlighted that the prejudices we tolerate everyday can have devastating consequences. The last twelve months have been an important reminder that the rights we’ve fought for can just as easily be taken away. There will always be people trying to scare us into submission, but is it heartening to see that the queer community has continued to challenge the status quo.

Today, the first anniversary of the attack, The Dru Project will be giving away its first college scholarship. Brandon will be spending the day with the people he loves the most. Although he acknowledges that there will be tough moments, he remains hopeful for the future. Moving forward, Brandon emphasises the importance of combating hatred with love. “We need to continue changing the world one mind at a time. Change takes decades, but it starts with one voice,” he says.“It's time to come together and stand up for what’s right.”