By Rashed Mian and Christopher Twarowski
With the nation reeling in the wake of the largest mass shooting in U.S. history and biggest terror attack since 9/11, members of the Long Island LGBT community expressed sorrow, solidarity and defiance Sunday, resolving to honor those murdered by refusing to allow hatred to alter their way of life.
At least 50 people were murdered early Sunday morning at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., known as a hotspot for the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgender (LGBT) community, when a gunman opened fire with an assault rifle. The attacker, Omar Mateen, 29, of Port Saint Lucie, allegedly declared allegiance to Islamist terror group ISIS during the assault, according to still-developing news reports.
In an address to the nation Sunday afternoon, President Barack Obama characterized the massacre as an attack against all Americans and the subject of an open investigation by federal law enforcement agencies.
“This was an act of terror, and an act of hate,” he said. “This could have been any one of our communities.”
The killings are a “reminder that attacks on any American…is an attack on all of us,” continued Obama, stating that no act “of hate or terror will ever change who we are.”
“In the face of hate and violence, we will love one another,” he added. “We will stand together as Americans.”
More than 300 members and supporters of the local LGBT community showed unity with victims and their families, taking their defiance of fear and prejudice to the streets of Sayville in a “Visibility Walk” Sunday afternoon, carrying signs, pride flags and wearing rainbow-colored sashes.
Collectively, they vowed to stand united in the face of violence and bigotry.
Dean Carter, 23, a member of the LGBT group Pride For Youth, who moved from Orlando to Uniondale last year, told the Press that though he’d heard rumors of Orlando as being a potential terror target in the past, the news of the bloodbath at the gay club still hit him as a surprise.
“To me, it’s kind of shocking, because people always say, ‘Orlando is a target,’ but, Orlando has never actually been the target of a terror attack, and usually, it’s aimed at Disney [World],” he said in a parking lot across from the Visibility Walk’s starting point, the Sayville LIRR train station. “For it to be aimed at a gay club…is kind of shocking to me.”
Carter’s grandparents reside near Pulse nightclub, which he described as one of the most popular gay clubs in the city. Obama characterized the club as a “place of solidarity and empowerment” in his remarks, a sentiment echoed by others at the first-of-its-kind walk in Sayville Sunday.
“Many of the gathering spots for our community are rooted in nightclubs and bars,” explained Erin Furey, a founding member of LGBTQA+ Visibility Coalition, a local gay and transgender advocacy rights group, after the parade.
Furey lamented the lack of “safe places” for the LGBT community nationwide.
“We live in a world, a country, and on an island, where trying to find a safe place is of dire importance,” she said.
That void–and anti-gay rhetoric–breeds intolerance, she continued.
“It really circles back to what happened today, because when social institutions and laws and governments, and people with a lot of influence, send a larger message that LGBT people are not okay, it does allow people to justify horrific acts of violence,” added Furey.
David Kilmnick, CEO of LGBT Network, an LI-based gay rights group, stressed the need for tougher legislation protecting this community.
“The deplorable act of violence that targeted the LGBT community and stole 50 lives and left scores of others injured, is a painful reminder of the gate and bias that continues to plague our country,” he said in a statement following the attack. “Our hearts and minds are joined with all the family, friends, and loved ones who are mourning today.”
Joanna Morena, of Ronkonkoma, another co-founder of LGBTQA+ Visibility Coalition, told the Press she woke up to the horrific news of the massacre via social media, and immediately called her mother, who was in tears.
The full significance of Sunday’s “Visibility Walk” and the full weight of the attack hit Morena and her wife hard as she drove to Sayville to join the march.
“It just hit home how important walks like this are,” she explained. “To really be visible, be out, even informally, because, as far as far as we’ve come as a community, our transgender brothers and sisters are still without basic protections, and still, unfortunately, and apparently, still subject to attacks.”
“When a tragedy like this happens,” she added, “we need to be together.”