Countering Hate in the Shadow of the Orlando Tragedy

Much has been written in the week and a half since the Orlando shootings about the impact of the violence in what was a place of safety for LGBT people. Baylor Johnson of the ACLU of Florida wrote of places like Pulse as being an “extension of home...where you are welcome, where you can relax, where you are instantly understood.” At last week's State of Women summit, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch reinforced that theme, putting forth, “This attack was made all the more devastating because it occurred in such a place—a place that was supposed to be safe.” In finding ways to move forward she stressed, among other things, “we need to stand against hate and to stand for the kind of love that America embodies at its best.”

At CHLP, we recognize that the frustratingly slow process of changing laws that stigmatize people living with HIV is a reflection of the persistent ignorance and fear on which such laws are built.

For this reason, the reflections of Housing Works CEO Charles King rang especially true. He writes about this attack as a hate crime and about countering hate in all of its various manifestations with radical inclusion and loving kindness, tools in the related struggle to end the stigma and discrimination that fuels HIV.  “An end to AIDS will be a hollow victory if we haven’t addressed the homophobia, the transphobia, and, let’s be really honest, the sexism and racism that drive this disease, Charles wrote, adding that “we cannot end AIDS as an epidemic in our State or around the world unless we collectively address these drivers of HIV.”

Here’s the full text of his blog:

"A statement by Housing Works President & CEO Charles King on the massacre in Orlando, Florida, at Pulse Night Club, where 49 LGBT people and allies were murdered and over 50 more were injured.

Thirty-one years ago, on the first Sunday in June, I preached my last sermon as the assistant pastor of Immanuel Missionary Baptist Church in New Haven, Connecticut. I preached on the text found in three of the Christian Gospels on the woman with the issue of blood. Perhaps from a fistula, this woman had been bleeding vaginally continuously for 12 years. While this hemorrhaging might have had many medical consequences, clearly the worst consequence was that, under the religious code, she was deemed “unclean,” making it socially unacceptable for anyone else to touch her. So, for 12 years, she had been shunned.

In my sermon, I compared this woman’s condition to that of persons living with AIDS. At that time, it wasn’t clear what was worse—the painful certainty of death or the shunning that so many people experienced once their families and friends learned of their condition. Often, this exclusion was compounded by shame, guilt, and even self-loathing.

These sentiments were not abstractions to me. I grew up believing that homosexuality was a sin worthy of death. It is what my father preached from the pulpit. After years of earnest prayer, asking God to save me from being gay, I finally came to realize my father was wrong, that God actually made me who I am and loved me for the same. That realization lifted a heavy burden, but having been called to the ministry, I feared that, even though God accepted me, that didn’t mean that God’s people would.

So until that June sermon 31 years ago, I had found security keeping my sexuality in the closet, that is, until the preceding February when I went to visit Bill, Immanuel’s Minister of Music, in the hospital. Bill was end stage, with KS lesions all over his frail body, and thrush lining his mouth. But when I offered to pray with him, he told me it wouldn’t do him any good. God was punishing him because he was a homosexual, he said.

I told of my visit to the hospital in my sermon that Sunday morning in June. And I told the congregation that I could no longer be comfortable as a minister living my life in the closet. I might not be able to do anything about the HIV virus, but I could surely do something about the fear and loathing of gay people that allowed someone as wonderful as Bill to die all alone, believing God was punishing him—because that is what he had heard from God’s people.

That encounter with Bill at Yale New Haven Hospital, and the sermon I preached four months later, were what propelled me into the fight against AIDS and what has kept me fully engaged in that fight for the last 30 years. For me, even after I became HIV-positive myself, the fight was never about the virus. The real fight has always been about the fear and loathing, yes, the hatred that allows the virus to thrive.

I first learned the news of the recent massacre at Pulse, a gay night club in Orlando, on Facebook. It took a bit for the enormity of what had happened to sink in. A man filled with hate, possibly fueled by religion, shot over 100 people in cold blood and killed 49 of them, people who had just a few minutes before been happily dancing and full of life. I am too old to be spending much time at the clubs, but still, it could have any of my friends, dancing the night away.

The feeling that this attack was deeply personal was driven home when I saw another Facebook post from Victoria, a friend and fellow BRAKING AIDS rider asking for prayer for two friends in Orlando who were missing.

Victoria has since posted that her friend Drew had been killed, along with his partner Juan. Drew and Juan had been planning a wedding. Now their families are planning a joint funeral.

The 49 people who were murdered aren’t just a statistic. They are real people with names, young people, mostly Latino, their lives destroyed in a terrifying few hours of hatred and rage.

Almost immediately, the media began looking for the cause. A hate crime against gay people, a terrorist attack by an avowed ISIS loyalist, a madman with access to assault weapons, a self-hating gay man committing a violent form of suicide, all of the above? But then Texas’ Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, a right-wing evangelical Christian, tweeted a scripture from Galatians, “God is not mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” And Rev. Pat Robinson, another right-wing evangelical Christian, announced that the massacre was God’s punishment for the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. How twisted is that? Fundamentalist Christians believe that God used a fundamentalist Muslim extremist to punish gay people in Florida for a court decision affirming a constitutional right?

That leads me to ask what is so different about the various manifestations of hate. Is Christian hate any different from Muslim hate? Is public hate different from private hate? When a candidate spews hate that attacks immigrants from a particular country or religion, or blatantly demeans women, what does that say about us as a people that millions around our nation are roaring their approval? When a state passes a law that singles out transgender people for discrimination, why is that not a hate crime? And how do we combat the insidious acts of hate that don’t rise to murder but kill by a thousand cuts?

While Housing Works is a secular organization, we believe in something that I think is spiritually profound. We believe in radical inclusion, accepting people where they are without judgments. We believe we are all broken people living in a broken world and that through loving kindness we offer each other healing. That may not cure a virus. But we now have drugs to treat the virus. And only loving kindness can cure the impact of hate. (Indeed, if the man who killed was conflicted over his sexual orientation, could loving kindness have offered him healing and forestalled this tragedy?)

I truly believe we will see an end to AIDS in my lifetime, and I am committed to that goal, beginning with Ending AIDS as an Epidemic in New York State by 2020. But an end to AIDS will be a hollow victory if we haven’t addressed the homophobia, the transphobia, and, let’s be really honest, the sexism and racism that drive this disease. I am not so naïve as to believe we can end these drivers. We can, however, employ our loving kindness and tenacious advocacy to ameliorate the impact on people who have been disfavored by others.

As to the larger question of actually combating hate, I don’t know that I have the answer. But I know what doesn’t work. I know you can never fight hate with more hate and expect to win. That strategy just makes us all losers. Also, I think it is trite to suggest love is the answer unless you are really prepared to talk about what that love means. Too many times I have heard preachers say, “hate the sin; love the sinner.” I can tell you, it didn’t feel very helpful to be the object of that kind of love as a young gay man trying to find my way. So I am not going to be so hypocritical as to suggest that approach toward those who attack us. But if love means channeling our anger, outrage, and grief to stand in solidarity with those who are the recipients of hate, it’s a pretty good prophylaxis. And if love means acceptance of those who are recipients of hate without adding our own judgments on them, and if love means action that protects and builds resilience, and if love means giving voice to those who have been ignored or silenced, that makes our solidarity even more meaningful. And if enough people come together as a mutually supportive loving and caring force, I think we actually stand a chance at shaming hate and driving it away.

So where does that leave us as a community after Orlando? I speak for all of Housing Works when I say, Housing Works stands in solidarity with the people of Orlando, and especially with members of the LGBT community in that city. Our hearts go out to those who have been injured and to the families and friends of those who were murdered.

Housing Works stands against hate in all of its manifestations, but particularly against homophobia, transphobia and, yes, Islamophobia, even as we stand against sexism and racism. We know we cannot end AIDS as an epidemic in our State or around the world unless we collectively address these drivers of HIV. And we know that Islamophobia is often incited by folk who wish to promote these other forms of hate as well.

Housing Works stands for radical inclusion, for accepting people as they are. We stand for love that heals. We stand for kindness, especially when directed toward strangers, including those who are seen as strangers only because they are somehow different from us. It is love, often times coupled with anger against injustice, that has brought us this far in the fight against AIDS. And it is love that will bring us to the end of the epidemic.

In this regard, the NYC LGBT Pride March on the last Sunday in June could not be more timely. In recent years, especially last year after the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality, Pride has taken on more optimistic and celebratory tones. But it’s also important to remember that the first NYC Pride March in June of 1970 was a political act of defiance, bravery, and empowerment. Indeed that first march, then called the “Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day” march, was launched to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and to show the world that civil rights for everyone, including all LGBTQ people, is a lifetime fight that we will keep fighting. The activists who began that tradition knew what power there is in coming together and marching in solidarity. So along with many other allies in the NYC LGBT and HIV communities, on Sunday, June 26, the Housing Works community will be marching in the NYC LGBT Pride March. We welcome all of you to join us."