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Pride Month is in full swing in cities across the country and around the world, and that’s meant the usual happy barrage of rainbow flags, parties and parades.
But on June 12 in New York City, LGBTQ activists took a different tack: They held a vigil to honor the 49 people killed in the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando six years ago to the day, and to honor other mass shooting victims.
“The one thing that all of these shootings had in common was an AR-15 style assault weapon. These are weapons of war and should not be in civilians’ hands!” shouted Jay Walker, founding member of Gays Against Guns (GAG) — an activist group (and podcast) born out of the 2016 Pulse shootings but focused since on all mass shootings and the effort to ban assault rifles and shame the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the politicians and companies it sponsors.
The vigil had nearly 100 "human beings" — volunteers, dressed in all white and with faces veiled, who each represented a person lost to gun violence. They stood silently, each carrying a placard with the photo, name and some details about a person killed at a mass shooting, from Orlando and Las Vegas to Buffalo and Uvalde. This way of publicly holding space for those killed has become a signature of GAG, which has a policy to get out into the streets within 48 hours of any mass shooting — most recently by hoisting child-sized coffins through the streets of New York and, right before that, having veiled human beings honor the victims of Buffalo’s shooting in the pouring rain. In 2018, a large group held a procession at March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C.
It’s always a powerful display and one that stops even typically unfazed New Yorkers in their tracks. That was true on Sunday, especially with the group’s masked leader, also dressed in white, standing at the helm with a large, glittering disco ball — a very gay reminder of the specifics of Pulse.
But, some may wonder, how else is gun violence an LGBTQ issue?
“We’re part of humanity,” Walker explains to Yahoo Life. “We’re Americans. We care. Gay folks and queer folks have children. Anyone would have to be a monster to not be affected by 19 kids being murdered.”
In 2018, young organizers of the first March for Our Lives (more of which just took place over the weekend in locations across the country) said they had derived inspiration for the movement from that of marriage equality, with Parkland shooting survivor and activist Emma González telling Yahoo Life at the time that being queer and being such a visible activist is “definitely linked for me personally. If I wasn’t so open about who I was, I never would’ve been able to do this.” Further, she likened the struggles, including the “depression” felt by many LGBTQ youth, to those of anyone dealing with the emotional fallout of gun violence.
There are also the bare facts about gun violence disproportionately affecting LGBTQ people, among other minority populations, with guns being used in 60% of bias-motivated homicides of LGBTQ people, according to the most recent (2017) tracking.
“Any marginalized community is at higher risk for gun violence, because people that are animated by bigotry ... tend to act out at more marginalized communities. We’ve seen that most recently in Buffalo, and obviously at Pulse in 2016,” Walker says, further referring to reports that the shooter may have been a closeted gay man himself. “The intersection of being exposed to bigotry and bullying can lead people to act out violently against themselves — or proxies for themselves, as with Pulse, with proxies for self-hatred.”
“Gay kids growing up in red states in ... households that are not accepting of them being gay or trans or nonbinary, they are at a higher risk of suicidal ideation,” Walker notes, adding that the “presence of a gun in the home with easy access increases the fatality of suicide attempts.”
But the queer connection goes deeper too — something made abundantly clear with the Pulse massacre, which occurred during Pride month.
“It’s sort of inextricably linked to Pride for us, especially those of us who were founding members,” Walker says. “Pulse happened on June 12, and exactly two weeks from then was Pride Sunday ... and our first public action was marching in that year’s Pride parade with our 49 human beings.”
That new form of activism spoke to Ti Cersely, a former U.S. Air Force member who soon became a GAG organizer. “The night Pulse happened ... I felt very alone. No one in my family would understand why it affected me so much,” he tells Yahoo Life, explaining that the “regular, beautiful hate of America that’s aimed at me” as a gay man, from the time he was a child, is something he had kept from his family. But when he went to his first GAG meeting — a powerful blend of anger and beauty (“In the first half hour someone threw glitter in the air,” he recalls), Cersely felt at home.
“I felt like, oh, this is my fight. The AIDS crisis wasn’t my fight, I was a teenager,” he recalls (though GAG is made up of several former ACT UP activists who fought through that crisis too). “When [Pulse] happened, I thought: No one’s going to care about a bunch of queers being shot in a bar. No one’s going to care. And that sat in a certain place with me.”
The circumstances of the Pulse shooting, Walker adds, cut to the quick of the community. “Nightclubs and bars have been our sanctuaries when the rest of the world kept us out,” he says. “That’s why Pride and GAG are always going to be connected.”
Since its start, he says, “our actions are about our lives being on the line constantly, and such a rich history of direct action within the queer and trans communities, and that was the thing that we felt, in the beginning ... was missing in the gun violence prevention movement... We had ACT UP veterans, Queer Nation veterans, and thought this is the thing that we can add — the queer energy, the theatricality, that pushing the point.”
On Sunday, many of those taking part in the action talked about the anger, frustration and desire for justice that called them to be there.
“I’m here because I respect these people who have died unnecessarily because of gun violence, and the fact that it’s continuing,” Donald Gallagher, who had his beard dyed in rainbow hues and held a sign for Darryl Roman Burt II, 29, killed at Pulse, told Yahoo Life. “I mean, how long ago was Columbine now? It’s just the same old lies, the same old clichés, the same old nonsense, the same excuse, excuse, excuse,” from politicians doing nothing, he added. “I wanted to express my respect for the life of this person, who I would not have ever known.”
When the vigil had ended, and the human beings had walked in procession through the edge of Little Island park (with some dramatic pushback from its officials) and then unveiled and held hands in a circle before hugging one another goodbye until reconvening on Pride Sunday — and hopefully not before — founding member Brigid McGinn was pleased. “This was great. I’m impressed we had so many people volunteer — 96 human beings,” she said. “We touched a lot of lives. And hopefully changed enough minds to put some laws in place.”