From the New York Times Online Breaking News Alert, Sunday, June 12, 2016, 6:02 AM EDT:
At least 30 people inside were rescued, and even the hardened police veterans who took the building and combed through it, aiding the living and identifying the dead, were shaken by what they saw, said John Mina, the Orlando police chief. “Just to look into the eyes of our officers told the whole story,” he said.
There is a long and painful history between police and the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender-Queer community. This is June, Gay Pride month nationwide. This month was not named pride month arbitrarily: it was chosen because on June 28, 1969, patrons of The Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, rioted, sparking the modern gay rights movement.
The impetus for that riot? A routine police raid.
Police harassment of the gay community has been around as long as there have been places for gay people to assemble and socialize. In 1969, the patrons at Stonewall spontaneously decided they would not take it anymore, and they fought back. But that hardly meant that relations with law enforcement improved right away, or that society’s attitudes toward the gay community changed overnight. Quite the opposite, in fact, as the story of an arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans in 1973 illustrates. Thirty-two people were murdered, yet no arrests were ever made, and no expressions of support or condolence were ever offered by city or state officials. Neither were they forthcoming from area churches or clergy.
In the long march from Stonewall to today, many of us have experienced a range of emotions when it comes to being publicly out and identifiable as LGBTQ, especially when we gather in large numbers. There can be feelings of pride, but also feelings of apprehension and anxiety. At a rally or a parade, one sees the uniformed police officers on security detail, and can’t help but think, “Do these officers really want to be here? Do they really want to be protecting ‘gays’?” There have been times when I wondered if an officer would step in and do his or her job, should something go wrong.
We have come a long, long way.
Early reports from the tragedy in Orlando contained much that is now sickeningly familiar to us all: a rampant attack, an active shooter, massive casualties, 24-7 coverage. However, amid all the gut-wrenching details of the news reports, I felt my heart lift, actually lighten a little, when I read the quote above by the police chief. I gave a small gasp of gratitude when I read that Orlando police officers had used their police vehicles to transport the wounded to hospitals when there were not enough ambulances. The horror unfolding before us had another side: law enforcement was treating our community with compassion.
This speaks to the sea of change we are always watching for, hoping for, searching the faces of officials for every time hate is leveled at the LGBTQ community. We look for that spark, that tone, those words that tell us we are human to you, we mean something to you, our pain and suffering are your pain and suffering, you consider us part of your community. This is what I hoped I saw in the reports coming out of Orlando this week.
But hope can sometimes make you see things that aren’t really there. To find out if the police response was what it appeared to be, I needed to speak with someone in the Orlando community. Gina Duncan, Equality Florida’s Director of Transgender Inclusion, was very generous with her time. “Oh, yes,” she said, “there is an amazingly close working relationship, even a personal relationship,” between the Orlando LGBTQ community and law enforcement. “It all comes out of the mayor’s office,” Ms. Duncan continued. She described Mayor Buddy Dyer’s support by saying, “he wanted to be the first mayor to marry the first gay couple” in Florida following the Supreme Court decision last year.
Acting on this community-building spirit, the Orlando Police Department utilizes LGBTQ liaison officers and works with community leaders and many Central Florida groups, including the Chamber of Commerce (Ms. Duncan is a former president), the Human Rights Campaign, Florida Equality, and the LGBT Center of Central Florida. In other words, this doesn’t happen by accident. Many dedicated people within Orlando city government and the LGBTQ community work hard to build and maintain these relationships. Everybody wins: the city wins the cooperation and good will of the LGBTQ community and the LGBTQ community wins a very large and supportive civic family. On that terrible morning, these relationships made an enormous difference. As Orlando grieves and works to restore itself, these relationships will make all the difference.
In times of tragedy, you want to know your mayor, police officers, and first responders feel compassion for you, will treat you with human dignity, and would do their best to help even if it were not in their job descriptions. Orlando city leaders have made this is true in their city. And other cities may make this claim as well. But there are cities in which African-American, Latino, or LGBTQ communities do not receive that kind of compassion, and cannot always expect treatment based on a foregoing assumption of their humanity. We must hope that Orlando’s bright example can inspire change in these troubled places.
The whole story was told ‘in the eyes’ of the police officers. It was also told in the voice and face of Mayor Dyer when he read the revised death toll. “It is with great sadness…”
And we can believe him.