Was the mass shooting in an Orlando gay club by a self-proclaimed jihadist a hate crime or a terrorist act? The label affixed to the tragic violence that left 49 people dead Sunday matters greatly to politicians, lobbyists, and organizers all over the ideological map. To LGBT advocates, in particular, the notion that an anti-gay attack during Pride Week should trigger intensive debate over guns and homeland security, while sweeping hate crimes under the rug, adds insult to injury.
“I think it’s incredibly distressing that LGBT people are being ignored,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, on the Diane Rehm Show Monday.
The Orlando shootings by gunman Omar Mateen, an American who had pledged loyalty to the Islamic State, captures the challenges facing the LGBT community as their political clout continues to grow. One year after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling has triggered a backlash that includes more than 100 anti-LGBT bills introduced in state legislatures around the country. The bills typically legalize denials of certain types of services to same-sex couples under the umbrella of “religious freedom,” or target transgender individuals by barring them from bathrooms and other public spaces.
At the same time, public opinion on LGBT issues has shifted dramatically in the U.S., turning anti-gay rhetoric that was once effective at mobilizing conservatives into a virtual political nonstarter. More than half of Americans (55 percent) now support same-sex marriage, and LGBT tolerance is growing internationally. The Orlando nightclub assault prompted a United Nations Security Council statement this week condemning the attack for “targeting persons as a result of their sexual orientation” that was signed by countries like Egypt and Russia that harass and imprison LGBT people.
LGBT political organizers in the U.S., having emerged as a national force at the height of the AIDS epidemic, now boast a growing network of field operatives focused on cultivating an LGBT farm team of state and local candidates, as well as on electing LGBT-friendly lawmakers to Congress. The Human Right Campaign PAC has raised more than $1 million in this election, and the group’s super PAC has brought in $267,000. The group’s biggest 2016 expenditure so far has been just under $254,000 to support Hillary Clinton.
A separate group, the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, operates a modest PAC but is recruiting and training state and local candidates, bundling contributions on their behalf, and deploying field volunteers to assist them. The Victory Fund’s heavy focus on down-ballot races reflects organizers’ conviction that state and local officials can have the biggest impact on the daily lives of LGBT individuals. The group’s research, perhaps not surprisingly, finds that anti-LGBT legislation drops as the number of LGBT office holders serving in municipal and state legislatures goes up. The group has endorsed 125 candidates so far in this election, and expects to back as many as 300.
“Part of our mission here is to build a pipeline of elected leaders so there are people to actually ask when a congressional seat comes up,” says Martine Apodaca, the Victory Fund’s vice president of political operations and communications.
Characteristically, Donald Trump has dominated much of the commentary following the Orlando shooting, having doubled down on his anti-Muslim rhetoric, questioned President Barack Obama’s allegiances, and declared that he (Trump) would do a better job than Clinton at protecting gays from violence. Trump’s relationship with the LGBT community is complicated by his self-contradictory defense of and public friendships with LGBT individuals, and his opposition to same-sex marriage.
“Donald Trump has made very clear that he would appoint someone to the U.S. Supreme Court that would roll back marriage equality,” said Warbelow, of the Human Rights Campaign, on Diane Rehm. “He has offered no policy solutions for improving the lives of LGBT people. In contrast, Hillary Clinton has a very detailed plan to address the wide range of experiences of the LGBT community, from addressing transgender people’s ability to serve in the military, to the Equality Act, which would guarantee that LGBT people can’t be discriminated against in all aspects of their lives, from employment to housing and even jury service.”
Apodaca, of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, sounded a similar note: “Violence and hate seem to follow Donald Trump wherever he goes.” Organizers at the Victory Fund have cast the Orlando shooting as both a hate crime and a gun issue. Politicians have responded to Orlando “with the usual platitudes of thoughts and prayers,” wrote Victory Fund President Aisha Moodie-Mills in an op-ed this week, but these won’t solve the “horror-show episodes of murdered Americans who paid for the absurdity of our gun ‘laws’ with their lives.”
As Apodaca puts it, “gun violence is an LGBT issue.” Indeed, the potential exists for LGBT advocates to tap into some of the same public concerns as gun safety advocates, who are becoming increasingly well-organized and well-funded. After the Orlando shootings, the gun safety group Americans for Responsible Solutions changed its Facebook profile picture to a rainbow flag, and issued a statement that underscored its support for goals from “women’s rights to civil rights to LGBT rights to worker’s rights to veterans rights.”
Both gun safety and LGBT advocates responded to the Orlando tragedy with calls for action and pledges to redouble their political engagement—and both may be nearing a political tipping point. Republicans, including Trump, are taking a fresh look at the issue of gun restrictions, particularly the question of whether individuals on terror watch lists should be banned from purchasing firearms.
Nevertheless, LGBT organizers say the shooting only increases the urgency of electing LGBT officials to office. “We have more political power than ever—because of the defeats, and because it’s been so hard earned,” says Apodaca. “Our opponents will win a battle or two, but they are definitely losing the war.”