In 1990, a gay man was murdered in our neighborhood of Jackson Heights, New York. He was not murdered by a Muslim, not by a backwoods yahoo or a criminal gang. He was murdered by three white teenagers, the products of good Christian church-going families. They left a party swearing to “find a faggot or a homeless person to stretch out.” They found Julio Rivera. They bludgeoned him with the claw end of a hammer and finished him off with a knife.
The police, not wanting the press looking over their shoulder, refused to call it a hate crime. Julio was Latino, so of course they thought they could get away with calling it a drug deal gone bad. It fell to the LGBT community to raise the alarm and force the authorities to take action.
Knowing that the local police did not see my community as worthy of protection, you can imagine how frightened I was given that the murderers’ friends, self-styled skinheads, were on our streets, trying to intimidate us activists with sneers and glares. For several years.
Last Saturday night’s massacre in Orlando — and that’s the word for it; tragedy is too literary for me – the massacre brought back my fears from those horrible days.
And that, of course, is the very purpose of a hate crime: to intimidate into submission and invisibility the entire community targeted for extermination.
Call it terrorism if you prefer, but I do not blame the Muslims. I do not blame the Muslim religion or their community just because the killer was a Muslim. I blame the people who have taught America whom it’s okay to hate.
• The conservative state legislatures that delight in rescinding the civil rights ordinances passed in their more progressive cities
• The conservative governors – and one presidential candidate – who use fear and hatred to motivate their voters
• The conservative-dominated US Congress that allowed the ban on assault weapons to expire and never be renewed (defying, by the way, their hero Ronald Reagan, who supported the ban)
• Religious leaders of all faiths who tell their congregations – including the little children sitting in the pews – that homosexuality is a sin. Lord only knows what they say about transgender people.
• And the supposedly enlightened media, who adopt the language of our enemies when they call civil rights legislation “bathroom bills.”
In case you think that all this hatred takes place somewhere far away, you should know that as I sat in Patrick’s Pub last night, writing this speech, I overheard a man at the next table say, about Orlando, “Those gays deserved it.” I told him to always lower his voice when he says kike, faggot, spic, or the N-word. One of us might be at the next table.
Yes, it may turn out that the killer harbored homosexual urges. Urges that he was taught by ISIS and American thought leaders to hate, and hence to hate himself. (That’s how I felt for the first 30 years of my life.) And when disordered thinking marries fascist ideology, violence is bound to erupt, sometimes in murder, sometimes in suicide.
I know I will sleep better tonight after being surrounded by political, civic, and religious leaders who see me and my fellow Rainbow Seniors as community members worth protecting. And most of all, I will sleep better tonight having seen all you warm and wonderful neighbors who gathered to express sympathy and support.
But I will still wake up tomorrow afraid.
What I won’t do, and what I hope the members of Rainbow Seniors won’t do, is allow this act of hatred to prevent us from gathering at our meetings, our picnics, and our public events. We have worked too hard to overcome the dreadful messages we were raised to believe about ourselves. And we need to be around to show the children who are growing up worried about their sexuality that they can grow up to be old, fat, and happy, like me, no matter who they are.
And so we will hold in our hearts the love and support you are demonstrating tonight. We will not go back. Thank you.