Up went the flag, and out poured the hate.
Less than a week after the massacre of 49 people at a gay bar in Orlando, Florida, officials in nearby Tampa raised the rainbow flag — a symbol of LGBT pride — in solidarity with victims.
That didn’t sit well with some Hillsborough County employees. One made an anonymous phone call to county Commissioner Stacy White, according to the Tampa Bay Times, saying the rainbow flag flying above the county government complex was “nearly unbearable” for her to see.
White suggested the flag is creating a “hostile work environment.”
“I wish to state for the record that, even if there is deemed to be zero liability from an HR perspective, it is still — in my view — unconscionable that the county administrator didn’t express to the board that this divisive symbol might create an uncomfortable workplace environment for many of his employees,” White wrote in an email to the county’s HR director, the report says.
Then there were the were numbingly familiar statements from conservative pastors.
“Hey, are you sad that 50 pedophiles were killed today?” Sacramento, California, pastor Roger Jimenez said from the pulpit the Sunday of the shooting. “No, I think that’s great. I think that helps society. I think Orlando, Florida is a little safer tonight … The tragedy is more of ’em didn’t die.”
These incidents are petty in light of the scale and depth of grief still roiling central Florida. They also don’t represent the views of Americans, a majority of whom support LGBT inclusion and rights. I’d much rather use this column to tell you about protesters who dressed as angels to prevent victims’ funerals from being picketed by bigots. Or the young man who came out to his parents as a result of the attack.
But the case of the “nearly unbearable” LGBT pride flag is sadly worth highlighting because it says something about our country: Even in the wake of one of the deadliest mass shootings in history, one that specifically targeted members of the LGBT community, politicians and religious leaders are unable to offer unalloyed support.
For us LGBT Americans to truly be safe, we need broader acceptance (seeing our flag should at the very least be “bearable”) and equal rights. Despite the outpouring of support after Orlando, it’s become sadly apparent that we haven’t made nearly enough progress as we’d hoped.
Let’s start with rights. Yes, same-sex couples can get married in this country. (Hallelu!) But Florida, the site of the anti-gay massacre, is one of many states where gays and lesbians can be fired — legally — simply because of who they are. The situation is similar for gay tenants. Don’t like ’em? You can evict us, no trouble, in many jurisdictions that inexplicably continue to offer no protections to LGBT renters in 2016.
Aside from bigotry, what excuse is there for this legal lapse? And what message does it send to young LGBT people, who still commit suicide and face homelessness at outsize rates because of discrimination they face from parents and society?
On acceptance, too, we’ve made incredible strides. LGBT people are more visible now than ever in America. And as gay rights activists have known since at least the mid-1900s, visibility equals safety. (That’s why “coming out” is seen as an act that’s both personal and political.)
Yet homophobia and transphobia continue to be a scourge. We saw that on a truly horrific scale in Orlando last week. And then in a smaller way at the courthouse in Tampa. Both sentiments branch from the same tree. They set a group of people — LGBT people — apart as a less-human “other.” Throughout history, it’s been easier to justify taking rights from, slurring and perpetuating violence against people labeled as the “other.”
In the immediate aftermath of the Orlando massacre, many Republicans failed to mention that LGBT people and Latinos were targeted. Others, including Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, did offer condolences, but have failed to support policies that protect this community.
Platitudes need to be followed with real efforts to extinguish hate and change laws.
Donald Trump, for example, can’t proclaim support for LGBT people out of one side of his mouth and say from the other that he would consider appointing Supreme Court judges who would try to overturn marriage equality. And Florida’s officials — including Bondi, who came to the nation’s attention after an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper — can’t honestly present themselves as friends to the LGBT community if they don’t also move quickly to enact housing and employment and housing protections.
It’s unclear what precisely motivated the Orlando shooter. But it certainly wasn’t love or compassion — two sentiments that are symbolized by that rainbow flag raised above a court complex in Tampa.
That flag is anything but a “divisive symbol.” It’s part of what makes America great.
Most Americans realize that. It’s politicians and preachers who need to catch up.