There was a time in American politics when the triad of God, guns and gays turned elections.
The tagline is shorthand for conservatives’ anxiety about changing social norms and perceived threats to traditional American liberties. A sure bet to rile up the Republican base was to harp about gay people demanding marriage equality, imagined attacks upon Christianity and a call to arms to protect the Second Amendment. Some of that rhetoric still works.
But in the aftermath of the outright slaughter of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., the pairing of gays and guns is beginning to take on a far different meaning. Gays and lesbians saw the murders at the Pulse nightclub as an attack on their community — one that was facilitated by easy access to guns by someone who clearly shouldn’t have had that right.
The hashtag #DisarmHate began showing up in social media. It was simple step to begin seeing that the country’s lax and ineffective gun laws are part of the problem. A Sig Sauer MCX rifle, a gun built for the military, had turned anti-gay sentiment lethal. Gay activism on gun law reforms began to coalesce.
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Don’t underestimate LGBTQ activists. They battled the scourge of AIDS. They shifted the national conversation on same-sex marriage to widespread public acceptance, culminating in the historic decision a year ago by the U.S. Supreme Court striking down state-level bans on such unions.
Gays get things done.
This isn’t just about votes. It’s about change. Gay voters already strongly lean Democrat. Their widespread support for Hillary Clinton is assured. Work on firearm violence, that’s new.
Less than a week after the Pulse nightclub shooting, the Human Rights Campaign had taken up common-sense gun violence prevention as a new calling. Since then, more alliances have been forming. Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action held a press call-in and included the National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund and the National Center for Transgender Equality.
The tone of these interactions was decidedly different from the theatrics Democrats were staging in Congress, filibusters and sit-ins. Not that there would be much disagreement for the push to force a vote on expanded background checks and keeping people on terrorism watch lists from purchasing firearms.
But the House Democrats’ demands were just that: cries for a vote on amendments that surely would not pass the Senate. It was clear that bipartisan support didn’t exist. And there are still questions about the accuracy of government watch lists in the first place. The groundwork for good legislation, for making substantial change, wasn’t complete.
House Speaker Paul Ryan effectively shut down the Democrats’ sit-in, turning off the lights and sending members home for the long Fourth of July break.
What gay activists learned from the AIDS crisis, from the fight for gay marriage, is that changing attitudes is as necessary as changing laws. Without that, efforts fail or constantly face pushback.
In recent talks, many activists in LGBTQ organizations have stressed the need to sign up for a long-haul approach to gun violence. And if gay groups continue on this path, they will find many complicating factors. They will find the National Rifle Association a formidable foe with deep pockets.
For too long, the NRA has owned the messaging on gun legislation. The organization is adept at influencing people to believe that their safety is only protected by weaponry, to dismissively sidestep the easy access to guns by criminals and all but ignore the thousands of people harmed in gun accidents and those who take their lives in firearm suicides.
Its pitch is black and white, staking out an extremist position that rarely recognizes the common ground that could be cultivated.
Russell Roybal, interim executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund, had been to Pulse. He, like so many other gay people, knew it as a place of safety and camaraderie.
“We are no strangers to being the targets of violence,” Roybal said during the call-in with Everytown. “Unfortunately, every LGBTQ person knows that our safety is never guaranteed, especially those of us of color.”
Indeed, gay people know marginalization, what it is like to have their lives not valued. But they helped write the playbook on fighting dismissive attitudes with proactive patience.
Time will tell if their grieving over Orlando can be transformed into a movement to curb gun violence. It’s possible that this relatively small political bloc can show us a way to finally bring some sanity to America’s conflicted relationship with guns.