Column: Pride After Pulse, Gay Pagans Reflect on a Tragedy

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In the LGBTQ+ community, the month of June is the season of pride. While pride has its seeds as a protest movement spawned from the Stonewall riots of 1969, the trajectory of the movement has followed the trajectory of society’s inclusion of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and other sexually nonconforming communities. As the arc of society bent toward inclusion, pride evolved into a celebration that echoes the cry of some of its trailblazers: “Gay is good.” Within one human lifetime, the movement has evolved from protest to party. An act of rebellion against police brutality and discriminatory laws has turned into a joyful parade that often includes local law enforcement.

[Photo Credit: T. Titus]

But on June 12, 2016, everything changed. In the early morning hours of that day, a security guard named Omar Mateen brutally attacked the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida at the height of its pride celebrations. Swearing allegiance to Daesh, Mateen entered the club and murdered 49 patrons while wounding 58 others. The attack has been described as both the worst terrorist attack inside the United States since September 11, 2001 and the “deadliest incident of violence against LGBT people in United States history.”

Across the country, many of those who danced the pride night away that same evening woke up to the tragic news the next day. Since that terrible night, the community has had a year to process its pain and to decide how to respond. Eyes were on pride 2017 as organizers faced to harsh truth of a changed political environment, the pain of its members after the attack, and a resolve to continue to speak its truth.

In this vein, the Wild Hunt interviewed three Pagan members of the LGBTQ+ community who were celebrated pride in 2016 and woke up on June 13 to devastating news. Coming from different locations and backgrounds, each person has their own story to tell in the quest to both remember Pulse and to fight for a future without this kind of danger. Steve Kenson is co-founder and the Gemini Lead Minister of the Temple of Witchcraft, based in Salem, New Hampshire. His ministry in the organization includes overseeing its “Queer Mysteries.” Fred Isom is a Deputy Aries Minister for the Temple of Witchcraft who lives in Boston. Tammy is an eclectic Pagan from Huntington Beach, California. Each has their own perspective on the tragedy of June 12, 2016 and how the community has changed in the year that followed.

The Wild Hunt: What are your memories of the attack on Pulse Nightclub last year and how did it affect you in the immediate aftermath?

Steve Kenson: I learned of the attack on Sunday morning, after a successful day previously organizing the Temple of Witchcraft’s marching group for Boston Pride, followed by a fun night out with friends and fellow temple members. My initial reaction was one of complete shock, followed by a deep sense of fear, anger, and violation; having been out just the previous night doing exactly what the people at Pulse were doing, the closeness of the attack really hit home.”

FRED ISOM: As a resident of Boston, Pulse was harsh news to wake up to the morning of June 13 as we were celebrating LGBT Pride weekend. I had just spent an evening dancing, laughing, loving, and enjoying general merriment with my friends the night before. Little did any of us know that as we left the club at 2 a.m. when it closed, a few hundred miles down the coast a nightclub was being violated and attacked. When I woke later that morning, I saw the headlines and felt paralyzed with shock. I thought, “How could this be?! Oh my gods, it could have been me! It could have been my friends! But, it was still us!” And I just started to cry. I hadn’t even moved from bed, barely had the chance to wake up, and already my day had begun with a soul-crushingly deep sense of loss. Once I was up, I ate what breakfast I could and my phone messaging apps began chiming as friends were waking up and checking in to see if we’d all heard the news. It didn’t take long before the Boston chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence sprang into action to organize a vigil. That night I met up with many friends and a few hundred other community members as we sang by candle light and leaned on each other in support and mourning.

TAMMY: When I first saw the post on Facebook I felt shock and disbelief. I thought for sure it had to be a joke. Things like that just don’t happen nowadays in the LGBTQ community. When we go to our clubs, we are happy, party people and in our safe place with people who love and understand us. I always thought as long as we stuck together and stayed within our community, we wouldn’t be bothered by the haters. I remember thinking, “Oh my god! That could’ve been us.” [My partner] and I were traveling to Tampa the following week to visit family and we had talked about checking out the nightlife in Miami and Orlando. Needless to say, we didn’t do any clubbing while we were there, and I didn’t even want to set foot in Orlando.

TWH: What were the most important aspects of the LGBTQ community’s response immediately after the attack?

FI: In the wake of Pulse, we came together. We put aside individual differences and found a way to lean on each other. We gave ourselves space to be angry, to cry, and find answers, to seek justice, and to rally even louder that attacks on our community were not going to be tolerated. Enough was enough!

SK: I think the most important aspect of the LGBTQ community’s response is the tremendous compassion in the wake of a lot of grief and anger. You saw such an outpouring of support, of the community coming together, all of us feeling that this attack was against us all and that we needed to be there for each other. Moreover, although there were cynical and hysterical efforts from outside the community to try and use this attack to pit the queer community against Islam and Muslims, the community was having none of it, and recognized those efforts for what they were. If anything, there was a greater effort to protect innocent Muslims from retaliation, and more light shed on the challenges faced by queer people of color and queer Muslims.

T: I saw a lot of posts of support on Facebook from LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ people alike. PBS radio had several programs in support of our community and details of the Pulse nightmare. I felt well informed when it first happened. Later, I didn’t hear much about it so I had to search for details on the internet.

[Photo Credit: Fred Isom]

TWH: What influences, if any, do you feel the attack had on this year’s pride season and/or your local LQBTQ community?

T: I think it had a big impact on pride season. Now we know we’re not safe even in large groups in a big city so many people are going to stay home and not risk being the target of a terrorist/hate attack. I see the community taking a step back, not putting themselves out there so much, not promoting events like they used to, taking things underground and keeping details within our community.

FI: This year, in the Boston parade, there was a float dedicated to those lost in the Pulse attack. In addition to the float, many of the survivors of the attack that night actually came to Boston to ride the float in the parade. To see the float was a reminder of a horrendous event, but to see the survivors on the float dancing, embracing life, and showing that time can heal and help us move on was a powerful testament to what the LGBTQ community knows best: strength and survival.

SK: I think the Pulse attack and the political climate in the United States have energized and motivated the LGBTQ community with regard to activism and advocacy. There is a great deal more discussion and debate about the role of pride in the community, and reminders of its roots as a political protest and demand for civil rights and equal treatment. I know from personal experience that this year’s pride saw more participation on a lot of levels: young people and others who were understandably afraid to attend a pride event who did so anyway, elders and other lapsed attendees coming back to pride to show their support at this time, more allies from outside the LGBTQ community showing solidarity, and a general feeling of defiance, of pride as a declaration that no tragedy, no attack, no political setback, could divert the community for its dedication to equality, fairness, and justice for everyone.

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The pride movement was born from defiance, and it seems to be staying true to its roots. While it may have entered a more somber tone for now, the attack of June 12, 2016 seems to have only stoked the fire of defiance. Where Mateen may have believed he was starting a fire of rebellion against gays and lesbians, and where he may have succeeded in creating shock and despair, in the year since that night, and for the foreseeable future, the movement has returned strongly and is more determined.

There are great challenges ahead, but Kenson, noting his ministry within the Temple of Witchcraft, has thoughts for the future as he places the past year into a larger context:

“As a keeper of a particular kind of sacred mysteries, I think experiences over the past year or so have highlighted the need for us to find and explore more ways to embrace both diversity and solidarity, to give everyone the space to be who they are and to meet them there, while negotiating the often tricky liminal spaces between our uniqueness. I think it is much more complex and difficult than monolithic over-culture, but ultimately more fair, just, open, and healthy for both society and all involved. The key to our success with it will be the empathy and compassion that has seen the queer community (and others) through so many challenges and tragedies before.”

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.