ORLANDO — Fifi is a 50-year-old transgender woman living in rural Louisiana. She knows discrimination. She knows hate. But until one year ago on Monday, when a gunman opened fire at a gay nightclub in Orlando, killing 49, she always found a way to face negativity with bigger-than-life boldness.
“I (would) not be caught dead in less than 5-inch heels!” she said, laughing.
Now, largely because of Orlando, she said, she is back in the closet.
No heels, no makeup, no earrings.
It’s become easier — safer, she says — to present herself consistently as James, the name given to her at birth, rather than show her true identify.
“We have fought so far — so hard. And, honestly, I thought we were making huge progress,” Fifi said of the American LGBTQ community. “And now, because of one incident, everybody is looking over their shoulder again.”
The Orlando massacre pushed some LGBTQ people back into the closet
For many people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community in the United States, the attack on a gay nightclub on June 12, 2016, generated shockwaves that are still reverberating through their daily lives.
We wanted to hear these stories, so we set up a mailbox — +1 646-535-9720 — where you could leave voicemails about your experiences.
After listening to dozens of messages, two trends became clear: Some LGBTQ people, like Fifi, find themselves living in fear, surrounded by discrimination and hate. Fifi said she went to a fast-food restaurant in Louisiana on the day after the shooting, for example, and heard people laughing at televised scenes of LGBTQ people running from a nightclub under siege.
“America thinks of gun violence like bad weather,” said another caller, Chip, a 27-year-old technician in southern Florida.
“Since (the Orlando shooting), I’ve stopped willingly disclosing the fact that I am a gay man. … Whenever a vague or casual conversation gets started about dating or whatever, I have to strain sentences to their breaking point so I don’t use gender-specific pronouns. And if it comes down to it, I will just out-and-out lie. I do feel cowardly,” he said in an interview, “but on the other hand I don’t know that they’d care if I got shot.”
Others, conversely, were emboldened by the attack.
Others decided to come out because of it
“Seeing these things, I realized that … I can come out! I can be open!”
That’s Zach, a 19-year-old college student in Pittsburgh.
After the Pulse shooting, “it seemed as though America finally realized that these are people just like everybody else,” he said in a voicemail. “Seeing that, it really helped me to be able to come to terms with who I was as a person — to not be ashamed. And the following week, I actually came out to my family.”
Now, he’s able to be himself with his family, rather than putting on a “fake persona,” he said. Zach said he volunteers with an LGBTQ club on his campus.
Matt, 17, was at church in Arizona when he learned of the massacre. After the service, “as I started hearing more and more about it on the way to get lunch with my family, I kinda was like, ‘Well, what can I do in this situation? I’m not nearby. I don’t know anyone who was physically involved.’ ”
He wanted to help. His way of doing so: coming out as bisexual.
He did so at lunch that very day.
“Coming out to my family was a way for me to pay tribute to those who lost their lives,” he said in a phone interview. “It was my way of, at least to myself, saying that I was with those people (who died in Orlando). I was supporting them. I was supporting their families. I was supporting the community.”
The gravity of the shooting at Pulse “hit me later that night,” he said, “and that’s when I had the full emotional meltdown, I guess, realizing that this kind of thing happens. And this kind of thing actually happens in a country that I thought was at least relatively tolerant” of LGBTQ people.
If the shooting hadn’t occurred, he said, he would still be hiding his identity.
“In this past year, I’ve been more confident about who I am than ever,” Schildt said. “I saw it as a way of not letting the homophobia win. This kind of thing can happen, but I’m not going to live in fear.”
Some of you told us you avoid gay bars now
None of the voicemails was from friends or relatives of those who were killed. Most were not from Florida, either. The stories we’re telling here can’t compare to the grief and pain of those who lost loved ones in Orlando. Still, LGBTQ people across the country saw themselves in this attack. They knew that this community finds security and comfort in the gay bar, an institution where queer people can be themselves, free from discrimination. And they saw that safe space violated.
It’s telling that some people say they have not returned to gay bars in the year since the shooting. “After the Orlando shooting, I won’t go to a club again,” said Dalya, a 37-year-old bisexual woman in Brooklyn. “I’m so terrified by the hatred that’s going on around the world.”
These fears are especially heightened for some Latino members of the LGBTQ community.
Pulse was hosting a Latin night at the time of the shooting, so both communities felt targeted by the gunman. “After Orlando, it’s hard to feel comfortable,” said Arian, a 32-year-old Mexican-American man in Minneapolis. “You don’t really know what people are thinking about you.”
Now, he said, “a gay bar is no longer a safe place.”
Others worry legal protections for LGBTQ people are declining
Another theme emerges in the voice messages: whiplash.
One year before the Orlando shooting, in June 2015, the US Supreme Court granted same-sex couples in all states the right to marry. It felt, to many, like full acceptance might be inevitable.
Now, however, some legal experts who focus on LGBTQ issues say the community actually feels less protected — both legally and in terms of family and friends — than before the shooting at Pulse.
“It’s quite disappointing that the outpouring of support (after Orlando), which I think was genuine and came from all elements of our society, has not resulted in political efforts that are designed to protect our community,” David Dinielli, deputy director of the LGBT rights and special litigation project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization, said in an interview. “Rather, we have seen a tremendous continued effort to demonize us.
“I had thought that a mass attack on the LGBT population might have given people an impetus to develop empathy,” he said, “and that it might spark a conversation about all of the ways in which LGBT people are still excluded” from certain legal protections and aspects of society.
Consider that gay and lesbian people still can be fired from private-employer jobs, legally, in 28 states, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT rights organization. ProPublica reports that a handful of recent state hate-crime proposals that would have included explicit protections for LGBT people were defeated in part based on fears of a “homosexual agenda.”
Further, some states have been trying to withdraw rights. In May, Alabama’s governor, Kay Ivey, signed into law a bill that is said to allow some state-funded adoption agencies to refuse service to LGBTQ couples. And this month, the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, called a special legislative session partly to resolve disputes over a bill that could prevent transgender people from using the public bathroom that matches their gender identity.
Forward progress seems to have ceased.
Many LGBTQ people wonder: Are we moving backward?
The tragedy was felt deeply across the county
For Fifi, the transgender woman in rural Louisiana, the Orlando killings unearthed personal tragedy. She says she has suffered physical and verbal abuse because of her identity. The massacre brought all of that back, she said, in a way so haunting, it caused part of her to disappear. Although she hadn’t always presented herself in public as a woman before the shooting, she has stopped displaying her female identity completely now, she said.
Her friends have watched this painful transition, too.
“It’s like the bottom just fell out of his world,” said Teresa, 53, a close friend of Fifi’s. She referred to Fifi as both “he” and “she,” a sign of Fifi’s conflicted status.
“It’s just like it broke him,” Teresa said. “He doesn’t want to be Fifi anymore.”
Truly, it’s not that Fifi doesn’t want to be herself.
It’s that one year after Orlando, she no longer feels safe.