I can tell you that the Orlando massacre is one in a series of assaults on the LGBTQ community, and that those who survived tell a deep and compelling story — largely untold — about LGBTQ people in this country.
THE June 12 anniversary of the brutal murder of 49 people — mostly LGBTQ — in a packed Florida nightclub is not an anniversary we willingly recall. And it’s not because we don’t care. It’s because we can’t make sense of a tragedy that makes no sense.
For the last 25 years, I’ve been researching the health and well-being of LGBTQ individuals as they age across generations. I can tell you that the Orlando massacre is one in a series of assaults on the LGBTQ community, and that those who survived tell a deep and compelling story — largely untold — about LGBTQ people in this country.
When I began my research in the early 1990s into what eventually would become the first national study of health and aging of LGBTQ older adults, I was told that no one would participate — that gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people were too stigmatized, too closeted, too depressed, too whatever. But when we sent out our first surveys with the help of community agencies, the rate of response was overwhelming. In the margins of returned surveys, we found handwritten notes from those who said their response to our survey was the first time they had told anyone that they were LGBTQ. This was a population that wanted to tell its story.
So, how does Orlando inform this story? First, it reminds us that historical trauma exists. Decades before Orlando became the single deadliest mass public shooting in America, the LGBTQ community in New Orleans experienced a horrifying loss: On the final day of Pride Weekend, June 24, 1973, the stairs leading to a gay bar called the UpStairs Lounge were set on fire, killing 32 people. About half of those had gathered to discuss a fundraiser for a local charity. Like Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, the UpStairs Lounge was more than a place to party; it was a place where a community of like-minded people could come together around common causes and shared challenges.
Our research shows that relentless adversity, stigma and social exclusion have accumulative and negative impacts on health. Sixty-four percent of our participants said they have experienced victimization and discrimination at least three times. Many health-care providers don’t have the knowledge and skills necessary to provide culturally relevant care. Previous negative experiences also may inhibit LGBTQ people from being open with their doctors, and as a result restrict information about potential health concerns such as breast or prostate cancer or HIV risks.
Orlando also says something about LGBTQ diversity. When most people close their eyes, and hear the words “gay bar,” they see young, fit, white men. Our research tells us something quite different: Sexual orientation and gender identity and expression are not specific to race, ethnicity, gender, sex, age, ability or income. Florida has the third-largest Hispanic population in the country, and those at Pulse on the night of the shooting reflected that diversity — the majority of those murdered were Latino. The victims ranged in age from 18 to 50.
Orlando also tells us that LGBTQ communities are inclusive. Some of the victims at Pulse were straight family and friends — allies who have historically supported the long march against marginalization. Inside Pulse, Brenda Lee Marquez McCool died protecting her son, Isaiah Henderson. Extraordinary acts of bravery like this break our hearts, but they also sustain our resolve.
Today, through our annual survey, I see an uptick in fear among our participants who have walked out of the shadow cast by discrimination. Our research shows that discrimination is the strongest predictor of poor health among LGBTQ older adults. As the climate for change has cooled, our community is increasingly confronted with attacks, such as the anti-trans bathroom bills. Orlando remains a dark reminder of hatred in this otherwise celebratory month when Pride events are held around the country and world.
It’s important to remember that most LGBTQ older adults are doing well. Though at risk, they are resilient, with many strengths. And our most recent research shows that policies embracing social inclusion can make a difference. The impact of marriage equality is significant and positive — our participants who are married report better health, are more out, and have greater social and economic resources than couples who are not married.
In the end, Orlando tells us that LGBTQ individuals, though perceived — and sometimes targeted — as the “other,” represent the ordinary yet profound aspirations for community and connection that we all share.