Sean Philpott-Jones: Remembering The 49

Jun 15, 2017

This past Monday represented the one-year anniversary of the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida. Forty-nine people died and 53 were injured in what was the worst mass shooting in modern US history.  The victims’ only crime was that they were members or supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. They were singled out and murdered by a lone gunman motivated by homophobia and hatred.

Unfortunately, reports of gun violence and mass shootings are becoming increasingly routinized in the United States. As I write this commentary, politicians in our nation’s capital are still reeling from yesterday’s brazen attack on GOP Congressmen and staffers practicing for a charity baseball game. That was the 152nd such mass shooting this year; a similar yet more deadly attack occurred at a UPS facility in San Francisco the very same day. 

Republican and Democratic leaders, like the American electorate they represent, are as sharply divided as ever in their response to gun violence. Although they are united in their condemnation of yesterday’s assassination attempt, they disagree about whether or not stricter or looser gun control laws are the answer. Moreover, although both sides of the Congressional aisle agree that increasingly vitriolic partisan rhetoric of the past few years is partially to blame for the increase in politically motivated violence, they seem included to pay it lip service rather than change the rancorous tone in Washington, DC (at least if the news shows that I watched this morning are any indication).

That is a shame. I do believe that increasingly bitter political divide in this country is largely responsible for much of the violence (physical, verbal or otherwise) that has become commonplace in America. When we, as a society, ignore and even reward calls and acts of violence by our leaders – be they jokes about shooting reporters or political adversaries, hate-filled speeches on the campaign train, legislation that stigmatizes or discriminates against minorities, or the physical assault of a professional journalist on the eve of election day – we endorse it as a acceptable political tactic. That endorsement further bleeds over into everyday life, and we begin to ignore, permit, and even participate in violent acts against the most vulnerable among us.

Don’t believe me? Consider what has happened in the 368 days since the Pulse nightclub shooting. 

Hours after that shooting occurred, Republican and Democratic politicians alike took to popular and social media to express their condolences. It is important to note, however, that many of these same politicians have demonized members of the LGBT community in a cynical attempt to gain or retain their elected positions. The former Governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, who offered his prayers for the victims on Twitter, has also said that homosexuality is a “lifestyle,” that transgendered individuals are perverts and pedophiles, that legalizing same-sex marriage is analogous to legalizing incest, and that those living with HIV/AIDS patients should be quarantined to keep them away from good, decent Christian folk.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who flew the Florida flag from the Governor’s Mansion in an act of solidarity with Orlando’s victims, has called for a special session of that state’s legislature to push a law restricting the rights of transgender people to use public restrooms.

Then-Governor of Indiana Mike Pence, currently the Vice President of the United States, spoke publicly to “express [his] deepest sympathies, and prayers, especially to those in the LGBT community in the Orlando area, for the loss of loved ones, family members and friends in the midst of this horrific, horrific attack." At the time, Pence had also recently signed the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which allowed Indianans to discriminate against LGBT individuals on the basis of ill-defined religious beliefs. As a member of the Trump Administration, he is similarly pushing for national legislation that would similarly legalize discrimination as a matter of religious faith.

All of this hypocrisy and hate has had an effect. Despite all of the advances that the LGBT community has made in the last few decades – from increased public visibility and acceptance to the legalization of same-sex marriage – violence against sexual and gender minorities has increased. According to a recent report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), 2016 was the deadliest year on record for violence against LGBT people in the United States. In addition to the 49 victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre, another 28 individuals were killed in target hate crimes last year. Of the victims, 79% were people of color and 68% were transgender.

Even if we exclude the Orlando victims from our analysis, hate crimes and murders against members of the LGBT community increased by nearly 20% between 2015 and 2016. Worse yet, we are on track to meet or exceed that shameful record this year. Although we are not even half way through 2017, an additional 21 people have been murdered to date as a result of anti-LGBT violence. Such violence and hate against members of the LGBT community is persistent, occurring in their homes, schools, workplaces, and communities. Online and mobile harassment has increased, up 13% in 2016.

Although correlation is not causation, it is easy to see the links between this increase in violence and the current political climate. When cynical, insecure, or outright homophobic politicians in both parties push or support legislation to roll back or limit the rights and protections of this vulnerable community, it legitimizes anti-LGBT violence in the eyes of their more extreme supporters. Furthermore, it normalizes stigmatization, discrimination, and even violence as an acceptable form of political discourse and debate.

If politicians really want to combat violence triggered by what one Congressman called ‘political rhetorical terrorism,’ they need to stop pointing fingers their opponents, journalists, or social media. They need to point their finger at the mirror. “Do as I say, not as I do” will not solve this problem. It’s time to move on from the rancorous politics of the 2016 election and work together to solve the myriad of political, economic, and social challenges that face this country.

A public health researcher and ethicist by training, Dr. Sean Philpott-Jones is Director of  Research Ethics for the Bioethics Program of Clarkson University-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in Schenectady, New York. He is also Acting Director of  the Center for Bioethics and Clinical Leadership, and Project Director of its Advanced Certificate Program for Research Ethics in Central and Eastern Europe.

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