Last week, I went on one of those New York dates that make you feel like you’re living in a movie. We met for lunch in a hip little café called Cheeky Sandwiches near Chinatown. I looked into his eyes and instantly felt that zing. It was the kind of zing that doesn’t last more than a day, granted, but it was a zing nevertheless. God, he had a great smile. After an hour we went outside and he took my hand. High on that rarified air of a first date, we kissed there on the street.
We decided to check out the new Metrograph arthouse cinema on Ludlow Street, but the film we wanted to see was sold out — New Yorkers love air-conditioning in June — so we wandered around Soho, stopping to kiss on more street corners along the way. We spent a couple of hours looking at art in the New Museum, embraced in the elevator and, my date noticed, a patron surreptitiously took our picture. ‘A weird thing to do at an art gallery,’ I thought, ‘but it happens.’
Afterwards, we browsed a bookstore where my date bought me, "Boy With Thorn" by Rickey Laurentiis, a collection of powerful and bleak poems about the lynching of African slaves and, according to the book jacket, "queer lives ravaged by hate." Not to be read on a first date, I figured, and I put the book away. Seven hours later, at the entrance to the subway, we kissed goodbye. Like all romantic movies, I felt like anything was possible.
The U.S. has made great strides in the five years I’ve lived here. In June 2015, the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act and extended marriage rights to all Americans, one month after Ireland’s marriage equality referendum. You don’t know the full weight of oppression until it has been lifted. It felt different waking up in a country that now had marriage for all and even casual dating feels different too. On this filmic date on a sunny day in Manhattan, I felt happy and optimistic. I felt free.
‘It was like a horror movie’
The night before in Orlando, Florida, Omar Mateen armed with an assault rifle, opened fire in the gay nightclub Pulse, killing 49 people and injuring 53 others. Survivors described the unrealness of it all. "It sounded like a horror movie, it didn't sound real," Michael Belvedere, a bartender, told the Miami Herald. When Christopher Hansen, fled the club on June 12, according to ABC13 local television station, he said, "This is like a horror movie, are we safe?"
There are lots of theories why he opened fire that night — he had pledged allegiance to terrorist organizations and was emotionally disturbed among them. In an interview with NBC News his father, Mir Seddique, said, “We were in downtown Miami, Bayside, people were playing music. And he saw two men kissing each other in front of his wife and kid and he got very angry.” Gay venues are usually a safe space, more so even than the streets of Miami or New York.
As a result of that interview, the hashtag #TwoMenKissing trended on Twitter. Two rallies outside the Stonewall bar in the West Village, widely regarded as the birth of the gay rights movement, after the attack were attended by thousands of people —gay and straight. Many socially conservative lawmakers who had previously spoken against same-sex marriage were publicly falling over themselves to support their gay constituents (sometimes to accusations of hypocrisy).
But there has been an outpouring of love and support from the wider community, too. Shortly after the attack, about a dozen members of an Orthodox Jewish congregation showed up to a gay bar in Washington, D.C. in their yarmulkes to show their solidarity and buildings lit up with rainbow colors across the land. Empowered by that, I have never felt so safe as I do at this moment. But it is a complicated safety: the personal always feels political when you are gay.
Progress in LGBT rights
Support for same-sex marriage and acceptance of homosexuality has steadily risen in recent years, according to the Pew Research Center think tank. The percentage of adults who say society should accept homosexuality has risen to 63% from 51% a decade ago. It has been a long time coming. Support is lower among Republicans than Democrats, but the trend is clear. Over the same period acceptance of same-sex marriage grew from 35% to more than half.
In 2013, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to prohibit employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating against workers on the basis of their sexual orientation, although religious organizations would be exempt. And, last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said employment discrimination based on sexual orientation was prohibited under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The Boy Scouts of America lifted the ban on gay scouts after a proposal to partially remove the ban was submitted to the 1,400 voting members of the National Council. And pressure from the media and financial donors, the group last year ended the ban on openly gay scout leaders too with 79% of the national executive board voting in favor, showing that even some of the country’s most traditional institutions are changing with the times (if they need a push).
And on March 17, I marched with the Lavender and Green Alliance, the first Irish LGBT group in New York's St. Patrick's Day Parade in 25 years. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio marched with us, as did Edie Windsor. We were placed near the end of the parade and, despite the media coverage suggesting otherwise, most of the crowds along the route had all but dispersed. But we were there and I still believe America is one of the best countries in the world to be gay.
New York is not America
In the five years I have spent living here, I have never been the subject of a homophobic slur. It took just one day for that to happen when I was back in Ireland for the Marriage Equality referendum last year. I was holding a dozen rainbow-colored roses and walking up Clanbrassil Street in Dublin when a group of teenagers cycled by yelling profanities. I am not exactly proud of how I responded, but I am pretty sure I flipped them the bird. (That’s the middle finger in American slang.)
New York is not America, I know. Almost one in five people who were the victim of hate crimes were targeted due to their sexual orientation, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the same percentage as those targeted due to their religious affiliation. Another 1.8% of hate crimes were motivated by a person's sexual identity, a staggering rate given that there are an estimated 700,000 transgender people in a country with a population of over 320 million people.
"We're living in a nation where there are literally hundreds of proposed laws pending that are aimed at discriminating against LGBT people," says Hayley Gorenberg, deputy legal director at Lambda Legal, a New York-based HIV and LGBT civil rights group. "Accompanying those proposed laws is overwhelming rhetoric about LGBT people being worthy of suspicion, distrust and even worse." One by one, however, many of those bills have been steadily defeated.
I finally read “Boy With Thorn,” a book with themes of love, betrayal, violence and survival. This is the final line of the title poem: “He shut the thorn up in his foot, and told his foot/Walk.” Members of the LGBT community in the U.S. have walked a long and, sometimes, treacherous road. June is Gay Pride month, a time when Pride parades will once again be held in hundreds of American cities and small towns. We will march for those lives lost in Orlando. We will be defiant. And we will be seen.
Quentin Fottrell is a writer and editor living in New York.