On the opening evening of PrideFest Milwaukee 2014, joy swept through the Summerfest grounds as news that a federal judge had overturned the state law banning same-sex marriage spread quickly.
The final day of PrideFest this year brought very different emotions, as the community struggled to comprehend the calculated, hate-driven slaughter of at least 49 people in a gay dance club in Orlando, Florida.
It was the largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
News of the massacre spread slowly through Milwaukee June 12. Some spectators at the annual Milwaukee Pride Parade in Walker’s Point learned about it from a banner carried by marchers representing the Democratic Party of Wisconsin that read, “Wis Dems Stand in Solidarity Orlando.”
As Milwaukee was winding up its Pride weekend, the bodies of the fallen were being removed from Pulse Orlando, where “Latin Night” was turned into a bloodbath when Omar Mateen, 29, entered the club near closing time and shot 102 revelers. The majority of those killed were gay Hispanic men.
Investigators and people who knew and worked with Mateen have described him as an angry, unhinged bigot who bragged about his ties to various Islamic terrorist groups. He was a familiar face at Pulse, and he’d carefully planned his attack in advance.
Law enforcement officials notified PrideFest organizers about the atrocity early June 12. Acting together, PrideFest staff and public safety officers worked to expand the Milwaukee Police Department’s presence at the event. Volunteers stepped up to increase the festival’s security staff.
Bereavement counselors were present to speak with people traumatized by the pervasive news about the attack. Festival organizers created a makeshift shrine on the lakefront where people could pay silent respect to the slain.
PrideFest also scheduled a 4 p.m. memorial service, where Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the rainbow-colored word “Proud,” joined others at the podium on the mainstage to deliver calls for unity.
But, primarily they urged Milwaukeeans not to succumb to fear.
“Today is a day to come out, to be seen and to be heard, in honor of those whose day was stolen from them,” said PrideFest communications director Michail Takach in a news release distributed before the festival grounds opened June 12. “Today is a day to remember where we started and why we started. Today is a day for solidarity.”
VIGILS ACROSS THE STATE
In the aftermath of the tragedy, LGBT Wisconsinites and their allies came together in vigils throughout the state. People gathered to express their grief, denounce hatred and call for gun control. Flags flew at half-staff in Milwaukee and other cities.
Milwaukee’s vigil took place June 13 outside the south entrance of Milwaukee City Hall, which was draped with a giant rainbow flag. Hundreds of people crowded the wide intersection at East Wells and North Water streets. Some held candles and others miniature rainbow flags or U.S. flags donated by Oak Creek-based Eder Flag Manufacturing Co., which has a distribution facility in the Orlando area.
Organizers of the vigil were Milwaukee Pride, Diverse & Resilient, Islamic Society of Milwaukee, UWM LGBT Resource Center, Cream City Foundation, Milwaukee Jewish Federation, Planned Parenthood, FORGE, Milwaukee Metropolitan Community Church, the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center and several other groups.
Speaker Brenda Coley cautioned listeners “not to make this about Islam — it’s about homophobia through and through.” She urged her audience to bring people together and counter hate.
Karen Gotlzer, the executive director of the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center, also spoke, reminding the crowd that despite the legalization of same-sex marriage and other recent strides toward equality, what happened in Orlando “reminds us that we have very much to do.”
“This happened against a backdrop of anti-LGBT legislation that is sweeping the country,” Gotzler said, referring to the recent enactment of “bathroom bills” in some states, most famously in North Carolina. The laws ban transgender people from using restrooms that correspond to their gender identity. Wisconsin Republicans tried to introduce such a law in the last session of the Legislature and have vowed to do so again.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett delivered a speech that brought many listeners to tears. He began by thanking “each and every one of you for being here tonight to demonstrate and display the humanity we have in this city.”
“As Americans, when some of us are hurting, all of us are hurting,” he said. “It is important for us to stand in solidarity with the LGBT community, with the Latino community. … That is why we are here tonight.
“There are those who try to divide us. They try to pit us against each other. We cannot allow that to happen. We are better than that.”
Barrett drew the most enthusiastic applause of the vigil when he denounced the easy access that people have to “weapons that were not designed for self-defense,” but rather were “designed to kill … dozens of people in a short amount of time.”
“We all know that we must do more than pray that the unjustified killings will be stopped,” he said. “We have to take action as well.”
In Madison, LGBT activist Callen Harty organized a June 12 candlelight vigil at the intersection of State Street and Capitol Square. About 100 people attended the memorial. Vigils were also held in Racine, Green Bay and Appleton.
RANGE OF REACTIONS
Many of the state’s public officials issued statements condemning what President Barack Obama called both an act of hate and an act of terrorism. Notably, not one Republican state official who issued a statement mentioned the word “gay” or the term “LGBT,” which mirrored Republican responses on the national level.
Gov. Scott Walker was heavily criticized for issuing a generic, one-sentence response to the massacre.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and other Democrats called for people to come together across the lines that divide us. In a statement June 12 on her Facebook page, Baldwin wrote: “This was not only a horrific attack on the LGBT community, it was an attack on the freedoms we all hold dear. The question now for America is are we going to come together and stand united against hate, gun violence and terrorism? I understand it may not be easy, but I know we are better than this and it is past time to act together.”
Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, took GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump to task for claiming the shooting validated his call for a ban on Muslim immigrants — even though Mateen was born in the United States. Ortiz blasted Trump for using “this tragedy as a platform for Islamophobia, xenophobia and racism.”
“The young people in Pulse on Saturday night painted a beautiful picture of what our society could be: diverse, brown, queer, liberated, dancing, a world defined by love, not borders,” Neumann-Ortiz said in her statement.
At the end of the Milwaukee vigil, the giant bell atop city hall tolled 14 times, one for each occasion that the president has issued a statement responding to a mass killing in the United States.
Other than the somber sound of the bell, all that could be heard were seagulls and sobs.