An early morning massacre at a popular and packed LGBT nightclub in Florida left many reeling in the Baton Rouge area Sunday, with government officials and members of the gay and transgender community expressing shock and solidarity.
Coming near the close of a weekend when gay, lesbian and transgender people across the country celebrated with parades, marches and events, many LGBT activists in Baton Rouge reacted to the attacks as unsettling reminders of a history of violence toward their community.
“This is devastating,” said the Rev. Keith Mozingo, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of Baton Rouge, a denomination founded to minister to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. “It brought back a flood of other events.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards called the shooting “a senseless tragedy of unimaginable scale.”
“In the face of adversity, as we always do, we stand united against acts of terrorism that threaten our people and our way of life,” said Edwards, who earlier this month declared June “LGBT Pride Month” in the state.
Several LGBT groups have organized a vigil on the steps to the Mississippi River levee in downtown Baton Rouge by the old State Capitol on Monday at 6 p.m. The governor, leaders of the state House and Senate and state lawmakers are planning an event to honor the victims of the shooting at 1 p.m. Monday in the rotunda of the Capitol.
Flags flew at half-staff and the crowd observed a moment of silence at Alex Box Stadium on LSU’s campus before a baseball super regional playoff game against Costal Carolina University.
“If I said it wasn’t scary I’d be lying, but our community is courageous,” said Jena Ourso, board chair of Capital City Alliance, a Baton Rouge LGBT advocacy group. “We have dealt with hate toward our community for as long as I’ve been in it — but we also, in our community, have an overwhelming amount of love and acceptance. We definitely do not want a tragedy like this to overshadow the work we’ve accomplished in our community — and we won’t stop.”
Tom Merrill, the Baton Rouge Pride Festival founder and chairman, said the attack — coming hours after about 10,000 people packed into the River Center to celebrate the LGBT community — provided a sad reminder that “there are still people out there that want to target gay celebrations and gay people, to use that as a way of driving us back into the closet and out of the public eye, back into second-class status.”
“I think at this point in my personal life, things like this don’t stop me,” Merrill said. “I’m not going to change or go back because of things like this.”
At a vigil at LSU’s Student Union Sunday evening, students and activists gathered in an effort to help process the impact of the killings.
“We’re under attack, and we’re being killed,” said Peter Jenkins, an LSU graduate and LGBT activist who organized the Sunday evening memorial, after reading the names of some of those slain. “That’s something we can’t divorce from the situation.”
Several advocates and activists spoke Sunday about the important role bars and clubs have played as places for LGBT people to meet, relax and feel safe — something that made the early morning attack in Orlando all the more concerning for many.
“I’m sure everybody who was at Pulse night club felt safe,” Jenkins said.
Outside George’s Place, a longtime St. Louis Street gay bar founded in 1970, customers and staff said they were shocked to hear about the shooting Sunday morning after spending much of Saturday night celebrating the 10th annual Baton Rouge Pride Festival.
“I came out tonight because I didn’t want to act scared,” said a patron on the bar’s patio, wearing a homemade rainbow flag T-shirt, noting the shooting.
K.D. Linkous, a George’s regular and occasional employee, said he’d found friends and a home at the bar after moving to Baton Rouge more than a decade ago. He said he feared the mass shooting in Orlando might make younger LGBT people feel unsafe and threatened, something Linkous said decades of struggle and social change have started to diminish.
Chansley Dykes, the manager of George’s, said waking up to the news of the shooting after working long hours during the pride celebrations left her feeling “devastated.”
“It’s horrible to know somebody could just walk into a club like that,” Dykes said. “People try to go out and celebrate life, that you can actually be yourself.”
For many in the LGBT community in south Louisiana, the massacre in Orlando evoked memories of a 1973 arson attack on the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans in which 32 people died. The fire, widely believed to have been a hate crime, was until Sunday the nation’s deadliest attack on LGBT people.
Mozingo, the pastor, said he feared the violence in Orlando might be part of a backlash against LGBT people in the wake of recent strides toward greater rights for LGBT people, including last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.
But Mozingo said widespread condemnation of the attack and an outpouring of support for the victims were also signs of progress.
“What has changed in the last 50 years: There’s an outcry from the president, from the community at large,” Mozingo said. “I was so thrilled when I saw lines of people — not just lines of gay people — waiting to donate blood and build memorials and say this isn’t acceptable.”
At a Pride One event at Bistro Byronz on Sunday afternoon, one of the last of many events celebrating pride week, a moment of silence for those killed in Orlando interrupted an otherwise joyous atmosphere.
Aaron Moak, a vice president of the organization, said he broke down and cried after first learning of the shootings.
“We were at Splash last night for our wrap party celebrating pride,” Moak said, referring to a well-known and popular Baton Rouge LGBT club, where Moak said more than 500 people had gathered. “We had a great time last night. To wake up to the news this morning — I think that really hit home for a lot of people.”
Moak said there was talk early this morning of canceling some pride events in the wake of the attack but that organizers quickly decided to forge on.
“We have to move forward,” Moak said.