Excerpted From: Judith E. Koons, Pulse: Finding Meaning in a Massacre Through Gay Latinx Intersectional Justice, 19 Scholar: St. Mary's Law Review on Race and Social Justice 1 (2017) (336 Footnotes) (Full Document)


JudithEKoonsIn the early morning hours of June 12, 2016, a hate-filled man calmly opened fire on the patrons of the Pulse nightclub in downtown Orlando, Florida. Over the next three hours, he killed forty-nine men and women who had been celebrating Latin Night at the gay club. Fifty-three persons were wounded. When police finally entered the club and killed the murderer, nothing could be heard but the sounds of cell phones ringing. One officer who entered that ghastly scene said it felt like all of the people on the floor were “playing dead.”

We mourned. We mourned another mass shooting of innocents. We went to vigils and held up candles of hope. We held up photos of those slain. We built memorials with flowers, flags, photographs, banners, candles, and crosses. We went to funerals. Too many funerals. At those funerals, we donned giant angel wings to block grieving families from those who spewed more homophobic hatred. We volunteered and contributed money to families of those who died, to those hospitalized, to first responders. We posted messages of hope on social media and passed along stories of heroism and sacrifice. We talked about the victims, said each name, and cushioned it with a prayer. Mostly, we cried and began to search for meaning.

Many roads in our nation's history converge in the Pulse massacre. In the tragedy are the deep roots of the struggle for LGBTQ equality and the rutted tracks of immigration for people all over Latin America to make a home in central Florida. The massacre also reaches into the bowels of terrorism, with the shooter attributing his acts to the Islamic state. Further, the massacre raises significant questions of domestic security, the availability of assault weapons, and the immovability of gun control at the state and federal levels.

As the “worst mass shooting” in the United States, the massacre stands as another exclamation point behind a pedigree of violence that seems to be escalating in our country and the world. The tragedy gives us pause to ask about home, community, connection, risk, and safety. It prompts us to ask about the world our children will inherit. Will they be able to play outdoors, go to a concert, or dance at a nightclub? Finally, it asks us to name our responsibility. How ought I respond to the very pointed challenges that have erupted at this pivotal time in our nation's history?

As its point of departure, this article shines its light on the violence at Pulse and, by way of a political, ethical, and philosophical inquiry, seeks to expose the history and forms of oppression that lurk in its underlayment. To begin its interrogation of this act of seemingly senseless violence, the article asks two questions: why a gay nightclub and why “Latin Night”? This article proposes that these facts are not happenstance, but are the keys to unlocking this underworld of massive violence.

To set the framework that critiques the violence underlying the massacre at Pulse, Part II.A first looks to the philosophical history of modern Western thought and the Enlightenment era. In following this historical thread, Part II.B proposes that the acts of violence reflected in Pulse were not random, but were the product of socially constructed systems of oppression that make hate crimes toward gay and Latino communities not only imaginable but also possible and even inevitable. Drawing this point forward, Part II.C argues that the forms of sexuality-, gender identity-, race-, and ethnicity-based oppression underlying the massacre at Pulse also intersect in ways that animate one another.

This article then lifts its vision to its constructive side in Part III.A. With intersectionality as its springboard, this article suggests that, just as forms of oppression are related, so are forms of justice. At the intersection of the gay and Latinx communities is the unfinished business of remedying historic subordination and dismantling divisions constructed of fear, hatred, and privilege. The Pulse massacre pierced the conscience of the community and pointed toward ways relationships of respect can form in a heterogeneous public. Drawing its inspiration from the victims and survivors of the massacre, Part III.B suggests forms of political action--legal protections for the LGBTQ community and respectful approaches to immigration reform--that are predicates to intersectional justice.

There is much to be learned from the patrons of Pulse. They were dancing. They were celebrating sexual, spiritual, aesthetic, cultural, and political connections in an inclusive and diverse community with a rich array of local and international identities. This article urges such a spirit of interconnecting and liberatory joy to be part of the memories of the 49. To embark on this endeavor, this article will first examine the philosophical underpinnings in Western thought of violence against subordinated people.

[. . .]

They were dancing. They were doing the salsa, bachata, reggaeton, jibara, and other forms of Latin and club dancing. They were celebrating sexuality, culture, inclusion, and liberation in a space where a Latino can take the hand of another man and dance. They were dancing in a site of safety--a sacred space--constructed out of decades of struggle and infused with political meaning.

To honor the victims and survivors of the massacre at Pulse, this article has critiqued the systems of subordination, particularly those at the intersections of sexuality and ethnicity, that underlie hate crime. This article proposes that ideologies and structures of privilege and subordination must be dismantled by acknowledging the false binarist divisions that we have created and by taking action to create systems of intersectional justice.

The predicates for intersectional justice lie within individual consciences as well as in the values, norms, and laws expressed by a society. Individuals should pledge to root out internalized forms of oppression and form coalitions across traditional divisions to face and undo systems of subordination. Commitments to intersectional justice must flow from the discursive arena of our pluralistic civil society and into political action.

To open the door to LGBTQ intersectional justice, Congress must adopt the Equality Act and set a clear national policy of nondiscrimination against members of the LGBTQ community in all of the protected civil rights areas. Florida politicians must put their condolences into action by including the LGBTQ community in the state's Civil Rights Act. The Florida legislature must do its job of making amends to the LGBTQ community without including bathroom provisions that demean transgender people or “religious freedom” exemptions that are a pretext for discrimination. Finally, to orient toward Latinx intersectional justice, the nation must eschew immigration policies that run counter to constitutional values as well as those that undermine an ethical and pragmatic engagement with the rest of our increasingly interconnected world. Policies must be engaged that responsibly focus on an accurate assessment of the risk posed by those seeking entry while emphasizing respect and shared responsibility with neighboring countries.

In the aftermath of the massacre, a wide variety of groups stepped forward to express diverse commitments to justice. First, concerned citizens from Latino, immigrant, LGBTQ, African-American, labor, reproductive rights, and faith communities came together across traditional boundaries to advocate for gun control. On the eve of the one-month anniversary of the massacre, sixty protestors participated in a “sit-in for the 49” in the lobby outside a U.S. senator's office in downtown Orlando. Singing protest songs and creating a memorial of forty-nine roses and slips of paper with the names of the dead, the protestors planned to occupy the space for forty-nine hours. The protestors presented the Senator's staff with demands, including rejecting financial contributions from the National Rifle Association, imposing universal background checks, and adopting legislation to prohibit semiautomatic assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition feeding devices. The peaceful sit-in ended after nine-and-one-half hours when police officers were summoned by the owners of the building; ten of the protesters were arrested. According to several activists, the Pulse massacre represented “a tipping point,” mandating political action by communities that are disproportionately affected by gun violence. The sit-in can also be seen as part of a broader “intertwingling” of groups that are coming together to advocate for community services and substantive justice. For example, over thirty organizations joined together after the massacre to form Somos Orlando, focusing on providing culturally competent mental health services and meeting other needs of the Hispanic community. At the state level, eighty-five organization--“a wide swath” of concerned civic groups--recently signed on to the Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence that was launched by Florida's League of Women Voters.

Second, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, who made a moving statement of penitence to the LGBTQ community at a vigil three days after the massacre, propelled her words into action six weeks later. Jacobs spearheaded a resolution, signed by twenty other central Florida Republicans, to support legislation banning discrimination against the LGBTQ community. The resolution states: “We the undersigned do hereby resolve that all Americans should be treated with equality, dignity and respect, and support efforts of Florida businesses and individuals to pass legislation banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identification.” Reaction was mixed. Nadine Smith, the CEO of Equality Florida, advised:

Mayor Teresa Jacobs has made good on her promise to be a voice for equality and to challenge others in her party to stand on the side of equal protection for LGBT people. This is a moment when the state of Florida can become a beacon in the South and make amends for the state's long, dark history of state sanction[ed] persecution and legalized discrimination.

Others were more restrained, noting that “[t]here's much more to the story ... especially when you consider that there are many federal Republicans actively trying to roll back something as benign as marriage equality in coming years.” However, as one activist stated, “... a good start is a good start.”

Third, in the days following the massacre, a video was anonymously posted on social media under the name of Keep Dancing Orlando; the video includes central Florida businesses, firemen, police officers, school employees, theater groups, and ordinary citizens dancing to an upbeat, popular song. The video invites others to upload their own videos on social media. An avalanche of videos has since been posted on Facebook by groups ranging from the Zebra Coalition to the Orange County Comptroller's Office, and from the University of Central Florida College of Medicine to the First Unitarian Church of Orlando. The Orange County's Sheriff's Department posted its video on July 1st; within five days, it had been viewed 2.9 million times.

The video demonstrates the way to face down terrorism and hate crime. In terrorism, the central focus is to leverage “the psychology of fear” by hitting the mental buttons of unfathomability and dread. In hate crimes, fear creates loathing and objectification of others who are perceived to be different. Yet, the Keep Dancing Orlando movement sings out not to let the Pulse massacre set up stations of fear in individual and community psyches. The video is an anthem: it refuses to let the massacre immobilize us, to push LGBTQ and Latinx people back into spaces of hiding, or to rob us of the joy of living. It calls to the human spirit to celebrate every day of life and points the way to remember the 49. After all, they were dancing.

Professor of Law, Barry University School of Law, Orlando, Florida. B.A., J.D., University of Florida; M.T.S., Harvard Divinity School.