In two vigils in the West Village on Sunday evening, one crowd numbering in the thousands, another in the hundreds voiced shock, grief, and anger over the murder of 50 patrons of a Orlando, Florida, gay bar in the early morning hours of the same day.
Speaker after speaker emphasized that the violence cannot be isolated from a climate of anti-LGBT hatred that continues to persist across the nation, but also pledged to continue building community to respond to hostility and bigotry where it exists.
At the same time, both crowds rejected the notion that hate is an appropriate response to the violence and specifically called out efforts to pit the LGBT community against the Muslim community over a tragedy in which the shooter, 29-year-old Omar Mateen, is reported to have phoned 911 just prior to the melee and pledged his allegiance to ISIS.
Mir Seddique, Mateen’s father, told NBC News that his son, who legally changed his last name a decade ago, was angered several months ago when, accompanied by his own young son, Mateen witnessed two gay men kissing in Miami.
The attack on Orlando's Pulse nightclub came on the night it was holding its weekly Latin evening.
Ken Kidd, a member of Queer Nation New York, which took the lead in organizing a rally outside the Stonewall Inn that drew several thousand people, told those assembled, “We come together because this is a community that will never be silent again. I ask every person to think of someone you knew who was killed because of anti-LGBT hatred. Think of a time when you felt unsafe in your own community. And I want every single one of you to think not of what anyone else, not of what I, but of what you can do to change that.”
Saying the LGBT community should draw strength from the 50 Pulse nightclub patrons who were killed, Kidd said, “We must go forward in love.”
Mirna Haidar, a representative of the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity, told the Stonewall crowd that she has faced discrimination in the US as a Muslim refugee and as a gender-nonconforming woman, but urged everyone to avoid allowing the LGBT community to be set against Muslim Americans because of the Orlando massacre.
At that point, a heckler started screaming, “It is a Muslim issue” over and over again. The crowd turned on the heckler, shouting, “No hate. No hate.”
Haidar noted that federal blood donation guidelines bar sexually active gay and bisexual men from giving blood, a stinging stigma that the community continues to bear due to unscientific fears.
Michael Pruslow, who came down to the West Village from his home in Washington Heights to attend the vigil, voiced discomfort with the focus on the word “hate.”
“It’s not about hate,” he told Gay City News. “Yelling that is just the same thing as what happened. We need more love. We need to love each other.”
Explaining, “I was just a mess this morning,” Pruslow said of the Stonewall gathering, “We need to be here. People are so quick to chastise each other, even within the gay community… There is a way to fight without violence.”
As Pruslow spoke to the newspaper, the crowd replaced its “No hate” chant with “More love, more love.”
Despite the conciliatory words emphasized throughout the Stonewall event, which began with the crowd singing “We Shall Overcome,” several speakers pointed to persistent lingering homophobia in the US that must be confronted.
“This massacre did not happen in a vacuum,” said Ann Northrop, a longtime activist who is co-host with Gay City News contributor Andy Humm of “Gay USA,” television’s weekly LGBT news hour.
She noted an early morning tweet from Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, since deleted, that read, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.”
Northrop concluded, “We must triumph over this hate.”
Tom Duane, the former state senator and city councilmember, told the crowd, “Now Marco Rubio cares about us. Now Bush cares about us. Where the hell were they during the Republican primaries that were spewing all that hate?”
Kevin Graves, a DJ and activist, framed the alternatives the nation faces in responding to Orlando.
“Make no mistake,” he said. “This country is at a crossroads with two alternatives. One is the path of hate and fear. The other is one of love and kindness. Choose the path of love. And action.”
But for many in the crowd, the immediate need was for solace.
Michael Bruno, an Upper West Side resident, explained, “I really didn't know what to do. This is the only place I knew to come to get away from all the media reports. I heard there was going to be a crowd.”
Gemma Blanks, who lives in Forest Hills, Queens, said, “Hearing about it online, I needed to immerse myself with my community, my family. There is an obligation to be here to offer my condolences to the families of those people killed.”
Blanks, in a mixture of weariness and determination, added, “We’re fighting today. It never ends. We really shouldn't have to be fighting so hard. But we are.”
Several blocks away, on the steps of Judson Memorial Church across the street from Washington Square Park, a group of interfaith leaders led a more somber vigil that emphasized the dangers of Orlando polarizing Americans with a false choice between the LGBT and Muslim communities.
“We reject any divisions based on faith,” Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah told a crowd of several hundred. She noted the poignant intersection of Shavuoth, the Jewish festival celebrating God giving the Jewish people the Torah, Ramadan, the Islamic commemoration of the first revelation of the Quran to the prophet Muhammad, and LGBT Pride Month.
As Judson’s Reverend Donna Schaper offered a prayer to the “God of many names” and spoke of the incomprehensibility of the violence in Orlando, a heckler passing by yelled out, “I'll tell you what the problem is. It’s radical Islam, and they should all be arrested immediately.”
Faisal Alam, the chair of the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity, told the crowd, “There are no words for me to share my feelings as a queer Muslim.” Then saying, “I can go on and on about how Islam condemns violence," he noted that a white man heading to the Pride celebration in West Hollywood –– identified as James Wesley Howel of Indiana –– was arrested in Santa Monica after police found possible explosives, assault rifles, and ammunition in his car. The assault rifle used in the Orlando attack, he said, was the same model used in the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school massacre in Connecticut.
“The religious right, the political right will use this as a wedge,” Alam warned. “We must stand against Islamophobia.”
Sadya Abjani, who is also a member of the Muslim Alliance, said her first “selfish thought” when she heard the news this morning was, “Don't let the shooter’s name be Muslim.”
Reverend Chloe Breyer, executive director of the Interfaith Center of New York, told the crowd, “Islamophobia is not the answer to homophobia.”
Saying she “felt broken” when she heard news of Orlando that morning, Reverend Vanessa Brown, senior pastor of the Rivers of Living Water, an LGBT congregation, said, “There is a religious and political agenda that produces a climate of hate. We know that.”
Brown ended by saying, “We are crushed down, but this is my word for anyone who can hear me, we are not destroyed.”
The Judson vigil ended just like the Stonewall gathering began, with the singing of “We Shall Overcome.”
Equality Florida, the LGBT rights group in the state, has started a GoFundMe page to support victims of the Pulse nightclub attack. Click below to contribute: