Reflections on the Orlando/Pulse Tragedy: Three Years Later

posted by Madame Bubby

Pulse Memorial

On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard, killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in a mass shooting inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, United States. Orlando Police Department officers shot and killed him after a three-hour standoff.

Three years later the current administration of the United States government has been attempting to erase the rights of LGBTQ persons to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The genocide of LGBTQ persons continues in Chechnya and other places on the globe.

It's not just a matter of memorializing this event and making calls to resist injustice on social media. It is, as the case was at Pulse, a matter of life and death. The victims at Pulse suffered a tragic physical death they did not choose; LGBTQ persons, and not only in the United States, suffer daily not only physical death and violence, but social death, the condition of people not accepted as fully human by wider society.

Thus, this week, as part of our #PrideMonth series and a contribution to #MoralWitnessWednesday on Twitter, here is a link to the blog we wrote the week of the tragedy to “reground” our readers on the import of this event and sound another call for strength and hope.

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Honoring Edie Windsor Is Honoring Every Person

 
Edie Windsor

I was saddened to learn of the death of Edie Windsor, an LGBTQ senior who made a difference in the world in her golden years through what seems like on the surface a lawsuit based a financial issue: she did not want to pay the onerous tax on the estate of her late life-partner (later wife; they married in Canada), Thea Spyer, because, according to the laws of our nation, Edie and Thea were not “of kin,” that is, legally married at the federal level. Edie sued and won, and her action paved the way for the Obergefell decision which claimed that not allowing same-sex couples to get married was at one level unconstitutional, depriving them of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and, and on a deeper level, as Justice Kennedy aptly and profoundly put, deprived them of “human dignity.” 

Text from Justice Kennedy's ruling
I am going to throw in another word, “honor,” to Justice Kennedy’s words, which gets tossed around quite often, usually in the context of customs like honor killings, and often becomes a byword for the worst excesses of patriarchal oppression (such as throwing out a LGBTQ person out of the home because her orientation somehow dishonors the family unit). We tend to use the word more as a verb, usually in the context of showing respect for the dead, or honoring one’s elders, one of the Ten Commandments. But as a noun, we don’t use it that much in a positive way in many social contexts, and we don’t get terribly specific. 

There’s much more to the word, so much more. Orlando Patterson in his book Slavery and Social Death makes the claim that the masters as a means of social control will take away the honor of their slaves; in fact, one could even claim that they only way they can maintain their honor as masters is by taking away the honor of others. 

Quote from Slavery and Social Death
A person’s honor, I would claim, is the respect of the entire person, not just as an individual, but as a social being with a right not only to basic necessities like food, health care, and shelter, but a right to share equally in what makes the society not just stable on a political and economic level, but worthy of respect on a psychosocial and spiritual level. The person possesses access to all levels of Maslow’s triangle of self-actualization, but the self ultimately thrives in interaction with others. 

Justice Kennedy implicitly acknowledged that marriage (and it doesn’t have to be an overtly religious institution) is an honorable institution; to partake of it is to enjoy honor, not just of the person one loves and commits to (as traditional vows say, “love, honor;” the verbs are tightly connected) but of all aspects of the couple’s social being. In the American South, slaves had to ask permission from their masters to be married, and in many cases slave marriages were not recognized legally. A couple and their children could be sold apart. The masters essentially killed the slaves on a social level, not only because of the breaking apart of families, but even taking away their original names. 

To take away or forcibly change someone’s name is to take away the person’s honor at the deepest level. It reduces someone to the level of an “other,” and “object,” a “function.” When I worked at a law firm, one lawyer referred to paying the support staff as like paying for “lights and desks.” The current administration has made dishonoring persons (and the environment) its mission, for example, by deleting the category of LGBTQ persons from various government surveys and documents. Our society in general dishonors its elders by essentially storing them away in nursing homes, separating them from the family unit, potentially exposing them to dishonor and shame by violating their basic privacy (which I take to mean one’s autonomy) and depriving them of social honor. 

Let’s honor Edie Windsor, an LGBTQ elder who refused to be dishonored, and in doing so, gave honor to many citizens of her country. Let’s also remember that a threat to one’s own honor is a threat to everyone’s honor as a whole, and that upholding one’s honor (I think of the holy haters who seem to think that honoring their religion means dishonoring LGBTQ people in the public square) does not necessarily mean dishonoring others. The Nazis murdered the Jews not only physically, but subjected them to an ongoing social death in the concentration camps. Our nation seems poised to do the same to immigrants, LGBTQ persons, Muslims, persons who are not white. I hope and pray Edie’s legacy of honor and love will live on. 

Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer
Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer
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