Words matter after Orlando – an open letter to the LGBT community

Evelyne Paradis, executive director of ILGA-Europe, writes an open letter in the wake of the Orlando massacre.

Dear friends,

I have started this letter many times since Orlando.

I think I was trying to find the perfect mix of words, a combination that might somehow bring clarity, or adequate comfort to an LGBTI community overwhelmed by the grotesque violence that we witnessed on 12 June.

Of course, there was no completely perfect response. In the aftermath, we all struggled to cope with the mix of emotions that confronted us; sorrow, anger, fear, grief – all of it intense to the point that it was unspeakable.

Faced with the physical devastation caused by bullets and firearms, words might even seem empty, or not enough.

But the impact that words can have in certain situations was laid bare after Orlando for all to see.

Whether it was the description of Pulse as a nightclub, rather than a gay club, or omitting the fact that it was Latin night or the accepted classification of the event itself, it all spoke volumes about how mainstream media outlets and national and international political figures still treat the LGBTI community.

Language matters and distinction matters.

When European politicians sympathising with their US counterparts left out the fact that it was a gay nightclub, they brushed aside the fact that this was an attack on the LGBTI community.

To the mainstream media, the details of the Latin night might appear superfluous, but this was an attack on the Latinx community and it needed to be acknowledged as such.

By calling the shooting an act of terrorism, it naturally implies horror and violence but it also implies a certain level of unpredictability, difficulty in detection, or confusion about the motivations that the instigator had.

It paints the shooting as the acts of one individual, absolving political leaders who have engaged in homophobic and transphobic legislative attempts of any shred of responsibility.

By only describing what happened on the dancefloor and in the toilets of Pulse as terrorism, the international focus shifted to the identity of the person who fired the bullets. It was all about who committed the act – while erasing those who the attack was committed against.

That is the whole point. By refusing to name it, political leaders are missing the point. Hate crimes target a specific group.

Of course, we are not saying that an indiscriminate shooting would be any less horrific. But when violence and hatred is meted out against a certain group, that inbuilt inherent message is a weapon in itself.

Hate crimes are designed to single out, to suggest vulnerability, to imply weakness, to increase isolation, to shut you up. To stop you living your life freely. To stop us living, full stop.

So now, together, we are left wondering ‘why are political leaders so reluctant to talk about this?’. By refusing to call it for what it really was, it hides the shameful truth.

That homophobic public statements, attempts to block legislation that offers greater protection to LGBTI people, daily misogyny, by refusing to condemn racial or xenophobic populism – had all feed into this idea that it is OK to publicly denigrate certain groups, including our LGBTI community.

All this ‘turning a blind eye’ to these real societal problems in Europe has fuelled the rhetoric that makes a majority group feel they are entitled to discriminate against a queer minority.

I wanted Europe’s politicians to reach out to you, to us, to the LGBTI community in Europe that was left numb. I wanted that so badly.

The LGBTI community in Brussels had already experienced the shock that comes with waking up one morning to realise that someone with intolerance on their mind has chosen your city as a target.

But the political reaction seemed confused. Nobody rushed to build bridges between political institutions and the LGBTI community.

Where were the rainbow flags? Where were the statements from the institutions at the heart of the city at the heart of Europe?

In the past, hate speech against LGBTI people had already been all too ready to rush in to the vacuum left by passive political leaders, and once again the silence was deafening.

As the names, ages and stories of the 49 people who had died in Orlando began to emerge and be reported, I wondered how many of them were being outed posthumously, before they were ready?

Before they had found the words to adequately describe what they felt, who they were. At times, words might not seem very important but they are so vital at every point in this tragedy.

In the creation of the climate of division that lead to the shooting and in the aftermath. I want everyone reading this to know that our organisation will never stop in our fight to achieve full equality for you.

We must all stand together in solidarity. The strong desire I have heard expressed to work collectively to push back against the forces that seek to divide us are the words that I will continue to treasure. Because language matters.


Evelyne Paradis is executive director of ILGA-Europe, the European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.