Renewed Pride: The annual LGBTQ celebration takes on a new dimension in wake of Orlando tragedy

Andy Downing, Columbus Alive
Vigil attendees come together in Goodale Park in remembrance of those who were killed in a mass shooting in Orlando.

The same day a lone gunman's attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, left 49 dead and another 53 injured, more than 400 people congregated at the gazebo in Goodale Park to grieve, commune and express solidarity with those touched by the tragedy.

"It's Pride month, so we're already coming together as a community to celebrate, but when something like this happens it hits us on such a visceral level," said Debe Turnbull, president of the Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO), which helped organize the Sunday evening vigil. "It may not be here in Ohio, but it's in our neighborhood. They're our brothers and sisters. It's [49] family members who've been murdered. And when that happens, family wants to get together. We want to get together to mourn."

Many in the crowd awoke to the news and spent the day trying to process events. Dallas Aldridge, who runs the Columbus Lesbian and Gay Softball Association, said the massacre was the central topic of conversation during Sunday afternoon games, which he described as less competitive and more cathartic than most weeks. "Everyone was getting a hug as they left," he said.

"Everybody gets in that mindset: 'It's not going to happen to me. It's not going to happen here,'" Aldridge continued. "I think this is one of those times it was, 'Oh my god. It happened to us.'"

Andrew Levitt, better known as drag performer Nina West, described the scenario as a "nightmare," pointing to both the nature of the attack, which targeted a space that is generally viewed as a safe haven within the LGBTQ community - "Gay bars have been seen as a safe place for people who don't really belong any place," he said - and the proximity of events to the Stonewall Columbus Pride Festival and Parade, which runs Friday-Sunday, June 17-19.

"Pride is about celebrating openness and awareness, and I think it makes it all very nerve-racking and anxiety-filled to think about how we're going to do that this year," Levitt said.

Columbus Division of Police Chief Kim Jacobs addressed renewed security questions in a press conference on Monday, noting there would be "significantly more" police officers present at this year's Pride Festival, according toThe Columbus Dispatch.

Regardless, most of the speakers at the Goodale Park vigil predicted larger Pride crowds in the wake of the Orlando tragedy. "I think attendance will go up," said BRAVO's Aaron Eckhardt during his brief onstage remarks.

"When something like that happens it's like, 'Oh, we don't want to get together in a gathering because that makes us more of a target,'" Turnbull said. "But that's when it's the most important to come together and show that we're not going back in the closet. We're not going to let you make us afraid. We're going to stand just as proud [and] just as loud."

Most vigil attendees interviewed acknowledged this year's Pride festivities have now taken on a different dynamic. Aldridge, for one, said he was wrestling with how to stage Bat-N-Rouge, a normally lighthearted, fest-closing softball game. "We'll still have that, but now I think we have to do something more," he said. According to Aldridge, the softball group had already reached out to its scheduled speaker, former Ohio Governor and current Democratic Senate candidate Ted Strickland, to see if he could alter his game-opening remarks to better reflect the more somber climate.

"I think the Pride events do [take on more importance]," Aldridge said. "I think when we got marriage equality [in June 2015] some had the mindset like, 'OK, that was the big step and now the fight isn't as hard.' I think it's actually becoming almost a little harder, because the people who are against it are really against it."

Repeatedly, interviewees referenced a need for Pride to embrace a return to its deep social and political roots.

"Pride began as a riot and has evolved over time into something that is multigenerational, where people bring their kids or their families," said Grant Stancliff of Equality Ohio, describing how the celebration sprung at least in part from a series of late 1960s riots at New York's Stonewall Inn. "I think those activist roots and that activist history is really going to inspire people to turn out and really demonstrate that I'm here and I'm not going away."

"I think it's jarring, to say the least, to go into this week and try to figure out not only how to celebrate and commemorate, but also to get back to what Pride has been for so many years, which is political," Andrew Levitt said. "This is political now."

While speakers at the vigil didn't shy from discussing the horrifying outburst of violence in Orlando, nearly as much emphasis was placed on comparatively polite forms of discrimination, like North Carolina's much-debated "bathroom bill" and the spate of so-called religious freedom laws passed by state legislatures across the country. In one fiery line, Stancliff labeled bathroom bills and the dehumanizing rhetoric surrounding much of the subsequent debate "just as dangerous as the rifle that killed people last night."

"I think it definitely makes us realize that some of the rhetoric around [the bathroom debate] and some of the really aggressive stuff from the presidential campaign ... sets a really scary tone," Stancliff said in an interview following the vigil. "It's something the people in the community can feel, and they can sense it as a real force in their lives."

Rajesh Lahoti, CEO of Union Cafe and Axis Nightclub, echoed these sentiments, pointing to the limited protections offered the LGBTQ community ("You can still be fired for being gay," he said) and what he termed a "second-class" status that persists even amid gains like marriage equality.

"We've been the subject of a lot of religious discrimination and non-religious discrimination for a long time. And we just want it to end," Lahoti said. "It's terrible this attack happened. We're hoping this is a call to arms, and that people understand we're Americans, too. And Americans shouldn't be treated differently.

"In death, we're suddenly equal. Why can't we have that in life?"

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How to contact your elected officials

If you find the tragedy in Orlando has motivated you to make inquiries regarding firearm legislation in Ohio, below are the names, districts and contact numbers for state senators and representatives in Franklin County, along with Ohio's two U.S. senators. -Joel Oliphint

State senators

District 3: Kevin Bacon, 614-466-8064

District 15: Charleta B. Tavares, 614-466-5131

District 16: Jim Hughes, 614-466-5981

District 19: Kris Jordan, 614-466-8086

State representatives

District 17: Michael F. Curtin, 614-644-6005

District 18: Kristin Boggs, 614-466-1896

District 19: Anne Gonzales, 614-466-4847

District 20: Heather Bishoff, 614-644-6002

District 21: Mike Duffey, 614-644-6030

District 22: David Leland, 614-466-2473

District 23: Cheryl L. Grossman, 614-466-9690

District 24: Stephanie Kunze, 614-466-8012

District 25: Kevin Boyce, 614-466-5343

District 26: Hearcel F. Craig, 614-466-8010

U.S. senators

Sherrod Brown, 614-469-2083

Rob Portman, 614-469-6774