Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 2008’s Milk, was nearing the end of production on a new TV series when he heard the news. Forty-nine people had been killed, and dozens more wounded, during a shooting massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida on June 12. The series, called When We Rise (it will air on ABC in 2017), which Black has created, executive produced, and co-directed, is a chronicle of the gay rights movement in America. A movement, Black is quick to point out, did not only involve white men. “If you’re going to do a show called When We Rise,” Black says to EW, “then you’d better make sure the ‘We’ is represented.”
The event in Orlando, of course, not only struck the LGBT community but the Latino community as well. In response to the tragedy — and the week of anger and grief that has followed — Black penned this tough, moving essay about what we, as fellow human beings, owe to all those who we have lost.
For the last six months I’ve been in Vancouver filming When We Rise, an ABC miniseries on the history of the LGBT rights movement. That’s what I was doing when I learned that 49 LGBT souls — the majority Latino — had been murdered in Orlando in a gay club, traditionally a place of refuge. That day, we were filming a scene re-creating the 2009 National Equality March on Washington. And so, between takes of Guy Pearce unfurling a massive banner that read “Equality Across America,” we tuned in to learn the names of the sons, daughters, allies, and parents who were ripped from our arms by gunfire and hate.
In so many ways, When We Rise is a testament to how far we’ve come, a tribute to those who have dedicated their lives to bringing us this close to safety and equality. Orlando served as a terrible reminder of just how much more we have left to do. The shock, the hurt, the anger, and the heartbreak left me winded, as were so many other Americans who love our country. It also made it clear to me that if we are ever to overcome homophobia, we must create better understanding of who LGBT people truly are by confronting the three worst culprits of LGBT misinformation: science, the state, and religion.
For too long, science mislabeled homosexuality a disorder, but in 1973 the American Psychiatric Association stopped classifying homosexuality as such. Now, with the support of nearly every medical association, many states are moving to ban the harmful and disproven treatment called “conversion therapy,” which attempts to turn young people straight or cisgender. But there are many other places in our country where kids are still subjected to this practice, which sends a dangerous message that there is something wrong with them, and often causes tremendous harm to those it claims to help.
As for the state, for a generation now the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of gay and lesbian people, overturning laws that criminalized our lives or relegated our love and families to second-class status. President Obama too has taken action to better protect LGBT people. But Congress has failed to pass the Equality Act, which would bring equality to LGBT people in their homes and workplaces nationwide. This failure sends a message that we are not worthy of equal respect or protection in the United States. Combined with the similar failure of local and state officials, it sends a false message of inferiority that gives license to treat LGBT the way the law still does — as subhuman. That is not leadership — that is blood on our elected leaders’ hands.
But it’s religion that continues to be the most active promoter and dangerous purveyor of homophobia, and by this I don’t mean just Muslims, but good old-fashioned American Christians as well. By clinging to the mantra of “Love the sinner but not the sin,” religion sends a message that LGBT people are not only lesser than, but morally corrupt. This judgment is not about love at all. It is hateful and deadly. Mere tolerance can no longer be the aim of religion. The time has come for true understanding and acceptance. It is time for organized religion to discard the outdated and misguided interpretations of God’s will that too often motivate violence and murder. To do otherwise makes our nation’s unaccepting religious leaders complicit in Orlando as well.
We must also act in more immediate ways that will protect not only LGBT people, but all citizens. My LGBT community has experienced the same kind of senseless violence that schoolchildren and their families have experienced, and that communities of color have suffered for generations. If there is one shining light in the darkness of our mourning, it is that we are not alone in this fight, and the time has come for LGBT people to join hands with others who have also suffered and demand gun control now.
Last year, when a religious extremist attacked people at Jerusalem’s Gay Pride parade, it was a tragic event, but because of Israel’s strict gun-control laws, the attacker used a knife instead of an assault rifle. He injured five people and killed one 16-year-old girl. It’s not that he had any less hatred than the Orlando shooter. It’s not that he didn’t try to murder many more. It’s that he couldn’t. He didn’t have the tools to do so. But in America, we give people with bloodlust and hate in their hearts the means to end dozens of lives per minute — and we allow the purchase of such heinous military-grade weapons to remain legal.
When Harvey Milk became the first openly gay person elected to public office in California, he had more than the LGBT community to thank. His victory came due to the broad support he built — one that united gays and lesbians with firefighters, construction workers, racial minorities, and seniors. By uniting a diverse group behind shared values and aims, Harvey Milk created a “coalition of the us’s” that couldn’t be stopped politically. It is time for the LGBT community to join into such a coalition again and wield our newfound political power in conjunction with groups already engaged in the fight against guns — groups such as the Brady Campaign, Everytown for Gun Safety, and Americans for Responsible Solutions — with parents from Sandy Hook, families from San Bernardino, and communities of color who have suffered similar tragedies for far too long.
It will, unfortunately, be a long road to eradicate the lies and hatred that inspire people to target our brothers and sisters, our children, parents, and our loved ones, but it must be traveled together. As Harvey Milk taught us long ago, in a “coalition of the us’s” we have the political power to disarm hatred. We owe it to the victims of Orlando, of Charleston, of Newtown — and far too many more — to do just that. It is time to disarm hate.
Virginia Woolf wrote Orlando: A Biography in 1928, following the publication of acclaimed novels Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. Orlando is dedicated to her friend and lover Vita Sackville-West, and fictionalizes the Sackville family history and Sackville-West's own flexible approach to sexuality and marriage. Orlando also works as an enactment of Woolf's prescription to biographers, in her 1927 essay, "The Art of Fiction" and "The New Biography," to "yoke truth with imagination" (source). Woolf argues for increased truth in fiction and increased fiction in truth. In other words, she seems to be arguing for a novelistic approach to biography. (For more on this, check out Orlando's "Character Analysis.")
Orlando has been popularly read as an example of lesbian or bisexual fiction. While Vita Sackville-West's son and biographer confirms that Woolf was writing about Sackville-West's sexual adventures with both genders, the fantastical trappings of the story (the gender switching, voyages abroad, etc.) meant that the censors of the day wouldn't necessarily have noticed the risqué content. Furthermore, the book has often been dismissed as a less serious work than Woolf's previous novels. However, we find the novel 1) awesome, and 2) about so much more than ambiguous and shifting sexualities. Nothing is solid in this novel, not history, writing, or even character names. It's explosively experimental, and gender roles are just one of its many targets.
It's one of the first things we learn: there are boys and girls, and you are one or the other. If you're a girl, your parents dress you in pink, and if you're a boy, your parents dress you in blue. Don't get us wrong, there're plenty of girls out there who wear blue, and lots of guys sport some fetching pinks. We all come to realize that these categories aren't hard and fast, especially in this day and age. But still, most people believe that there is some biological basis for thinking that women are different from men. You've probably heard stereotypes: women are more nurturing; men are more aggressive.
Orlando would say to this biology business: no. Or maybe the novel would argue that our private parts influence our public behavior, but in a perfect world, they wouldn't.
What we have here is a fabulous fantasy of what life would be like if there were a third option. Orlando has been both a guy and a girl, and so Orlando understands the nature of her former lovers (especially Sasha) and present husband, Shel. What Orlando learns would have been hidden from her if she couldn't move between bodies and genders.
Orlando uses gender to imagine what it would be like if our social identities were less bound to our bodies. Would there be gender hierarchies in our society if we could really experience how the other half lives?
Orlando is making an argument for the power of imagination: sure, we're all bound to our own bodies, and not many of us will be lucky enough to live 400 hundred years, like Orlando does. But we all have the capacity to empathize with others in the pursuit of deeper truths about the human experience, unbounded by gender, race, and place. These physical factors can't be done away with, and Woolf keeps coming back to Orlando's biology as a recognition that you can't always ignore your body. But you can use your imagination (possibly in conjunction with a good book) to try on someone else's experiences for a day.