Early Sunday morning, gunman Omar Marteen killed 49 people and wounded 53 at the Orlando gay club Pulse. It was the deadliest mass shooting in US history. Marteen, it's now known, intentionally targeted the LGBTQ community in his attack, which occurred on the club's Latin Night. The vast majority of victims were queer latino men.
Tonight, one day after the attack, a vigil, hosted by the organization Stonewall Democrats, was staged outside of LGBT landmark the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan's West Village, the site of a series of spontaneous demonstrations in 1969 widely believed to have catalyzed the gay rights movement. Speakers included New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Bill DeBlasio and his wife Chirlane McCray, openly gay New York City Councilmember Rosie Mendez, Leah Barrett, the executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, and, inexplicably, Nick Jonas. Thousands of people attended, many waving rainbow flags and carrying signs reading "We Are Orlando".
Though people were theoretically attending to express solidarity, there was an air of cognitive dissonance surrounding the proceedings. Police officers surveilled the scene atop Stonewall's roof, directly above where the NYPD had beaten queer people in the gay right's movement's defining moment only a few decades earlier.The majority of the speakers, moreover, seemed to be there to promote their particular political agenda, whether that was ending gun violence or homophobia. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo spoke about increasing restrictions on gun sales, initially straining to be heard over chants critiquing his recent decision to cut off government funds to groups who support the BDS effort to boycott Israel. Several speakers from gun control groups received lukewarm support when they spoke of all gun violence as equally destructive. Other speakers, such as a genderfluid Muslim refugee who lives in the US, seemed to present a more nuanced view of the many complicated issues at hand, specifically referencing both homophobia and Islamophobia as well as the issue of gun control and oppression of marginalized groups.
Chants of "Gun Control Now!" "We're here, we're queer, don't fuck with us!" and most frequently "Say their names!" rang out throughout the night. But when the names of the victims were finally read, people complained that the sound was too quiet.
But before the speakers began, one moment did make the diverse attendees fall silent. Tituss Burgess, who acts on the Netflix show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, his voice quivering with emotion, expressed how difficult it was finding something meaningful to say after such an atrocity. Instead of speaking, Burgess sang "Somewhere" from the musical West Side Story. The choice was apt: West Side Story, a tragedy inspired by Romeo and Juliet, deals with the complexities of senseless gun violence and racism (specifically against latinx people) in our country. Burgess' delicate vibrato and belting finale was one of the few moments tonight of real catharsis and hope—a little bit of beauty that, at least momentarily, brought together the many factions who were there to grieve this evening.