Harvey Milk Day: A reminder of the power of queer community action against gun violence

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Today would have been Harvey Milk’s 93rd birthday. At only 48 years old, Milk, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors that made history in 1977 as the first openly gay public official was assassinated the following year. Following his assassination was a collective sense of loss for the LGBTQ community, which resulted in a swarm of vigils across the country, from San Francisco to Washington D.C. Following the grief of losing Milk was also a powerful sense of anger from the community.

When Milk’s murderer was only sentenced to eight years in prison in 1979, a protest by the San Francisco community known as the White Night Riots “let people know that [there was] a dividing line in how the city treated gay people,” Vince Emery, editor of The Harvey Milk Interviews: In His Own Words, a collection of Milk’s unpublished interviews, tells Reckon. “There were thousands of [people that night], and they were a cohesive political force that could not be ignored.”

That political force persisted long after the riots. Despite not being in office for a year, Milk’s contributions set the momentum for political changes to come. Milk played a key role in defeating California’s Proposition 6, which would have banned LGBTQ teachers from working. Since then, not only do we have anti-discrimination policies throughout the country, but we also have laws explicitly protecting the LGBTQ community—from the Hate Crimes Prevention Act to the legalization of same-sex marriage. Today, we have more openly LGBTQ political leaders in office since Milk who are making direct changes for the community like never before.

Still, the fight for justice remains to be a centerpoint of the LGBTQ community’s mission, especially in the face of gun violence. In schools, LGBTQ youth are more likely to be threatened or harmed with a weapon, according to Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) analysis of public-use data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS). The analysis found that while “6% of non-LGBTQ youth have been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property, 17% of LGBTQ youth, 29% of transgender youth, and 30% of questioning youth had experienced these offenses.”

In cases outside of Milk’s, some anti-LGBTQ motivated hate crimes result in multiple queer and trans victims. According to Everytown, a nonprofit advocating for gun control against gun violence, 17% of the reported hate crimes in 2020 were related to anti-LGBTQ bias and prejudice.

Like Milk’s story, the LGBTQ community never fails to show up for each other in the face of gun violence. Be it the assassination or the mass shootings in nightclubs from recent years, queer and trans people persist through gatherings, protests, vigils, political involvement and the establishment of nonprofit organizations. In honor of Harvey Milk Day, today is a reminder of the ways LGBTQ people show up for each other in the face of gun violence such as the Pulse nightclub and Club Q.

LGBTQ Floridians rely on each other amidst lack of gun reform after Pulse shooting

In one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history, Omar Mateen opened fire in June 2016 once he entered Pulse, an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Fl. As a result, 49 people—majority Latinx and LGBTQ—died.

“We will not be defined by the act of a cowardly hater,” Orlando’s Mayor Buddy Dyer tweeted the morning after. “We will be defined by how we respond, how we treat each other.”

A week following the incident, Democrats and Republicans of Florida put forth four amendments to further reinforce background checks and prevent those who are suspected as terrorists from purchasing firearms. The Senate, however, rejected to advance the four separate measures intended to curb gun sales. The community, then, took matters into their own hands to show up for those affected by the tragedy.

Pulse of Orlando, an all-volunteer organization and nonprofit was formed to funnel direct financial assistance to survivors and their families. They became the first organization to distribute funds to the community—with over $325,000 given. Loving Life Today is a mental health and wellness clinic based in Tampa that started a grief support group for those involved in the shooting. The owner of Pulse nightclub, Barbara Poma founded the onePULSE Foundation, another nonprofit dedicated to the tragedy.

Last month, Poma, who had plans of establishing a museum and public park to memorialize the incident announced her departure from the nonprofit. A group called The Community Coalition Against a Pulse Museum (CCAPM), consisting of surviving victims and family members released a statement last year encouraging Poma to not profit from the shooting. “Money raised in the name of the mass shooting should go to the continued care of survivors,” CCAPM’s website noted. They also criticize the city for not making real changes that would prevent further harm to Orlando’s LGBTQ community.

A Vice President at the time and then President five years later, President Joe Biden insisted in 2021 that the Senate pass gun legislation for what he deemed was a “public health epidemic of gun violence.”

“Pulse Nightclub is hallowed ground,” he said in a statement marking the 5th anniversary of the shooting in Pulse. “We must also acknowledge gun violence’s particular impact on LGBTQ+ communities across our nation. We must drive out hate and inequities that contribute to the epidemic of violence and murder against transgender women—especially transgender women of color.”

As of last year, survivors of the Pulse shooting remain discouraged about the future of gun control. “When I see mass shootings, in particular—and any gun violence—it always hits a point of hurt and sadness,” Patience Murray, survivor of the shooting told The Guardian. “I’m reminded that we’re still in the same place that we were before of hoping that we could see a change with policy.”

While LGBTQ people of Orlando, Fl. continue to anticipate gun reform, community members rely on each other. In HBO Max’s We’re Here, a reality show hosted by three drag queens, everyday people are “adopted” by each drag queen to discover their drag persona, followed by a grand finale performance. In season 3, which aired Nov. 25, 2022, one of the hosts Shangela is paired with Vico Baez Febo, a survivor of the Pulse shooting. Febo reveals that he has done drag in the past, though has been afraid of reentering the nightlife scene since surviving the 2016 shooting.

In the end of the episode, Febo manages to shake off the fear and perform a song as Jaslene Du’Clair Wadley. “Because of [Pulse], I carry the baggage of being a survivor,” said the queen through tears and the cheers of the audience. “I’m not gonna let it hold me back. I’m gonna make it catapult me into better things.”

How Colorado implemented gun laws after deadly anti-LGBTQ shooting at Club Q

On Nov. 19, 2022, in Colorado Springs, Colo., five people were killed and 25 were injured from a shooting at Club Q, an LGBTQ nightclub. The incident occurred on the eve of Trans Day of Remembrance, an annual observance that commemorates those who lost their lives to anti-trans violence.

As a result, several community members rallied across the country to show solidarity with the LGBTQ community in Colorado Springs. Local organizations and bars in Washington D.C. held events and fundraisers to raise money for survivors of the shooting. In Lake Oswego, Ore., student organizers held a vigil at Millennium Plaza Park. Even the suspect was charged with a hate crime, something that California failed to do in light of Harvey Milk’s assassination.

Most importantly, the governor of Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis passed four gun control bills as a result of the Club Q shooting, something that Florida was not able to do in the aftermath of the Pulse shooting.

The new laws increased the minimum age to purchase firearms from 18 years old to 21, enforced a three-day wait between purchasing and possessing the firearm, expanded Colorado’s existing red flag law, and made it easier for gun violence victims to sue the gun industry.

From hate crime charges to reformed gun laws, Colorado’s Club Q shooting aftermath managed to show up for LGBTQ safety in ways that were not successful in the case of Milk and Pulse.

A world where life outside of the closet is safe

Before his assassination, Milk taped voice recordings of his final words to the public. He had an inkling that because of his openness about his sexuality given the time period, his life would be taken. In his last words, he shared his vision of a world where the LGBTQ community will find more courage so that more people will come out, just as he did. “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door in the country,” he said in the recording.

The power of queer and trans people being out and showing up for each other, according to Milk, is what can keep LGBTQ people safe.

“I would hope that they would take power, and I hope that five, ten, a hundred, a thousand would rise,” he said. “I would love to see every gay doctor come out. I would like to see every gay lawyer, every gay judge, every gay bureaucrat, every gay architect come out. Stand up. Let the world know. That would do more to end prejudice overnight than anybody could imagine.”

Denny Agassi

Denny |

Denny is a writer, actor, and musician who has co-starred in POSE (FX) and New Amsterdam (NBC), and will appear in the upcoming series City On Fire (Apple TV). Aside from The Grammy, Allure Magazine, PAPER, and more, her recent writing—“He Made Affection Feel Simple”—was published in The New York Times’ Modern Love.

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