The Right to Live, The Right to Love

A few nights after the horrific massacre in Orlando, I attended a vigil at Chicago’s Center on Halsted to honor the victims. I listened to the speakers challenge the LGBT community to be brave and live loud, out and proud in the face of those who try to silence us. I watched grown men hold one another, tears pouring from their eyes as they sang, “We shall overcome.” I embraced a gray-haired, potbellied man wearing a t-shirt that said, “Matthew Shepherd is my friend,” as we all declared together to build this world on love. After the vigil ended, I went home with my girlfriend and cried.

When I woke up on June 12th to find out that 49 people had been ruthlessly slaughtered for simply existing, for doing nothing but unapologetically living as out, proud members of the LGBT community, I felt violated. I could barely comprehend that these beautiful sons and daughters were gunned down in one of the only places where LGBT people thought they could go to feel completely comfortable and safe.

I have always believed that the reason the best dance parties in the world happen at gay bars is because these bars are filled with people who have overcome immense challenges to be there. The people dancing and loving life inside a gay bar have probably endured unbelievable pain before reaching that point of acceptance and happiness. I have no doubt that it took an incredible amount of strength and resilience for every single person in Pulse to be there that night, dancing and embracing their true selves. Every night inside a gay bar is a declaration of individuality, community support, and self-love. At Pulse, 49 people were murdered for accepting themselves and celebrating who they were. This is not the America we should be living in.

I’ve been pretty silent on this blog over the past nine months or so, and that is because I have been spending most of my free time with a girl who makes me happier than I have ever been, a girl who makes me want to work harder to be a better person every day, a girl who has made me an overall kinder person to friends, family, and strangers because being with her makes me so much more excited to be alive. It is impossible for me to wrap my head around the fact that our relationship, built on happiness, trust, and helping one another be better, could be seen as anything other than beautiful. It is impossible for me to understand how anyone could believe we deserve to die for this love, and it is even more impossible for me to grasp that the people with these outlandish beliefs have the ability to walk into any old firearm shop, buy a gun, and act on them.

In an ideal world, we would eradicate all this hate, we would help people learn to be accepting and kind, and I know I’m naïve, but I still believe that someday, somehow we can get there. But that takes time, and right now we don’t have any time. Because right this minute there are people out there who are refusing to change, refusing to open themselves up to new ideas. If we can’t change their opinions or beliefs, the least we can do is stop giving them guns.

The vigil at the Center on Halsted was one of the most powerful things I have ever experienced. In the days following the shooting, I admit I was afraid, but the energy of the speakers and the determined faces surrounding me that night inspired me to be more myself than ever before in the face of all this hate. The voices of the LGBT community that have spoken out all over the world in the wake of this tragedy have inspired me to fight hate by fearlessly and confidently loving. So I will wrap a rainbow flag around my body and march through the Pride parade. I will continue to tell my stories and those of others who have struggled with their sexuality so the many others out there who don’t quite know who they are yet know they are not alone. I will live louder and prouder and do everything I can to foster a culture of acceptance (not tolerance) and love.

I will not be afraid, but until our congressmen, who have been elected to protect us, stop voting against measures that would keep us safe, I will feel betrayed. The NRA claims to be protecting the rights of all Americans, but those 49 people had a right to live. Who was protecting them?

As the shock of this tragedy wanes and we all begin to return to our regular lives, I hope everyone remembers that the lives of the families of these victims will never return to normal, and I hope everyone remembers that those in America who identify as anything other than straight and cisgender continue to fight for their right to exist every single day. We may be able to get married now, but there is still so much work to be done.

At Pulse, hatred was taken to one of the worst possible extremes, but there are still so many awful things happening every day. Children are still kicked out of their homes for being LGBT. Men are still beaten up on the street for kissing their boyfriends goodnight. Transgender men and women are still being murdered and still don’t even have a place to go to the bathroom safely.

It is not only all of these horrible things that make extremists feel validated in their beliefs, but it is also the everyday micro aggressions, the bakers who refuse to make cakes for gay weddings, those who use “gay” to mean stupid, the politicians who vote against laws that would protect LGBT people from discrimination, the pedestrians who stare or point or laugh at a gay couple holding hands, that foster the growth of intolerance and hate. It is time to work harder to spread love.

In the days that have passed, whenever I am with my girlfriend and feeling that indescribable comfort of being completely at home in another person’s arms, all I keep thinking is, why? Why would anyone believe that this incredible thing we have is wrong? This love the two of us share is so beautiful, and I don’t understand why anyone would want to do anything but celebrate it. So I am going to stand up and celebrate this love for the 49 souls who no longer can. I am determined to find more ways I can help members of the LGBT community who are not lucky like me, who do not have the support of friends and family. I am going to tell more stories. I am going to paint more rainbows. And it is time for everyone else out there who knows that love is love is love is love is love to stand up and do something.

If you have given money or blood or done anything at all to help the victims of the Pulse shooting, you have already done something amazing, but I ask you to please don’t stop there. Keep giving, keep loving, and please keep reminding yourself that LGBT people are still fighting for their right to live and love every single day.

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