Heartbroken over tragedy, I am Orlando

Keith Stewart
Keith Stewart

I am the guy who writes funny things. But not today. Today, I am furiously heartbroken.

I am heartbroken that 49 more Americans have been slaughtered by a coward with a gun that can fire 45 rounds per minute.

The exact type of gun that helped kill 26 in a Sandy Hook school, 12 people in an Aurora movie theater, 10 at a Roseburg community college and 14 more at a San Bernardino office party.

The exact type of gun that needs no license to own or purchase in Florida. The exact type that has no three-day waiting period — or any waiting period at all — in order to purchase in Florida.

I am heartbroken because the Americans who were shot down this time were my people.

The LGBT community has long faced the brutalities of ignorance and intolerance. For so, so many years, we were forced to suffer in silence. No one wanted to acknowledge homophobic violence was a reality. The only cases were random. The gay victim shouldn’t have hit on the crazy straight man, thus causing him to go temporarily insane enough to attack him and later plead the Gay Panic Defense (A. Real. Freaking. Legal. Defense.).

When I was bashed in downtown Lexington in 2008, the media didn’t care. Heck, the police barely did. They only came because an ambulance had been called to transport my unconscious body to the hospital. But now that over 100 of us are either dead or barely surviving, we can’t be ignored, right?

Wrong. The media have deemed to portray this in a way that stirs up the most emotion, that rallies the troops and makes villagers light their torches — by calling it a terrorist attack by an ISIS militant. By telling us it could have happened anywhere, at any nightclub, or even at one of Orlando’s famous theme parks. By refusing to say what the killer’s father has said the entire time since the slaughter: His son was mad because he saw two men kissing in front of his child a few weeks earlier.

When I finally was strong enough to come out of the closet, I left my small Kentucky hometown that had taught me there was something very wrong with being homosexual. I headed for Orlando, where I found a vibrant community of like-minded people who had broken away from their own hometowns and oppressive upbringings.

For the first time in my life, I was able to be myself. I was free to date, love, dance, hang out with anyone I chose. Most of the time, all that happened in the nightclubs. In fact, Orlando’s gay bars were the first place I ever held a man’s hand in public without looking over my shoulder out of fear. Those clubs were my safe haven.

I know in my heart there was at least one young man in Pulse Saturday night who had moved to Orlando from some small Southern town. He had been taught his entire life that no one would love him if he were gay. His church had taught him he was hell-bound for having the feelings he was born feeling. Now, in the City Beautiful, he had found a new family of accepting friends, and he was finally free. He was in the one spot he safely could be himself. He hugged and kissed his friends. He laughed and danced to the music. He was truly happy.

That guy was me 20 years ago in the same club. Neither of us ever dreamed that this newly found heaven could be so violently torn apart by the bullets of a madman.

So, nothing funny from me today. Just heartbreak. And a request: Remember June 12 as an act of terror, sure. But also remember it as a specific attack on the LGBT community.

If we continue to allow politicians and religious leaders to spread homophobia and ignorance, more attacks will come. Changes are needed, from policies and laws to attitudes and behaviors. Can we as a country do it? Are we willing?

Time will tell, but there will be about 50 funerals next week in Orlando; and for the memory of those victims, I pray to God we do.

Keith Stewart, author of “Bernadette Peters Hates Me – True Tales of a Delusional Man,” is a Hyden native who lives in Lexington with his husband and two dogs.