The mass shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando Sunday morning, which left at least 50 people dead, isn’t just the deadliest mass shooting in American history — it’s the also the deadliest act of anti-LGBTQ violence.
So it’s particularly heartbreaking that it happened during LGBT Pride Month, a celebration that arose from violence, particularly police brutality, against LGBTQ people. The first pride march was held in 1970 in New York, a year after the Stonewall Riots, violent police raids on a gay- and transgender-friendly bar that led to four nights of rioting.
The knowledge and outrage of the Stonewall Riots gave LGBTQ advocates the momentum necessary to turn their cause into a true nationwide movement.
"Before Pride and Stonewall, there really wasn't a comprehensive LGBT movement," Kevin Nadal, executive director at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, wrote. "Stonewall really was the first time that demonstrated that protesting and rioting and fighting back actually worked for the LGBT community."
Indiana University sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong and Suzanna Crage explained that the reaction to the police raid at Stonewall Inn — the riots — resonated with LGBTQ people. After centuries of oppression, they understood why people would feel the need to react violently to yet another sign of discrimination and oppression.
The deadliest anti-LGBTQ violence in American history, until Sunday, happened four years after Stonewall, at the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The gay bar, which also hosted church services for an inclusive church, was set aflame on June 24, 1973 — witnesses described the doorbell ringing and, when the bartender answered, "a fireball burst through as if shot from a flamethrower," Elizabeth Dias and Jim Downs wrote in Time magazine in 2013.
The fire killed 32 people. No one was ever prosecuted. The national reaction was cold and callous at best, and viciously mocking at worst. Dias and Downs wrote:
The jokes began almost immediately. The Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the MCC, flew in the morning after the fire and remembers a radio host asking on air, "What do we bury them in?" The punch line: "Fruit jars." The police department's chief of detectives reinforced the homophobic climate when he told reporters that identifying the bodies would be tough because many patrons carried fake identification and "some thieves hung out there, and you know this was a queer bar."
The dead were effectively outed by their presence at a gay bar; some families, the son of one victim told Time, didn’t claim their relatives’ remains because they were ashamed. It took a week to find a church willing to host the memorial service.
But like the Stonewall riots before it, the Upstairs fire helped catalyze the gay community in New Orleans, particularly urging along the movement for gay-friendly churches.
The solidarity that emerged from these tragedies turned into the joyous celebration that pride has become.
Now another Pride Month has been marked by violence.