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Monday, June 13, 2016

New Orleans gathers to remember victims of the Orlando shootings

Posted By on Mon, Jun 13, 2016 at 10:35 AM

click to enlarge Participants at last night's vigil for the Orlando shooting victims formed a human chain along the Mississippi River. - DELLA HASSELLE
  • DELLA HASSELLE
  • Participants at last night's vigil for the Orlando shooting victims formed a human chain along the Mississippi River.
A black flag with a rainbow fleur-de-lis fluttered above. Below, a circle of men, women and transgender members of the New Orleans LGBT community stood in silence, cradling flickering candles. Some who gathered at a local vigil Sunday night could be heard sobbing as friends and loved ones tried to offer comfort.

Less than 24 hours after 50 were killed at an Orlando gay dance club — a massacre that is now being called the worst mass shooting in United States history — members of the LGBT community near and far were left reeling.

The loss was deeply felt in New Orleans, as the city’s Pride Week loomed just a week ahead, and as locals were preparing for Labor Day weekend’s Decadence Festival, the city’s largest gay event that’s been tradition for more than 40 years.

As he gave a speech on the Moon Walk next to the Mississippi River, Frank Perez, vigil speaker and member of LGBT+, reiterated a story that resonated among those who had gathered for the impromptu vigil.

Perez, he said, had woken up to the news, which had broken in the wee hours of the morning. Omar Mateen, 29, a Florida man who had reportedly given his allegiance to the Islamic State, had opened gunfire in Pulse, a club known for its outreach as much as for its dancing. Armed with an assault-type rifle and a handgun, according to the Associated Press, Mateen killed 50 and injured another 53 before being shot to death by law enforcement. In the aftermath, local blood banks cited a “dire” need for donations. It was a suspected hate crime.

“Like most of you I went through a series of emotions throughout the day. I was sad, I was angry, I was confused, I was dumfounded,” Perez said. “We want to make sense of these tragedies, and I don’t know if we can.”
Perez also recalled the last time dozens of members of the LGBT community had died during one tragedy — New Orleans’ own UpStairs lounge fire, which killed 32 and injured many more when it erupted at the gay club in 1973. (Gambit political editor Clancy DuBos, then a cub reporter, covered the fire and wrote about it again in 2013.)

That fire was intentionally started with lighter fluid, and became lethal when patrons became locked inside with fire escapes blocking exits through the windows.

Until Sunday morning, it was the deadliest crime against gays and lesbians in the nation, Perez said.
 
click to enlarge Hundreds of members of New Orleans' LGBT community and supporters gathered on the Moon Walk by the Mississippi River onSunday night for a candlelight vigil to honor the victims of the Orlando shootings. - DELLA HASSELLE
  • DELLA HASSELLE
  • Hundreds of members of New Orleans' LGBT community and supporters gathered on the Moon Walk by the Mississippi River onSunday night for a candlelight vigil to honor the victims of the Orlando shootings.

Yet Perez said that he wasn’t just there to mourn or draw comparisons, but also to “celebrate in a way the strides we’ve made.” As an indication of how much more the community had become accepted since he was young, he talked about being able to be openly gay.

He also contrasted the reaction after the UpStairs fire, when both churches and city officials remained silent, to the nation’s response on Sunday. He pointed to a speech made by President Barack Obama, who ordered flags to be flown at half-staff at federal buildings until sunset Thursday “as a mark of respect for victims of the act of hatred and terror” at the Orlando club.

“After the UpStairs lounge arson, no politician in town wanted to have anything to do with it or anything to say,” Perez said. “But today President Obama actually addressed the nation. It’s an indication of just how far we’ve come.”

Pastors from local LGBT-friendly churches gave similar messages during short sermons, held by the river.

“This is an act of terror and an act of hate, but tonight we come together in an act of unity and an act of love to stand as one voice, one people and one unit of faith,” said Shelly Planellas, minister of the New Covenant Church NOLA.

The messages seemed to resonate for many members of the community who had gathered to pay their respects during the vigil. Among the more well-known members of the local community was Sister Diarrhee En Frank, who for two and a half years has been part of the Big Easy Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

The group’s members dress in nun’s outfits, wear painted faces and raise money and awareness by hosting parties and giving support during events like the vigil.

“Fifty people died and another 50+ got injured because of who they were,” Sister Diarrhee En Frank said. “What’s more important than that?”

Also in attendance were Erik Landrum and James Clark, a married couple who had been together for 22 years and felt it was time they were “accepted just like anyone else.”

Jane Vozzi, who had lived in New Orleans since 1994, said she was also there to send a message as a member of the LGBT community, as well as mourn the lives lost.

“It’s time to stand up and say we are not afraid,” Vozzi said. [The community is] getting better and better, and stronger and stronger, but there’s still a long way to go.”

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