“Waiting for a change to set us free / Waiting for the day when you can be you and I can be me”
Those were the opening lyrics to the chorus of “Change” by Christina Aguilera. She had recorded the song in 2015, but when she learned that a mass shooting had taken place in Orlando on June 12, 2016, Aguilera and her team immediately remastered the song and released it as a charity single. In the song, she sings that “one day we won’t have to sing this chorus.” Five years later, today is not that day.
“Point blank it was a hate crime,” said Fancy Hagood, the out songwriter of the song alongside Aguilera and Florian Reutter. Yet, it’s not so point-blank for the federal government and the media anymore.
Since 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has refused to recognize the Pulse massacre — where a man researched, found a gay nightclub known as Pulse, picked up his weapons, and went to the club hosting “Latin Night,” opened fire, shot over 100 people and took hostages before being killed by police — as any kind of a hate crime. The FBI classifies it as an act of terror.
There’s no clearer indication of the lack of change we have seen since that faithful early morning five years ago, where the lives of 49 people — who were mostly gay, queer, and/or Hispanic — were taken for no other action other than being in a gay nightclub.
It’s easier to figure out what few things have changed since that day in 2016.
One thing is that the number of members in Pink Pistols, an LGBTQ gun rights organization, reportedly tripled in the week after the Pulse massacre from 1,500 to 4,500. The group combined with Operation Blazing Sword, which aimed to offer gun education to the LGBTQ community, and today, the closed Facebook group for Pink Pistols includes about 8,400 people.
The group’s most recent statement condemned the appointment of a gun control advocate as director of the ATF “with the same vigor as we would if a known homophobe were nominated to oversee hate crime investigation, and for exactly the same reasons.” They also cheered that their board member, Chris Cheng, spoke against gun control before Congress, and condemned President Joe Biden (D) for his executive actions in April “to Address the Gun Violence Public Health Epidemic.”
This is my cousin & her husband, MJ & Fred Wright. Their son, Jerry, was killed by a mass-shooter at #Pulse. It left a gaping hole in their life. Since, they dedicated themselves to gun-control advocacy. Thank u, @POTUS, for going beyond “thoughts & prayers” and taking action.🧡 pic.twitter.com/XKU82d9hoE
— Ana Navarro-Cárdenas (@ananavarro) April 8, 2021
Biden was Vice President when Pulse took place, and he traveled with President Barack Obama (D) to a memorial at the marred site of Pulse just four days later.
“The notion that the answer to this tragedy would be to make sure that more people in a nightclub are similarly armed to the killer defies common sense,” President Obama said next to Biden at the makeshift memorial.
Yet, increasing gun ownership is one of the few substantial differences to take place in society.
Immediately after Pulse, Obama’s State Department pushed the international community to do more than condemn the murders. The resolution that was adopted by the United Nations Security Council on June 14 was the first time that the international coalition’s council had said anything regarding sexual orientation, which seemed to signal the first sign of that change people were looking for. At the time, homosexuality or same-sex relationships were illegal in 73 countries.
Today, 69 countries still make it illegal, with relationships also de facto criminalized in Egypt and Iraq, according to the ILGA.
“If there was ever a moment for all of us to reflect and reaffirm our most basic beliefs that everybody counts and everybody has dignity, now is the time,” President Obama said.
All of us did not. Some watched as LGBTQ people were constantly erased and told they didn’t count, time and time again, from all corners of the Trump administration.
On June 15, 2016, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) held a filibuster, controlling the Senate floor and refusing to yield until Senate Republicans committed to voting on gun control legislation. After 14 hours and 50 minutes, they did. Both Democrat-proposed bills were defeated and both Republican-proposed bills were defeated, all along party lines.
On June 22, 2016, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) took to the floor of the House of Representatives, locked in arms with 60 of his fellow legislators. They refused to leave until action was taken on gun control by the Republicans, who controlled the House and its agenda at that time.
The majority of the House ignored them. They passed a motion to adjourn for the day, reconvened later for a few measures, and then decided to adjourn the body again for at least two weeks. The sit-in lasted just a day, with Lewis leaving the floor last.
“We are going to win the struggle,” Lewis said. But all he could do was go home. The following January, the Republican-controlled House banned sit-ins.
I think about John Lewis leading a sit-in in the aftermath of the Pulse shooting all the time. He was a man of strength and conscience until the very end. We can’t let him die in vain. We have to keep fighting injustice. pic.twitter.com/1T7z7C8WF7
— Sara (@whynotsara) July 18, 2020
When Lewis passed away on July 17, 2020, no major gun legislation had passed since what would be his last sit-in. The Sig Sauer MCX .223-caliber rifle that Mateen used is still available for purchase in at least seven locations within 10 miles of the nightclub.
This week, Congress finally did adopt one policy in response to the massacre at Pulse — both the Senate and House passed a resolution allowing for the site of the attack, considered the second deadliest terrorist attack on American soil after 9/11, to become a national monument.
Sen. Rick Scott (R), who was Governor of Florida when Pulse happened, introduced the resolution. In a rare feat, it passed unanimously in both chambers of Congress. The bill goes to President Biden to receive his expected signature.
For the last five years though, the Senate refused to adopt a resolution while under control of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and the influence of Trump. The version that passed this year stipulated that no federal funds would be used to maintain the monument.
Why did it take five years for the legislative body of America to recognize one of the deadliest singular events to ever happen on its land? Whatever it was, it also defies common sense.
“Waiting for hope to come around / Waiting for the day when hate is lost and love is found,” Aguilera also sings in the chorus of “Change.”
The survivors and families of victims from Pulse haven’t been able to wait.
The person who committed the massacre, Omar Mateen, was shot dead that night by several police officers. The investigation that followed treated the event like a terrorist attack — but because Mateen had sworn allegiance to ISIS, a terrorist organization originating from Iraq and Syria that joined the war against America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, not simply on the basis that he sought to indiscriminately shoot, kill, and kidnap people.
Law enforcement tried to lay whatever blame was possibly left at the feet of Mateen’s wife, Noor Salman. A Palestinian immigrant who was Mateen’s second wife and was allegedly abused, Salman supposedly “confessed” right after being arrested.
As it turned out, the FBI pre-wrote her confession that she knew Mateen was going to kill people, they claimed that she had helped him scout the club, and they charged her in federal court for “obstructing justice.” It was only revealed after the trial began that Mateen’s father had been an FBI informant, and an agent considered making Mateen one as well.
Salman’s defense also revealed to the public the fact that Mateen had not only searched for other clubs in Orlando, but drove by two of them first. They used this as evidence that Mateen’s actions were spontaneous. Salman was eventually acquitted, and after the case against her fell apart, people began to question whether everything law enforcement had told the public about the massacre was accurate.
Somehow, that led to a string of people determining that the shooting at Pulse was not a hate crime or even a massacre, but a random happenstance.
In an expose vindicating Salman, HuffPost deemed that Pulse “was a crime of opportunity,” noting that, again, neither the government nor Florida had included Pulse in hate crime data. “There’s now conclusive evidence that the shooter wasn’t intending to target LGBTQ people at all,” a Vox article reads, their argument is that Mateen didn’t explicitly search “gay nightclubs” when he came upon Pulse.
It suddenly stopped meaning anything that Mateen, even if he didn’t choose Pulse beforehand, learned he was at a gay nightclub that night, and chose to stage his attack there anyway after skipping two non-gay venues.
As Patrick Hamilton wrote for LGBTQ Nation three days after the shooting, it should matter that the massacre happened at a gay nightclub because “gay bars are the closest thing we have to a church, when no church will have us… and even if they will. But it is more than that.”
Yet, commentary across media took Salman’s defense strategy that she was a victim of the government’s narrative, and suddenly made it into a different one: Pulse wasn’t an attack on LGBTQ people. It was an attack on people that just happened to be LGBTQ.
It’s one that defies common sense. But, considering the last five years, defying common sense is as close to a normal that we have.
The White House led a crusade to continue discrimination and hatred the last four years — against LGBTQ people, against Hispanic people, and against people of almost every marginalized identity — and while the country is no longer under the command of Trump, the movement he led to has not disappeared.
On June 1, the first day of Pride Month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed into law Senate Bill 1028, which will ban trans girls or girls whose gender is “disputed” from participating in school sports.
On June 2, DeSantis took funding away from LGBTQ organizations. The Orlando United Assistance Center, established in the aftermath of Pulse to specifically help survivors and families affected, was stripped of $150,000 and told they’ll have to find other ways to fund it.
“I will never forget,” Brandon Wolf, a Pulse survivor who has since had to dedicate his life to LGBTQ rights advocacy, said.
Here’s @GovRonDeSantis in 2019, standing on hallowed ground, promising me that he would always support those of us impacted by the Pulse nightclub shooting.
Today, he vetoed mental health services for us. I will never forget. pic.twitter.com/huW8NJbVlP
— Brandon Wolf (@bjoewolf) June 2, 2021
Wolf co-founded the Dru Project, named after his friend Christopher Andrew Leinonen, who died at Pulse. It took Christopher’s mom, Christine, 33 hours to find out he had died. He was buried next to his boyfriend, Juan Ramon Guerrero.
Christine was next to Wolf and fellow Pulse survivor Jose Arriagada when she moved the Democratic National Convention to tears in 2016. She has called for banning assault weapons and advocates for a ballot initiative in Florida that lets citizens vote on whether or not to enact gun control.
— Human Rights Campaign (@HRC) July 28, 2016
Patience Carter and Alex Murray both survived the shooting. The strangers became a couple and married on Lincoln Financial Field, the home stadium of their favorite NFL team the Philadelphia Eagles, in August. Patience even became the subject of an Eagles-produced docuseries, Sincerely, Patience.
Tiara Parker, who survived, lost her best friend and cousin Akyra Murray that night, but has founded the Global Activist Awards.
Akyra was celebrating her recent graduation with honors from Philadelphia's West Catholic Preparatory High School, where she finished third in her class. pic.twitter.com/wikdBIRtr5
— onePULSE Foundation (@onePULSEorg) June 10, 2021
These are just some of the stories of countless people affected by the “opportunity” taken by the gunman that night. Their lives have surely changed on every level. Did anything else?
“Waiting for a change, waiting for a change,” Aguilera sang.
Pulse was the first time that the Facebook Safety Check feature, which allows users to mark themselves as “safe” or not after an event, was used in the United States.
In 2017, the 58 killed by the shooting on the Las Vegas Strip exceeded that of Pulse’s 49, making it the deadliest mass shooting in American history. Pulse had surpassed the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, which had surpassed a shooting in Killeen, Texas in 1991 in the total number of killings and injuries from one shooting. All the massacres used semi-automatic rifles or pistols.
If anything’s changed since Pulse, it hasn’t been enough.
People are continuing to wait, but eventually, people will have to act.