“Dear NRA, we made it through Stonewall, AIDS, DADT, and through Marriage Equality. You’re next.” This was among the many comments Jennifer Carlson and I received following the online publication of our recent op-ed in the Washington Post.
For many gun control advocates and activists, when meaningful policy change did not occur after Sandy Hook where a dozen elementary school children were murdered, it signaled their impotence in going up against the powerful gun lobby. To many, the failure of Congress to enact any of the four “gun control” bills this week is a replay of past efforts following those mass shootings.
In our op-ed, we argued that the Orlando massacre might represent new political opportunities for policy reform. It’s not because Orlando was at once an act of terrorism, hate crime and largest mass shooting in US history, but because it significantly affected the LGBTQ (and Latino LGBTQ) community – an organized political constituency with the kinds of mobilizing structures that if activated, could significantly shape the gun debate in the US.
Our claim is in part couched in seminal work by social movement scholars like Elizabeth Armstrong and Verta Taylor who argued that the LGBT movement transformed what it meant to “do politics” in America. When policy change didn’t seem likely, gays and lesbians pressed for cultural recognition and created so-called queer-only spaces. Pride parades, lesbians clubs, gay bathhouses: all of these became institutionalized ‘safe spaces’ within a movement that placed a premium not on transforming laws but transforming culture. Rather than taking away from advocating for political change, this helped foster and promote a new way of thinking about the LGBTQ community as a political constituency.
This focus on culture led to a deep transformation in attitudes, not just among movement participants but in American society more broadly: the LGBTQ movement created the kinds of spaces that allowed people to come out and, later movement leaders worked to promote LGBTQ issues not just as a matter of civil rights, but also as a matter of the powerful American ideal of equality in love and partnership. The LGBTQ community’s focus on culture change generated organizational, financial, and cultural resources necessary to exploit political opportunities for policy change when they presented themselves.
Although advocating for inclusion within existing social institutions versus undermining their vey existence has been a point of contention within the LGBTQ movement, challenging cultural heteronormativity facilitated efforts to reform heteronormative policies. The link between cultural and political change can even be seen in movement strategies and tactics. Weddings held by same-sex couples at marriage licensing offices, for instance, challenged marriage laws while simultaneously drawing from, and challenging, cultural symbols surrounding love and marriage.
A similar cultural shift also undergirds America’s gun politics. As Carlson discussed in her volume Citizen Protectors, the National Rifle Association convinced many Americans over the last 50 years that guns are both a vital tool for self-defense and a means of being a responsible citizen: a ‘citizen-protector.’ In addition to the NRA’s lobbying of Congress, the organization has a hidden cultural power that it exerts through its training arm which frames defensive gun use as a civic duty and the NRA as a service organization. Today, many Americans see a gun as something to be carried alongside a wallet or a cellphone: a majority say firearms enhance public safety. The shift is as striking as the change in sentiment on same-sex marriage. But as we claim in our op-ed, while both movements recognize the power of cultural transformation, the gun rights movement has been less successful in broadening the public debate around “gun identity politics” which still revolves mainly around constitutional rights in the Second Amendment.
Of course, we cannot ignore that the Orlando shootings came during the presidential primaries defined by the politics of immigration and national security. This in turn has also politicized this tragedy in particular ways. Trump has used Orlando to further his campaign promises about his immigration ban which Clinton characterized as a reckless strategy that wouldn’t have prevented this massacre. Ironically, Trump’s initial statements following the Orlando shootings simultaneously revealed himself an ally to the LGBT community; that this was “an assault on the ability of free people to live their lives, love who they want, and express their identity.” As the crisis unfolded, political attitudes and efforts crystalized around more specific and opposing frames about the so-called “cause” of the massacre.
Many Republicans framed it as an act of Islamic terrorism, also emphasizing mental illness and immigration restrictions, while many Democrats focused on the varieties of hate that motivate these tragedies calling for stricter gun laws. Online responses to our op-ed point to some of these opposing frames particularly that the LGBTQ movement will work to attack the second amendment; comments like “#LGBTQ wants to strip patriots of their #2A rights.” In thinking about whether and how these movements will mobilize to challenge one another’s’ claims and efforts, we remind readers that partisan distinctions are blurrier than we might think. As we noted in the article, the LGBTQ community is not politically monolithic. For instance, the Pink Pistols advocate the exercise of Second Amendment rights for self-protection against hate crimes and the Log Cabin Republicans called on the President to acknowledge terrorism as the cause of the Orlando shootings.
As pundits, politicians and academics struggle to define this shooting – hate crime, terrorism, massacre, and so forth – the terms may be less consequential than the organizational apparatuses that buttress the gun debate.
When we ask why Orlando is different, we are reminded that this tragedy also affected the Latino LGBTQ and Latinx communities. We also take note of the vigils held by activists, advocates and allies around the world in support of the Orlando victims, why Pride still matters, why gay clubs are not just “soft targets,” why “#loveconcquershate” and why “#wewillneverstopdancing.” Is the gun control debate on the “gay agenda”? Responses to our op-ed allude to the LGBTQ community organizing and mobilizing around the gun control debate. Comments like: “Congrats NRA, you took on the Queers,” “In case nobody told you, FAGS BASH BACK,” “The NRA doesn’t want it the way they’re about to get it” and “Activists are on this. Let’s all be on this.”
All of this points not just to a nation mourning, but also to a movement mobilizing. Until now, the NRA – because of its sheer organizational strength, its financial backing, and its cultural ingenuity – has been able to define not just the terms of the gun debate but also the terrain of struggle. But, to quote Orlando Commissioner Patty Sheehan, herself a long-time LGBTQ activist, “They unloaded their guns on the wrong community.” Not surprisingly both sides of the debate have pointed to the gun debate becoming part of the gay agenda.