At roughly 2 AM on June 12th, an armed gunman walked into a gay nightclub in Orlando and shot 49 people to death and wounded 53 others. The majority of the victims were young gay Latinos. The Muslim shooter claimed he wanted revenge for American bombings in Afghanistan. In the wake of the tragedy, people have attempted to make sense of such senseless violence. Which often feels impossible.
As one of the first openly-gay elected officials in Florida state history, Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan has been a leading light in the fight for the rights and dignity of the LGBTQ community for 16 years. The horror of the Pulse nightclub shooting thrust Sheehan onto the national stage to act as a spokesperson for the LGBTQ community, as well as for all of her grieving Orlando constituents.
Playboy spoke with Commissioner Sheehan about the community response to the shooting, her surprise that conservative Southern religious leaders are finally embracing the gay community, why demonizing Muslim-Americans is not the answer and the criticisms that bias may have slowed police response to a shooting at a gay nightclub.
Some people call the Pulse shooting an act of terrorism. Others insist it was a hate crime. Does it matter to you whether this tragedy is labeled terrorism, or hate crime, or both?
One of the frustrations that I have as the first openly gay elected official in Southern Florida is that a lot of people are trying to erase the fact these are Latino people and gay people. I definitely feel that it’s a hate crime. And it was also a terrorist act. That was one of the things I first started speaking out about. I did not want folks’ sexual orientation and national origins to be swept under the rug in the rush to say, “With terrorism it doesn’t matter…we’re all Americans.” I want to say, “Yeah, we’re all Americans…until it comes to giving us equal rights.” We need to talk about about why this is a hate crime and terrorism.
I’m getting letters from Vietnam veterans saying, ‘I never thought I would be saying this, but I’m flying a rainbow flag underneath my American flag.’
The South is generally not known for its tolerance of gays, Latinos or Muslims. Have you seen a change in your community in terms of how people have responded to this tragedy?
In the 1980s I was really active with ACT UP and other HIV/AIDS organizations. I saw how that tragedy really brought everyone together in the LGBTQ community. I think now what’s happening is that you have that same kind of unity happening in the non-LGBTQ community. I’m getting letters from Vietnam veterans who are saying, 'I never thought I would be saying this, but I’m flying a rainbow flag underneath my American flag.’
Do you feel there’s a lasting change occurring across all of America regarding how people view the LGBTQ community?
I got put on the national stage. It wasn’t something that I wanted. It was something that I did because I thought it was important to get LGBTQ issues to the forefront. And now I’ve heard from people all over the country. Yes, I think there has been a definite change of heart in this country. I think there’s even been a change of heart in religious leaders. There are still some problems, though! I have to tell you there are Catholic churches here in Orlando whose priests would not answer the call (to bury the victims). They just basically said, 'I’m not doing that,’ and they did their own little crazy civil disobedience and defied the wishes of the church. But then our Catholic bishop said, 'You will bury these people and you will treat them with respect.’ I never thought in a billion years I would see that happen.
Do you think support from conservative religious leaders will continue in the future?
I don’t think you call a press conference and repent for your past transgressions–so to speak–if you’re just doing window-dressing. So, I definitely feel a change in the religious community.
Now, the political community? That’s a whole other thing. Marco Rubio came down here, sat with family members of victims, and then he ran right back to Washington for one of the few times he was actually present for a vote, and he voted to allow terrorists to be able to obtain guns and fire them against our own citizens. There’s still a political divide, which I think is ridiculous, as a gun owner.
Hating a Muslim is the same thing as hating a gay person.
For Muslim-Americans in your community, has this increased tensions, or has Orlando rallied together?
The biggest applause that I got at a speech that I gave at Lake Eola was when I said, “Hating a Muslim is the same thing as hating a gay person.” I got a standing ovation. There were cheers from the 50,000 people that were there. I feel strongly allied with our Muslim-American community. We are not falling into that trap of discrimination and hatred. We understand that the enemy is hatred, not the Muslim community.
There are reports that the shooter was a regular at Pulse. Some folks close to him say that he was a closeted gay man. Do you think this shooting is a result of self-hate?
I call it a toxic soup of intolerance. You have religious intolerance. You have the father’s words of intolerance. You have radical Islam, which is intolerant towards the gay community. And together, you have hatred. He might have had his own issues with not being comfortable with being gay–and those of us who are (openly gay) understand the coming out process and how difficult it is. I was a born-again Christian. I tried to change myself through what I considered radical Christian extremism. So I understand that. But I don’t condone his behavior. I took a different path. You either walk a path of understanding others and love, or a path of hating others, and terrorism. We went on radically different paths. I think that intolerance is the problem.
Have you seen the Muslim community of Florida engage in any forms of outreach with gay organizations? And vice-versa?
Yes. We’re planning to do a large-scale event. We’re going to have entertainers come in and raise money for the OneOrlando Fund for the victims’ families. The Muslim community has been very involved and very supportive of that. I’m very excited to see us all working together.
In response to this tragedy, Mayor Buddy Dyer created the OneOrlando Fund for victims and their families. What has the support been like from people and communities outside Orlando?
There’s been such an outpouring of support. Many people want to create some sort of memorial. We still have some work to do in terms of victims’ assistance. We’re working with some of the folks from the Boston bombing. And I sat in on one of the telephone conversations with the guy from Boston (Kenneth Feinberg, the charitable fund manager who administered the One Fund Boston created for victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, as well as the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund). He said, 'You want to get the money out. You don’t want to be doing this two years from now. Give the money out!’ He’s awesome.
Are funds being directly distributed to victims’ families for burial costs, or to survivors for medical costs, lost wages or moving costs?
I don’t know exactly how much money has been disbursed yet, or anything like that, but we have an entire family assistance center set up at our football stadium. It’s an amazing machine set up to assist people. Are there some things we need to figure out? Yeah! For instance, so many of these young men and women were the breadwinners for their family, or supported their elderly parents who live outside of the country. So we have to think how we’re going to help them in the future. But I’m really proud of my city and how we responded.
What about those who might attempt to profit off this tragedy with fake charities. Are you seeing much of that?
I’m going to be real honest–there were websites popping up almost immediately with the victims’ pictures on them, and I don’t think they were set up by the family since the family doesn’t really speak English. I think there are lots of people who are trying to take advantage of a horrible situation. And there isn’t a hot enough hell for them. Which is why, OneOrlando Fund is where I’m directing everyone to make donations.
What community responses have been the most moving for you?
For me, it was the line at the blood bank. I saw that and I was like, 'Wow, that is so amazing.’ And our sports teams–like the Orlando Predators and the Magic and Orlando City Soccer–all came out in support. In the past, I’ve been very much at odds with the owner of the Orlando Magic, Rich DeVos. He’s given hundreds of thousands of dollars to anti-gay organizations. We’ve been very publicly opposed on things. The fact that he opened up, and that his organization opened up the Magic Fanatic to sell these shirts and people were lined up around the block to buy a shirt and 100 percent of the proceeds go to the OneOrlando fund, that was pretty cool for me.
There have been criticisms of the Orlando Police Department’s response to the shooter. The LA Times was a bit critical of SWAT Captain Mark Canty’s response time. Do you feel that police response was adequate?
There’s going to be a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation, which is appropriate under these circumstances. What really bugs me is that people were criticizing the Orlando Police Department for not going right in when there was a hostage situation. I think we need to look at what happened. I’m not going to criticize them. They were working under very difficult circumstances.
So you don’t think that the fact it was a gay nightclub as opposed to say a high school prom affected police response time?
Hell, no! Our Orlando Police Department is one of the best-trained, best-supervised forces around. One of my best friends is a police lieutenant. We have lesbian captains. We have gay lieutenants. We have many gay people who are very well respected members of OPD. Someone can come in from somewhere else, someone who doesn’t know what’s going on, and they can say whatever they want. But I know these people. I know (Orlando Chief of Police) John Mina. I know his police department. And I know better. So, no, absolutely not. It was not because it was a gay nightclub. If there were any delays or anything like that it’s because they were concerned about a hostage situation. They were thinking of the victims.
Has Gov. Rick Scott’s office offered much help to Orlando to deal with the community-wide effects of this tragedy?
I haven’t seen any. The only thing I’ve heard is that we applied for some federal funding but we were turned down on some technicality for the federal funding, which I’m distressed by.
Wait, Orlando was turned down for federal funds?
I can’t remember what the technicality was on that, but it had something to do with the longevity of…I don’t know. There are Small Business Association Loans, but that’s not going to help these small businesses. They don’t need zero-interest loans. They need grants to help them deal with the situation that’s occurred. I’m hoping we can do something. But no, I haven’t seen anything, unless you mean press conferences. I want to see more, you know, action.
What would you like the legacy of this tragedy to be?
As a gun owner, I know that gun owners always like to talk about a gun in terms of how one feels when they’re holding them up and aiming them at targets. I would ask gun owners to think about it from the other perspective. Think about if it were your daughter or your son, or your granddaughter or grandson, in a bathroom stall, what would you arm the assailant with? If they’re going to shoot that weapon at your loved one, would you want them to have something that could fire multiple bullets into them in a turn? What would you give the assailant if it were your loved one on the other side of that barrel? That’s what I want to ask my fellow gun owners. They’re always so concerned about their rights. But you know what? The Bill of Rights was an addition to the Constitution which states as its very first aim: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And that has been taken away from all 49 of these victims.
I keep saying it–and I’ll keep saying it over and over again: We are a city who loves. And even though we were the victim of the biggest hate crime in American history, we are going to show who we are and the power of love. I just saw the power of 50,000 people honoring 49 people whose lives were taken, and we need to honor their sacrifice by becoming a better America.