Nearly 300 people gathered around Crockett Park‘s gazebo in San Antonio during the fading evening light on Sunday to mourn the victims of a mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, where U.S. citizen Omar Mateen opened fire in the early hours of June 12.
It was also an opportunity to show solidarity with the LGBTQIA – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual – community and call for an end to gun violence and terrorism.
Multiple City and state officials attended, standing together above the crowd on the platform of the park’s gazebo as a pair of women dressed in the the colors of the rainbow performed what they described as an indigenous healing ritual. Council members Ray Saldaña (D4), Rebecca Viagran (D3), and Ron Nirenberg (D8) spoke from the steps of the gazebo, as did San Antonio Police Chief William McManus and state Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123), as well as other San Antonio notables. Local transgender comedian “Joan Riviera” also offered remarks from the gazebo while U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro and his twin brother, U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas), stood to the side among fellow LGBTQIA community supporters.
The attack claimed more than 50 lives and is the deadliest mass shooting in the country’s history. Mateen, whose family is from Afghanistan, called 911 before the shooting to declare his allegiance to the Islamic State, but his father has said he believes a deep anti-gay sentiment was the most likely cause of his son’s rampage.
Similar rituals took place across the U.S. and will continue throughout the coming weeks and months. Another vigil hosted by Pride Center San Antonio is scheduled for Thursday at Crockett Park. Click here for details.
“Although it’s still early in the investigation, we know enough to say that this was an act of terror and an act of hate. And as Americans, we are united in grief, in outrage, and in resolve to defend our people,” President Barack Obama said during his national address on Sunday. “This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship, or a movie theater, or in a nightclub. And we have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be. And to actively do nothing is a decision as well.”
Sunday’s vigil was organized primarily by Equality Texas, an advocacy organization with offices statewide. The event was organized in just a few hours, as news continued to roll in from Florida about the extent of the violence that shocked the nation.
Julian Tovar, vice chair of Equality Texas’ board, also spoke and helped organize the event via Facebook.
“We thought it was really important for (this) to happen today to show our support to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters in Florida,” Tovar said in a phone interview a few hours before the crowd gathered. “I also feel that there are a lot of people that are probably fear-stricken, and a lot of people that just need an outlet to share how they feel and come together with other likeminded people.”
Parker Radbourne, a transgender man who moved to San Antonio five years ago, said he felt the need to show solidarity with the victims of the Orlando shooting and with LGBTQIA people everywhere who feel unsafe.
“I had to come out here tonight because for some of the people who died in the shooting, this will be the only respectful remembrance of them,” he said just before the vigil started. “For other people, we need all of the people who are in the closet now to know that there are people that do support them in the community – especially at times like this, when there’s so much hatred and violence, and that they don’t need to end their lives. That there are people that love them.”
Jorge Estevez, Radbourne’s roommate, said political rhetoric can inspire such hateful acts.
“This was a tragedy that is going to bring to light a lot of issues not only with certain extremist groups, but in the general population,” Estevez said. “A lot of these actions start with words, and certain teachings, and how people educate themselves.
“When you spend most of your career, such as some politicians do, trying to marginalize a group of people, that really translates as hate,” he said. “It’s an emotional passion that seeks to obliterate a group of people, to silence them. We’re at a point where we’ve had enough.”
Rep. Bernal echoed this sentiment later when he spoke to the crowd, chiding politicians who he says offer prayers and sympathy after violence, but take political action, such as recent transgender bathroom legislation, that marginalizes LGBTQIA individuals.
“We have to practice what we preach,” he said.
Bernal, as well as other officials who spoke tonight, offered solidarity and the promise of more direct action in support of San Antonio’s LGBTQIA community.
Chief McManus noted that he had spoken with organizers and advocates earlier in the day and promised increased police visibility as the city gears up for San Antonio’s annual Pride Festival and Parade, which will take place on Saturday, July 2 in Crockett Park and along North Main Avenue, an area known as San Antonio’s “Gay Strip.” In demonstration of the department’s efforts, he pointed to several uniformed police officers standing outside the gathering in the park.
“I want you to feel safe,” McManus told the crowd. “We don’t have any credible information that there’s any danger here in San Antonio, but we ask you to be vigilant. I can promise you that no one is going to hurt you as long as SAPD is here.”
Though many members of the crowd said they did not feel more fearful after the shooting, citing what they feel is a progressive, inclusive culture in San Antonio, other attendees were not so sure.
Stephanie Hansen said she feels less safe after the shooting.
“I’d be lying if I said no,” she said. “In the end I definitely feel a bit shaken. The place that it happened wasn’t just a night club, it was somewhere we all feel safe, you know?”
Victoria Martinez, a transgender woman in a bright pink ensemble, stood with her bicycle and watched the vigil’s attendees as they marched from Crockett Park to Sparky’s Pub, a popular bar less than a block away from the park on North Main Avenue.
“I feel like that could have been us,” she said as she watched a group of people carrying a rainbow flag cross the street. “That could have been this community. Hundreds of people come here all the time, almost every night, and it could have easily been this community.
“I’m used to fighting for my space in the world because I’m transgender, maybe I have a tougher skin built up,” she added, “but it’s definitely scary and frightening and sad. I don’t know (the Orlando victims) or anything, but it could have been me. They are me.”
Though the shooting at Pulse brought up a flood of fears and anxieties that have long plagued a community that is often marred by violence, the overwhelming feeling at tonight’s vigil was hope and dedication to change.
“Although we mourn those we have lost, one of the things we do really well is persevere,” Tovar said in closing remarks to the crowd. “It will take more than an act of terror to dampen our LGBTQ spirit.”
This story was originally published on Sunday, June 12.
Top image: Gayle Newton of Newtons News and Ladies on the Loose speaks to the crowd gathered in front of Sparky’s Pub on North Main Avenue. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.