Orlando and broader context of anti-LGBT backlash
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On June 12, 2016, the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history left 49 people dead and another 53 wounded in a Florida nightclub. Most of the victims were Latino gay men. Many of the questions we have around this terror attack may never be answered. However, one thing is quite clear: this massacre did not occur in isolation.

Acts of violence and hate are committed against LGBT people every single day—especially against people of color, gay men, and transgender women. Every year about 20 LGBT people are killed and 2,000 violently attacked in bias crimes. The role that discriminatory laws and anti-LGBT political rhetoric play in emboldening some to engage in violence needs to be acknowledged. If we don’t acknowledge the political roots of anti-LGBT violence, it will be impossible to end it.

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Lawmakers around the country have spent decades pushing anti-LGBT legislation through state legislatures. In the first half of 2016 alone, nearly 200 anti-LGBT bills have been filed in 32 states. These bills make up the third wave of political backlash against the LGBT community, and they are known collectively as so-called “religious liberty” bills. For example, Florida’s HB 43, which was signed into law on March 10, 2016, expanded the state’s pre-existing religious freedom protections, stating that “churches…or certain individuals may not be required to solemnize any marriage or provide services, accommodations, facilities, goods, or privileges for related purposes if such action would violate sincerely held religious beliefs.”

The first wave of anti-LGBT bills involved repeal of gay rights laws starting in the 1970s (remember Anita Bryant?). The second wave saw passage of myriad laws and amendments banning marriage and partner recognition to same-sex couples between 1995 and 2008. But watching lawmakers who’ve championed these third-wave, anti-LGBT bills express sympathy for the Orlando victims was a surreal exercise in dissonance. All expressed sympathy and offered “thoughts and prayers” without any acknowledgment of the role that their votes, speeches, and signatures played in creating hostile political environments for LGBT communities.

Gov. Pat McCrory, who signed North Carolina’s HB2 into law in March 2016, ordered flags to be lowered and released this statement: “Those who died were innocent victims of an inexcusable act of violence.” HB2 negates all local nondiscrimination ordinances in favor of state law, which does not encompass sexual orientation or gender identity. It also requires people to use public bathrooms that match their gender at birth.

Gov. Bill Haslam, who signed Tennessee’s HB 1840 into law in April 2016, announced that flags would be flown at half-staff in “memory of victims of violent attack in Orlando.” HB 1840 allows therapists and counselors to deny treatment to any patient if that patient has “goals, outcomes, or behaviors” that would violate the “sincerely held principles” of the provider. The law is aimed squarely at allowing providers to deny mental health services to LGBT patients and is written so broadly that it violates the ethics and principles of all major counseling professional groups.

Florida Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioFormer Florida elections official Snipes sues to be returned to job Look out ‘losers’ — Trump focused on ‘winning’ The Memo: GOP frets as Trump shutdown looms MORE rightly condemned the Orlando massacre, stating that “we have seen the way radical Islamists have treated gays and lesbians in other countries,” referring to the execution of men accused of homosexual behavior by ISIS. This is the same Sen. Rubio who has consistently opposed any attempt to legalize equal treatment for LGBT people and same-sex couples in the United States. He supports the First Amendment Defense Act, which would allow government employees to use religious liberty as a defense for discriminating against LGBT people. In 2013, he threatened to vote against his own immigration bill if it included protections for bi-national same-sex couples. In an interview with CNN, Rubio said, “if this bill has in it something that gives gay couples immigration rights and so forth, it kills the bill. I’m gone. I’m off it.”

Many of these third-wave, anti-LGBT laws were written, enacted, and enforced in Southern states. It is in these states where LGBT people bear a disproportionate burden—from a lack of legal protection, the refusal of mental health services, and significant barriers to accessing health care. LGBT Southerners are also more likely to be people of color.

Nationwide, LGBT people of color, transgender women, and gay men are at increased risk of hate-motivated violence, especially homicide. Despite this, the struggle continues to maintain spaces that allow people to be and love themselves and one another without fear. Statewide laws that repeal municipal nondiscrimination ordinances or that legalize anti-LGBT discrimination in health care can make LGBT people feel unsafe in public restrooms, in a therapist’s office, or while seeking to access other basic services.

The mass murder of LGBT people in Orlando has made many LGBT people feel unsafe in gay bars and nightclubs — institutions created to serve as a refuge from a homophobic world. While enabling discrimination and committing targeted mass violence are two very different things, they both make the LGBT community feel unsafe. Since the enactment of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 1993, the concept of religious freedom has been grossly distorted. Free exercise of religion, rightly protected by the First Amendment to our Constitution and by RFRA, was never intended to give individuals the right to discriminate against others and cause them harm. Elected officials should stop using religious freedom as a guise for discriminatory legislation that negatively affects the emotional and physical wellbeing of LGBT people.

Sean Cahill, PhD is the Director of Health Policy Research for The Fenway Institute at Fenway Health. He is a co-author of The Current Wave of Anti-LGBT Legislation: Historical context and implications for LGBT Health, published June 16, 2016 by The Fenway Institute.