“We’re Under Attack”: Burlington, VT Holds Vigil for Orlando Shooting

All photos by Dylan Kelley

More than 1,500 people gathered in Burlington on the evening of Monday, June 13th to hold a collective vigil for the 49 victims of the recent mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Organized on the fly by the Pride Center of Vermont, the vigil celebrated Burlington’s LGBTQ community and condemned ongoing violent homophobia and transphobia in Vermont and across the nation. Beginning in the shadow of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington, the large group waved rainbow flags as they marched down a silent Church Street Marketplace before gathering at City Hall Park for speeches by politicians and policy-makers, including hometown presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders.

The Pulse nightclub shooting was carried out just before last call on “Latin Night” early on Sunday morning by Orlando security officer Omar Mateen who had been a frequent patron of the popular club. Despite being a domestic batterer, speaking frequently to his co-workers about wanting to commit murder, and being on an FBI domestic terror watch list, Mateen was able to legally purchase a Sig Sauer MCX assault rifle and pistol just days before the deadly attack that was quickly dubbed “the worst mass shooting in U.S. history” by mass media.

Taylor Small (22) of Burlington was returning from a conference when she learned of the shooting. “I was waking up from this amazing experience of being with my trans brothers and sister and learning all about the healthcare process and how to protect ourselves – and to just be awoken to news that we’re under attack,” said Small as she reflected on the violation of spaces that many in the LGBTQ community consider to be a sanctuary from continuing homophobia and transphobia. “I knew that my spaces that I considered safe and the spaces that I know and love weren’t safe anymore,” she said after the event in City Hall Park.

“I was in Boston for the weekend. I roller-bladed in my underwear in the Pride Parade, led the parade – totally ecstatic,” said Enian Hemley (29), also of Burlington who learned of the shooting through social media on the morning of the attack. “[I] woke up yesterday morning, I’m a millennial so the first thing I did was check Facebook, first post I saw was about Orlando. I just started bawling and that’s been the story of the last couple of days for me.”

Hemley and Small joined scores of others in Vermont and across the country to call for the increased regulation or banning of assault weapons in the United States. Longtime lesbian and feminist organizer Peggy Luhrs (71) asks why documented occurrences of domestic violence went unnoticed on Mateen’s background check. “He battered his wife!” said Luhrs bluntly on Monday afternoon. “We should take more seriously the violence against women and look at that as the canary in the coal mine. Over and over again, we find that some mass killer already had a past of attacking women,” she said. “The Women’s Movement has asked for decades that there not be guns issued to batterers. If we had background checks and that was a reason for [gun purchase] exclusion, that would’ve helped.”

Following Monday’s vigil, Hemley also questioned the ease with which Mateen was able to purchase an assault-style weapon. “No citizen should have an AR-15 [or similar weapon] in their hands,” said Hemley. “This dude was on a terrorist watch list, bought guns – assault weapons – with no problem. That’s just absurd.” Referencing the U.S. State Department term for the unforeseen domestic consequences of U.S. military intervention abroad, Hemley also pointed to U.S. foreign policy as being partially responsible for Mateen’s attack. “It’s blowback,” he said. “I think our imperial militarist policy — occupation of Palestine, escalation of drone warfare; even under a Democratic president, all these things contribute to anti-Americanism that leads to these type of terrorist attacks. Not to remove blame from the terrorists who committed them, but I think when Americans see these type of attacks in isolation they don’t attach it to the covert military operations which are inciting a lot of this violence against us.”

The Burlington vigil observing the massacre came just days after a similar vigil was held following the beating and murder of Amos Beede, a 38 year old trans man from Milton, Vermont who died at the UVM Medical Center after being found near Burlington’s defunct barge canal on May 22nd.

“A stage-managed event…”

With the national media spotlight continuing to follow the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders ahead of upcoming Democratic convention in Philadelphia, Sanders was flanked by both an American flag as well as a rainbow “Pride” flag as he addressed the Burlington crowd and reiterated his support for an assault weapons ban, “the weapon used in Orlando was legally purchased,” he said. “…it is time for us to really rethink something that I have believed for decades: whether or not it makes sense for people today to be able to walk into a store and purchase a military style weapon, which has one purpose and one purpose alone — and that is to kill people.”

Despite general agreement on issues such as islamophobia and gun control, some of the more than 1,500 people who attended the vigil in City Hall Park left the event feeling unfulfilled by political speeches or unsettled by the surprising police presence that escorted the march. “I really felt like it was mostly a very stage-managed event to make sure that we didn’t talk about the anti-gay and trans bigotry,” said Luhrs after the speeches had concluded. “Personally, I had wanted to be with my LGBTQ community and talk about what this is,” said Luhrs as she noted the recent rise of attacks on LGBTQ people across the nation. “There’s a rise in gay-bashing and there’s certainly a lot of people going after trans people. [The vigil] was just stage-managed to keep us away from that [discussion]. I feel like that is how we have come together and healed and become stronger in the past.”

Luhrs was not alone in her criticism of the vigil. Throughout the week local Facebook accounts have lit up with anger as the LGBTQ community continues to mourn, process, and grieve the loss of the Orlando victims. “I think we first need to mourn. I don’t think anybody is giving us space to really feel the emotions of this tragedy,” said Taylor Small reflecting on the event and where the LGBTQ community may turn in the coming weeks and months, particularly during the heightened atmosphere of an election year. “I think we’re constantly focusing on this next step and ‘what do we do as a community’ rather than coming together as a greater community and feeling that love and feeling that appreciation, and realizing that there aren’t these differences after all and that we should just be loving and caring for one another.”

“It’s just so tiresome that I’ve been struggling, fighting this for over forty years,” says Peggy Luhrs as she looks over her backyard garden in Burlington’s Old North End. “I find this frightening. I remember when they bombed a gay club in Louisiana. I remember lots of attacks. I was there [in San Francisco] after they shot Harvey Milk,” she said. “It’s frightening — It’s scary that racism is re-trenching, misogyny has certainly re-trenched like crazy, and I expect homophobia will as well. And that’s scary but we’ve always dealt with it, and we’ll deal with it by doing what we’ve always done: by being a community and coming together and trying to watch out for each other.”