Gun violence is a public health crisis. It is an epidemic that took the lives of 13,286 people in 2015 alone, including 372 mass shootings—a number that balloons beyond 30,000 when suicides are included. In the early hours of June 12, at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the epidemic touched the heart of the LGBTQ community, as a deranged homophobe slaughtered 49 innocent LGBTQ people in a matter of minutes.
This presents a problem for those who refuse to address our gun violence crisis by insisting that constant massacres are simply the price we pay for liberty. Because if there is one thing the LGBTQ community knows better than anything else, it is how to battle an epidemic.
I am talking, of course, about AIDS, which ravaged America’s gay community with unspeakable brutality throughout the 1980s. Odd as it might seem to draw parallels between the AIDS crisis and our current gun violence epidemic, the two are strikingly similar. Consider the government’s morally revolting negligence toward the victims of these two fast-spreading diseases. In the 1980s, while AIDS destroyed thousands of gay men’s bodies, the government did virtually nothing. The first AIDS cases were reported in 1981; President Ronald Reagan did not say the word out loud until 1985 and did not deliver a speech on the matter until 1987—at which point it had killed 20,849 in the United States alone. The Reagan administration joked about AIDS even as thousands were dying of the mysterious new disease.
Congress shared much of the blame. As AIDS raged on, Congress always found a way to blame the crisis on something other than the disease itself. Typically, the scapegoat was gay men. Congressional Republicans routinely called AIDS “the gay disease,” a “lifestyle issue,” and “not a no-fault disease.” Some advocated quarantining or deporting gays to resolve the crisis.
Democrats in Congress, led by Rep. Henry Waxman and Sen. Ted Kennedy, pushed legislation to fund research and treatment. But they were quickly stymied by conservatives. In 1988, when Democrats finally compromised on a viable AIDS bill, Sen. Jesse Helms offered an amendment that prohibited the Centers for Disease Control from funding AIDS programs that “promote, encourage or condone homosexual activities.” This effectively gagged doctors and researchers across the country and posed a serious impediment to progress in treatment. In defending the bill, Helms declared that gay people were “perverted human being[s].” His amendment passed the Senate 96 to 2 and found only 47 opponents in the House.
The modern congressional debate over gun control is startlingly similar, if lacking bigotry against a specific group. (Well, other than unarmed human beings.) We hear, time and time again, that blame for out-of-control gun violence is not, could not possibly be, guns themselves. No matter that states with stricter gun laws have less gun violence, or that more guns lead to more gun murders, or that the gunmen all used the same weapon in our ghastliest recent shootings—an AR-15–style rifle, a weapon designed for the battlefield capable of slaughtering many people in very little time. The real problem, we are told over and over again, is video games. Or Islam. Or immigration. Or whatever the scapegoat du jour may be.
In theory, we could put Republicans’ hypothesis to the test, allowing the CDC to research the problem and use empirical data to propose nonpartisan, science-based solutions. But Republicans apparently do not have enough faith in their talking points to have them tested by science: Conservative legislators effectively banned the CDC from investigating gun violence in the 1990s. (The gag was passed after a CDC study found that having a gun in the home increases the risk of homicide and suicide threefold, a finding that scared the National Rifle Association into lobbying action.) Much to the chagrin of pretty much every medical group in the country, the ban remains today, seriously chilling research into America’s gun epidemic.
Republicans, in other words, repeated the same trick deployed during the darkest days of the AIDS crisis to forestall most serious research into gun violence. Their unwillingness to act—indeed, their complicity in the perpetuation of the problem—has brought us to the point that a gunman could legally purchase a weapon of war then walk into a nightclub and send a volley of bullets tearing through more than 100 innocent people’s bodies, killing about half of them. Compounding the tragedy, this barbaric carnage took place in the LGBTQ community’s most treasured space. The shooter seems to have targeted Pulse precisely because it was certain to be filled with LGBTQ people. This attack was symbolic, an act of violence against every LGBTQ person in America. If it wasn’t before, the gun epidemic is now an LGBTQ issue.
The AIDS crisis didn’t end with Helms’ 1988 law. It ended—or at least abated—because gay men and their allies stood strong and fought back. They fought back by declaring that “SILENCE = DEATH” and protesting in the streets. They fought back through lobbying and guerrilla campaigns, through rallies and sit-ins and civil disobedience. They fought back by refusing to accept that mass casualties from a vicious epidemic should ever be accepted as normal. They were brave and stubborn and loud and mad as hell. They were unapologetic in their activism and unshakeable in their crazy belief that someday, somehow, they were going to win the battle. And then, in they end, they did.
Right now, the LGBTQ community is grieving. We lost 49 members of our family, 49 souls we can never get back. We are in mourning. And we are pissed. Republicans appear to believe that this mass shooting, like so many others, will slowly slip out of public consciousness, returning the gun control debate from a boil to a simmer. I would not be so sure. The last time an epidemic intersected so savagely with the queer community, leaving mass casualties in its wake, we did not permit the enormity of the tragedy to reduce us to helpless sorrow. Why expect it be different this time around? Why expect us to accept our fate as occasional targets for slaughter and allow our fallen family in Orlando to have died in vain? Gun violence wasn’t—and isn’t—our issue alone, but Orlando has moved it to the top of the list.
LGBTQ people in this country have a history of dissenting, of demonstrating, of demanding and achieving progress when our government oppresses us, or permits an epidemic to butcher our brothers and sisters. We know—we cannot forget—that silence is still death, whether we face a ruthless disease or the barrel of a gun. We will speak out. And we will fight back.