Marching in the LA Pride Parade yesterday was an experience I’ll never forget.
I think it’s pretty safe to say that yesterday was an emotional day for all of us. The United States suffered its deadliest mass shooting in history, and its deadliest terrorist attack since 9/11. To my knowledge, the massacre at Pulse in Orlando marks another grim point in LGBT history. To my knowledge, the death toll of this atrocity surpasses that of any other homophobic hate crime ever committed. This obviously still needs to be verified, but I can’t recall an incident where more LGBT people lost their lives after being targeted simply for who they were.
Will and I were still awake when we heard the news. We were lazily watching TV at around 1 AM when I randomly decided to check my phone. I noticed that I had several missed texts from my friend Eliel Cruz, which immediately aroused my concern. Eliel lives back east, which would have meant that he was awake, texting me frantically at 4 AM his time. As I unlocked my phone, my heart stopped and my stomach sank:
“Holy f***. I’m crying. There’s a shooting. At a gay bar. In Orlando.”
I sat upright immediately, and Will could tell in an instant that something was wrong. And as I opened Twitter to try and learn more, my eyes kept widening and Will got more and more scared. He paused the TV and asked me, so I told him: “there was a shooting at Pulse in Orlando.” He gasped, and immediately got his phone out. We both spent the next several minutes feverishly scrolling through our phones. Our house was dead silent, save for the occasional audible gasp from one of us. It didn’t take long for that shock to turn to worry. We have friends who live in Orlando and the surrounding area. Will began frantically texting everyone who could have possibly been out in Orlando that night. Again, it’s 4 AM their time, so not many responses rolled in, which made the worry even worse. And as we sat there waiting for some of our friends to respond, we looked at each other and could immediately tell that we were thinking the exact same thing: what about tomorrow morning?
We had been fortunate enough to accept an invitation to march in the LA Pride parade with the LA LGBT Center about a week and a half prior. I had been looking forward to it, since I had never gotten the chance to march in a Pride parade with Will before. This was going to be one of our first major events as a married couple, and so I was excited to march hand-in-hand with the love of my life while we celebrated love and happiness. But in the wake of this news, I found myself reconsidering. While details were still fuzzy, I had no doubt that this attack had intentionally targeted the LGBT community. Whether it was a lone wolf or a part of a larger plan, there was no denying that it would likely motivate similar attacks. It’s no secret that there are still a lot of openly homophobic people who live in our country, and how easy it is for them to obtain firearms. If I was thinking about this, Will was certainly thinking about it too. And since Will already tends to get nervous in large crowds, I can only imagine how much the thought of marching seemed terrifying at the time. But then he said something that was nothing short of inspiring:
“We HAVE to march tomorrow.”
He was right. As much as we knew that we and everyone else at Pride would be the ideal target for a gun-toting homophobe, it was also imperative that we join everyone else in making a stand against bigotry and hatred. Giving in and staying home would have been exactly what the shooter wanted us to do, since the whole point of these heinous acts is to try to fill us with fear and bully us into silence from 3,000 miles away. And so, as we woke up and quietly got dressed the next morning, we tried our best to make sense of all the emotions we were feeling. The sky was bleak and overcast and there was a slight chill in the air…certainly not the kind of weather you hope for on the day of a parade. There were certainly quite a few nerves involved, but there was also a sense of responsibility and almost defiance that started to take hold as we made our way to the staging area.
It’s tough to describe exactly what the vibe was as we were waiting in the staging area to march. It seemed like the vast majority of people were doing their best to carry on the same celebration they would have had before they heard the awful news. We still found ourselves surrounded by loud music and people eager to dance to it. But there was still an uneasy and solemn undercurrent to the entire crowd. Every so often, you’d see someone off to the side who had become overcome with grief and had started to cry. They’d be clutched by at least one other person who was doing their best to keep it together and reassure them. Others were busy trying to put together makeshift memorial signs to pay tribute to the victims in Orlando. A lot of them were young LGBT people of color, too, which is exactly the kind of crowd that would have been at Pulse on a Saturday night. Being with those kinds and watching them letter their signs helped me think even more about how we, as a global LGBT community, are one giant family. This wasn’t just another horrifying attack against innocent people: these were our family members. Had the shooter been from California, it could have easily been some of us who had been targeted.
— RJ Aguiar (@rj4gui4r) June 12, 2016
That’s when buzz started to spread through the crowd. People began checking their phones and started whispering to each other… “Did you hear?” “A guy with guns and bombs was on his way here.” “Some guy got arrested with a bunch of guns and bombs and he was headed to LA Pride.” I checked Twitter, and there it was. Clear as day. Someone had clearly intended on doing even more damage to us. Looking back, I’m surprised that such news didn’t scare the hell out of me. I suppose maybe it did on some kind of subconscious level. But I remember being overcome with another emotion after reading that news.
I was pissed.
Here was someone who thought that his own right to bigotry superseded my right to exist. Here I was, surrounded by members of a family, and someone had just gotten stopped trying to hurt that family, just a few hours after we had suffered such a terrible loss. I was livid. I felt like fire was going to start coming out of my nostrils. I was so visibly agitated that I was pacing. I wanted to fight back. Not in a physical sense, obviously, but I wanted to send a message to him and to anyone else who wanted to hurt this family and bully us into silence. Sure, I was about to march in a parade that stood in direct defiance to that hatred, but that wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to make sure that my message was as clear as it could possibly be…to the terrorist in Orlando, to the would-be terrorist in LA, and to anyone who thinks the same way that they do. That’s when I saw a cart wheeling by that was selling all sorts of assorted rainbow gear. I hadn’t even brought cash with me, so I had to borrow some from Will. I ran over, bought a handheld rainbow flag, and then rushed over to grab a king size sharpie to add a finishing touch…
Let’s let the message be as clear as possible today… pic.twitter.com/Vah3L4VUwf
— RJ Aguiar (@rj4gui4r) June 12, 2016
Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one in the crowd who felt similarly defiant. Once the representatives from the LGBT Center had finished handing out shirts for everyone to march in, they immediately proceeded to dismantle the boxes and turn the rectangular scraps of cardboard into even more displays of resilience. I found myself getting choked up as I saw my family members, young and old, scrawling phrases like “We Will Not Be Silenced” onto their new signs. The anger was infectious. Everyone’s sorrow and fear grew white hot as everyone started to feed off of the energy. Someone else from the Center started passing out miniature posters with rainbow painted fists on them:
— Will Shepherd (@shep689) June 12, 2016
Will must have gotten caught up in it, too, since he made sure to grab one of those posters and start holding it up to anyone who would read it. Since we were number 94 in the parade queue, it would still be a bit of a wait before it would be our turn to start moving. But we were ready to go. We couldn’t wait to take to the streets and make our message heard, and that anticipation only grew with each passing minute. But eventually our turn came. It took us almost twenty minutes to go from our staging spot to finally rounding the first corner onto Santa Monica Boulevard. But our energy was relentless. Any time I felt my energy start to wane, I could just look around at all the courageous and exuberant young people around us. And then there was my husband, the love of my life, right beside me. The poor guy was still getting over a cold, but I couldn’t stop myself from kissing him every so often. Here we were, surrounded by people who didn’t just support our love. They were willing to brave violence and terrorism just to do so.
HAPPY PRIDE ❤️???? pic.twitter.com/YIuiODFzZU
— Will Shepherd (@shep689) June 12, 2016
As we marched, I made sure I held my flag high. I tried to make sure that it could be read by as many people at that parade as possible. And as I went down the line, I made sure to scan the crowd and share a split second of eye contact with as many people as possible. I wanted everyone there to feel like I felt: ready to take on the world and every hateful bigot in it. And as I made my way down the street, I saw that feeling wash across people’s faces as they saw what I was carrying. A lot of people started clapping. Others cheered and gave affirmations like “Yes! That’s right! You tell ’em!” But for me, the most meaningful moments happened when I would scan the crowd and spot a face that wasn’t cheering or even smiling. Instead, their expression looked uneasy, even nervous at times. But then they’d see us with our signs held high and their expression would change. They’d suddenly seem a little less fearful and a little more inspired. Sometimes they’d even nod. I started throwing up a peace sign underneath my flag, and saw hundreds of people return it back to me, sometimes with a smile and sometimes with one of those respectful nods of acknowledgment. Every so often, we’d pass by one or more older LGBT people in the crowd. They’d see all of us marching together and you could tell they were getting emotional. Some couldn’t stop smiling while others were trying not to cry. These were people who were all to familiar with how ugly and violent homophobia could be. And now, here we were, the next generation of the movement, ready to stand in the face of that same adversity and continue down the path they had worked so hard to put us on.
— Will Shepherd (@shep689) June 12, 2016
I can’t recall a time when I’ve felt so connected to each and every member of the LGBT community. It’s a community I’ve loved and fought for for some time now, but yesterday was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Yesterday we were connected by our collective sense of grief and loss, and were then united as we all came together to feed from each other’s strength. Yesterday made clear to me why festivals like Pride remain so important to this day. Yesterday helped me understand better than ever before how much we as a global LGBT population are one giant family.
I know that we have a long and arduous road ahead of us. The fight for equal rights and equal treatment for our entire family is far from over. I still live in a country were my government can’t even pass the kind of common sense gun control legislation that over 90% of its citizens want. This planet is still rife with people who applaud atrocities like the one committed at Pulse in Orlando. We still have yet to fully mourn those who we lost in the wee hours of Sunday morning. But after yesterday, I’m all the more ready to fight for my community. And that’s because, after yesterday, I feel like they’re more than my community. They are my family.