- Julian Ledezma
And with word that the gunman, identified as 29-year-old Omar Mateen, called police during the attack to pledge allegiance to ISIS, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, an Austin-area congressman who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, quickly called the shooting at the Pulse night club “the worst terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11” and “a sobering reminder that radical Islamists are targeting our country and our way of life.” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott responded not only by flying a Florida flag from the governor’s mansion, but also by tweeting out a list of attacks blamed on extremists who were Muslim.
But you probably won’t see a rainbow or trans flag flying over the governor’s mansion this pride month, since acknowledging the Orlando attack as both terrorism and a hate crime targeting a specific, vulnerable group would put politicians like Abbott in a pretty awkward spot.
Abbott is among those conservative leaders who have fought vociferously to deny people in the LGBTQ community equal rights and protections under the law. He fought a marriage equality case in his former role as Texas Attorney General, and as governor has joined a lawsuit challenging the Obama Administration’s stance that public schools that receive federal Title IX funding should be accommodating to transgender students.
Abbott has also sharply criticized local non-discrimination ordinances passed by cities to protect, among other vulnerable groups, LGBTQ Texans. During the heated debate over Houston’s equal rights ordinance last year, which opponents labeled a “transgender bathroom predator” bill, Abbott repeated the mantra of “no men in women’s restrooms,” an anti-trans slogan that was echoed in attack ads across the city featuring images of little girls being stalked by pedophiles in public restrooms.
Advocates have warned that the lingering acrimony over last year’s marriage equality ruling at the U.S. Supreme Court mixed with the rhetoric targeting local equal rights ordinances could lead to very real danger for the LGBTQ community. Earlier this year, in response to a wave of attacks on gay men in Dallas’ entertainment district, Equality Texas CEO Chuck Smith told the Guardian, “We are concerned that the heightened level of animus that surrounds the presidential campaign and the media in general … can fuel higher rates of violence against LGBT people.”
According to media reports, the gunman in Sunday’s attack in Orlando may have been mentally ill and appeared to harbor some hatred for gay men – his parents told CNN that he was outraged after seeing two men kiss in Miami. Florida was among the first states where conservative lawmakers tried to target transgender rights at the state legislature, something conservatives in Texas have promised to do when lawmakers reconvene in Austin in 2017.
State Rep. Diego Bernal, among the many local elected officials who spoke at a vigil in Crockett Park Sunday night, said you can’t exactly draw a direct line between the rhetoric directed at the LGBTQ community, particularly the venom directed at trans people, and Sunday’s attack. But he called the increased rhetoric an “accelerant” to that type of violence, the kind of language that can further incite someone who is, say, unhinged enough to pledge allegiance to ISIS. Anel Flores, a local artist, real estate agent and writer, said Sunday’s shooting felt personal because it was a “reminder that we, as a community, are a clearly-defined target for that kind of hatred and violence.”
Following Sunday’s mass shooting, and in light of news that police in California arrested a man who they say was headed to a West Hollywood pride festival armed with assault rifles and possible explosives, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus told people gathered at Sunday night’s vigil that they could expect to see a beefed up police presence around the Main Street strip of gay bars for the foreseeable future. The crowd applauded and thanked the chief, welcoming the extra patrols. Even if some Texas leaders won't acknowledge the Orlando attack as targeting a specific community, it seems local law enforcement will.