ORLANDO — As evangelical leaders gathered here for the American Renewal Project conference — a gathering of religious conservatives that features Donald Trump and Marco Rubio as headliners — pro-LGBT protesters lined the streets waving rainbow flags and pictures of people killed at the Pulse nightclub two months ago. For those close to the mass shooting, the deadliest in U.S. history, the conference is a distasteful act dismissive of the lost lives. Those attending the American Renewal Project event defended themselves by saying the controversial confab was only a gathering of faith leaders seeking political empowerment.
“The concern is that, just two short months after the massacre of 49 individuals belonging to the Latino and LGBTQ community, two individuals as prominent as Marco Rubio and Donald Trump choose to address a conference of people who would demean us and demonize us and further hate culture toward the LGBTQ community,” said Lexi Wright, president of Space Coast Pride.
The event, which was chiefly marketed to pastors, attracted many self-identified conservative voters, and a message from American Renewal Project founder David Lane printed on event schedules encouraged religious leaders to “return to your church and mobilize your people in the pews to register, to vote and to take their Christian convictions with them to the voting booth.” The pamphlet directly appeals to pastors' belief in “religious liberty” and says the next election swings on the votes of Christian citizens. “Remember, what we do here is spiritual; only the by-product is political,” it says. “Without God’s mercy, there is no hope. Pray for the next great Spiritual Awakening.”
Other speakers at the event include David Barton, an evangelical leader who has advocated regulating gay sex like alcohol and cigarettes, and Ken Graves, who the Human Rights Campaign called out for creating ads denouncing same-sex couples raising children.
Rubio is scheduled as a headline speaker and will appear at the conference on Friday. Trump’s visit to the event was announced earlier this week, with many attendees learning of the appearance only after arriving in Orlando. The event also features remarks by Liberty Counsel chairman Mat Staver, who has blamed "pedophiles" for trans-inclusive bathroom policies. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has his own troubled history with the LGBT community, was scheduled to introduce Trump at the event.
But some spiritual leaders from Florida said it was not right to label the event as anti-LGBT. Sri Rangaswamy, a Hindu leader and Orlando-based humanitarian attending the event, said the point of the gathering was the furthering of a spiritual mission. He considers himself a supporter of both the Christian message of the conference and of LGBT rights. “This is the only country that loves all equally,” he said.
Jerry Hekheys, a pastor from Good News Christian Fellowship in New Port Richey, Fla., said LGBT people should not object to the gathering taking place and that it shouldn’t be a problem that Trump or Rubio would reach out to attendees. “We don’t see any reason for opposition to them appearing or to us hearing them,” he said.
But protesters outside, including some who were at Pulse in the early hours of June 12 when Omar Mateen started a shooting spree that would result in 49 deaths, said holding the conference in Orlando right now is simply distasteful. Carlos Perez, a dancer for Pulse, survived the attack. He could be found at a protest with a stack of photos remembering the lost. “Our purpose is just to keep the memory of those who are not with us today,” he said. Enakai Mpire waved a photograph of Deonka Deidra “Zeus” Drayton, who was killed in the attack.
Gina Duncan, transgender inclusion director for Equality Florida, said the attack at Pulse felt close to home because the club had been such a "safe place" to be while she went through her transition in 2006. She was surprised and outraged that either Rubio or Trump would choose to curry favor with opponents of trans rights in Orlando right now.
Joe Saunders, southern regional field director for the Human Rights Campaign and an Orlando resident, said Trump and Rubio showed their true colors by attending the American Renewal Project gathering. “The Pulse tragedy was the worst mass shooting in the history of the United States, and also the most violent and impactful and hateful crime against the LGBT community in history,” he said. “The hatred that led to that violence is rooted in bigotry, and the organizers of the conference spread a message that dehumanizes and devalues LGBT people."