Laughter was a form of resistance for queer performers who took the stage at New York City's Town Hall Thursday, following the worst mass murder of LGBT people in U.S. history.
"Our sense of humor is our sense of survival," said comedian Kate Clinton, acting as host at Levity and Justice, the first annual benefit show for the Lesbian Political Action Committee, dedicated to advancing political causes of LGBTQ women. The Times Square event, which took place just days after 49 people were murdered at a gay nightclub in Orlando, was protected with an increased police presence.
After days of grief over lives lost at the hands of a gunman, performer Rosie O'Donnell said the gathering was healing. "Being around a community of like-minded others is the only thing that's going to keep me moving," said O'Donnell, adding, "We can and shall rise above this."
Following the show, The Advocate was able to speak with some of the evening's performers regarding violence against LGBT people which has long been ignored. A recent FBI report covered by The New York Times showed LGBT people were more likely to be the target of hate crimes or crimes of bias than any other minority group.
The Advocate: How did you feel when you heard what had happened? Did it change your feelings of safety as a lesbian?
I don't know if any of us ever feel safe. I was in L.A. and I noticed as I was walking around in the beginning of Pride that people had this cautious, defiant look in their faces. This was a day or so before Orlando happened, and I noticed it and it made me think of all the times that marginalized and minimized people have to have this sense of bravado just to be ourselves. Then to have this tragedy not only expose that to the world, but just reinforce and justify that fear that people have to walk around with. That women walk around with. That black people walk around with. That gay people walk around with. We should not have to. It shouldn't be that hard just to be who you are.
It's hard not to feel defeated, but it's even more important now not to be. This show, coming when it did, could really not have come at a better time, so that people know this is not the time to hide. This is the time to stand up.
Have you ever experienced violence yourself as a lesbian?
If you're talking microagressions, of course. We face them all the time. But as far as my family and friends, you know, again, you get their microagressions, but on the whole they've been accepting....but no one should have to "accept" it. What is there for you to accept? I don't need you to tolerate me. I don't need you to "accept" me. That shouldn't even be a question! I wrote on Twitter that 'if you think you deserve a pat on the back for not hating gay people, then you're part of the problem.' It shouldn't even be any more than "Oh, you have blue eyes," you know? It should just be something that makes no difference whatsoever.
Was it hard for you to do this show today in light of what happened in Orlando?
I mean, I would say that in light of what happened in Orlando it's hard to do anything, really. I would say that no matter what you do, whether it's coming and doing a comedy show or teaching your sixth-grade math class or cooking a meal for your family, it's probably harder to do. I do think that it's really important, specifically in the realm of community, to be able to do an event like this where we can unify and come together and be able to laugh at ourselves and laugh at the world and everything.
Were you nervous coming into the show upon noticing the increased police presence?
I'm more of the mind-set that increased police doesn't necessarily mean increased safety, for multiple reasons. I have been fortunate enough to occupy a lot of privileges such that I don't feel a lot of the time that I have to be in danger. A lot of people really don't have that privilege. I personally didn't feel too afraid coming into a high-profile event at a Times Square theater.
I think that it's really really important to remember especially regarding Orlando, that it was specifically a gay nightclub on the Latino night in Orlando. All of those details are really important when thinking about what kind of violence went down there and thinking about how, depending on who you are, just depending on what spaces you move through, your people are always in some level of danger.
How did you deal with performing tonight after what happened in Orlando?
Before I was about to go on I thought I would start crying. I felt like that just thinking about what I was going to say. It was like, Well, what am I going to say? and every time in my head I thought about what I was gonna say, I started to cry, but I only had six minutes, so I didn't have time to cry. I just feel that this was a very powerful expression. You know it's never going to take away the pain of what happened, but the fact that people just showed up turned up and like they said, rose up, is going to honor the people we lost.
Have you ever feared violence, and how have you dealt with it?
To my heterosexual friends and family, I wrote that I don't care what you post, but please post something. Please say something. I don't care — it doesn't have to be brilliant. Just post a picture of the dead.
One thing I thought about was a lot of the people were 20, 21, 22, and I remember when I was that age and how scared I was, first of all, as a woman, as a lesbian, of being beaten or of having my girlfriend beaten. Of being killed. Of all of these things because we don't have gun control. When I say gun control, it's like let's not say "gun control." Let's say "assault weapon control," because what kind of asshole cannot get behind "assault weapon control"? That's kind of what we're asking.
I felt fear from the moment I came out ... when I knew I was gay, and it hasn't changed, and this is what kills me. We think we get these little TV shows, we get a magazine, we got a website, we get lots of gay people. But that doesn't mean that someone doesn't have the information from the American right wing or religious right. They're all part of this. They try to make it about Islam. It wasn't Islam. It was a man who is seriously disturbed, and he had all the messages to do what he did. This whole thing, it's deep. I think we're gonna learn a lot from it. All I can hope is that we have control on assault weapons after this.
How was it for you to do this show tonight after what happened in Orlando?
Getting to share this moment with a queer audience and just feeling our energy and holding my head up — you know, it's just such a moment of pride for all of us. To be sad and grieve but to remain happy and joyous as the people that we are. To not let that be taken away and to keep dancing like everyone in Orlando was.
Have you ever feared violence due to your sexual orientation or gender presentation?
I'm just realizing now that I have mild trauma from going to the women's restroom my entire life. It's been a constant inner battle and fear that something was going to happen. No one has ever done anything physically to me, but the threat verbally of violence is something that I haven't experienced much recently, but through my whole childhood and early adulthood it was happening quite a bit.
What do you think about the anti-transgender bathroom laws that have been passed?
I think that it creates a climate in the culture where violence towards transgender people, and then also gender-nonconforming people, is OK. When you're constantly questioning what someone's motive is because of their haircut or their clothing or the way they carry themselves, on television, nonstop, blasting out in public spaces, it begins to create a sense of unease with people. It creates a problem that wasn't there before or maybe was there before, but perhaps not on the same level. I think it's incredibly divisive and very terrifying behavior that no doubt led to what happened in Orlando.
In bright pink, Edie Winsdor, whose court case helped pave the way for marriage equality, was among those in attendance.