The following is a speech delivered Thursday by actor and activist Wilson Cruz at Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival's opening night.
Good evening, family. You know, it would be remiss of me as a man of color, as a member of the LGBT community, not to say that it feels, well, it’s very easy to feel like a hunted animal these days. And not just by the predators, but by the people who were hired to protect us.
It’s easy to feel disposable, undervalued today. But I want you to remember that you are [valued]. I don’t want you to retreat. I don’t want you to dim your light. I want you to shine it brighter. I need you to get louder. [Applause]
On the morning of June 12, I woke up like many of you, ready for the parade. I made my coffee. And then I checked my phone. And there it was: the horrific news of a massacre in Orlando. The details began to emerge: a nightclub, a gay nightclub, Pulse, Latin night. And with each new piece of information, my heart sank deeper into despair. Imagining the victims and the horror they faced, I stared in disbelief at the TV screen. And then my phone rang. "Brenda was at the club," my mother said. She’d been shot.
And I wondered, how could this happen? We’d seen so many advances recently in our struggle for equality. I mean, just last year at this time, we were celebrating marriage equality across this country. And just short of one year later, we would come together again, but this time for a communal experience of grief and mourning.
What does this all mean? It means that our work is not done, that there are hearts and minds yet to be changed, that there are stories still yet to be told. We lost 49 people that bloody Sunday. Forty-nine individual people with their own stories. His story. Her story. Their story. And most of them a part of a marginalized Latino LGBT community where it is easy to feel ignored and misunderstood by both the larger Latino and LGBT communities.
They were like so many of our invisible heroes. They were people who loved, despite the cultural pressures to repress and deny their true selves. They were people who celebrated their rich Latino culture despite the pressures to blend in.
So we’re here tonight to celebrate storytelling. And that’s why Outfest exists, to support and highlight the LGBT experience by creating a space for us to tell our stories. Our stories change the world.
So here are a few stories that I’ll never forget. Brenda Marquez McCool was my family. She survived cancer twice, and she’d gone to Pulse as she had frequently to dance salsa and support her newly out 21-year-old son, whom she loved with all of her heart. And when the gunman entered the club, she shielded her son with her body and took five bullets and was killed. Her son Isaiah survived.
Chris Leinonen and Juan Ramon Guerrero were in love. Chris has received a humanitarian award for starting his high school’s first GSA. Juan was relieved recently when he successfully came out to his parents after being so worried they would reject him. They didn’t. They were to be married but instead were buried together in a joint funeral.
An unidentified young man’s body laid for days and then weeks waiting for someone to claim his body. His family back in Puerto Rico refused, saying they were ashamed that their son was gay. Relatives in Orlando eventually claimed him but would not disclose his name to the public.
It breaks my heart that their stories and their experiences have only been highlighted because of this tragedy. So my goal tonight is that this room of creators and storytellers will find inspiration in this tragedy somehow and in these 49 lost lives — these people for whom we’ve collectively mourned and for whom we’ve wept are basically invisible on our screens and in the discourse of our community. Their faces and their stories are rich with character, determination, and resilience, and it shouldn’t take their murders for them to be worthy of our attention. [Applause]
I hope that upon this scorched earth we have planted the seeds of ideas that will bear the fruit of more diverse and inclusive stories that include people of color in the LGBT community. If you do that, if you do that, their lives will not have been lost in vain. This is the challenge. And I know many of you. I believe you are up to the task. Enjoy Outfest.