I am not writing this article to downplay the tragedy and horror of the shooting that took place inside the Pulse nightclub. As a relative of a local thespian in Florida, there are friends of the family that know people who had their beautiful lives cut short because of this hate crime. I am glad to see that the media, even the president, is not downplaying the atrocity of this event. This is so difficult and I can only hope that I can write this the right way–express things without adding insult to injury and the pain that the local community is feeling. I’m trying not to be, but I find myself so frickin’ angry, as well as devastated, by this event.
This may have been the act of a “lone gunman” with mental stability issues (as many articles claim), but this type of hatred is no stranger to Florida.
I know. I was born in the Sarasota/Bradenton area in 1972, and spent my younger years (20s) in the Tampa and, occasionally, the Orlando club/music scene. I remember the justifiable riots in the “ghetto”(yes, that’s what people called it back then, as well as a few more other unmentionable terms), aka the Newtown community, for the rampant injustices and crimes committed against African Americans nationally or locally. These riots blocked off the streets that my bus took to school and required police intervention that seemed straight out of the civil rights movement era. Now that community is being gentrified by people going in, fixing up houses, and raising the prices and land values, there is less and less affordable housing in a city where the standard pay for the working class and laborers is often well under minimum wage levels.
Police brutality was as common as the humid, tropical air. Hatred and intolerance was just as strong. Racism and sexism permeated every aspect of my upbringing, including the language. Intolerance and injustice was as common as grits. I had a bit of a safe zone in that I grew up in the theatre, but there was still a lot of classism that couldn’t be avoided, even in that more progressive environment. If you shopped at Kmart or didn’t have designer clothing, you were treated as if you were caked in fecal matter. As far as racism and racial hatred goes, there was also a thriving subculture of skinheads that persisted well into the 80s and 90s. As young, American-style punk/alternative/goth 20-somethings, we constantly had to be on our guard against the skinheads. We used to have to travel in packs to avoid getting attacked by the bands of skinheads–even in sleepier Sarasota. I remember having to escort my gay friend around because the skinheads were harassing him, and he was terrified. There were concerts you didn’t go to because they were all-out battlegrounds between skinheads and S.H.A.R.Ps (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice). One of my punk friends asked me to blow off work one night to go to a concert. While I wasn’t a direct witness, her story was that it was a setup (there was no actual concert) for the skinheads to attack punk kids because they had a Mexican American punk kid they were hanging out with in their family-like group. According to this punk girl, they slashed everyone’s tires and then circled the group, attacking them with 2x4s and broken beer bottles. One kid was put in the hospital and later died. Again, while I wasn’t the eyewitness, this punk girl said the skinheads got off because they were from rich families with political connections.
After the crackdown on kids hanging out in downtown Sarasota (so as not to disturb the wealthy elite), we finally absconded from Sarasota to spend time in the more liberal atmosphere of the Tampa goth and gay nightclub scene–driving an hour 6 or 7 nights a week so that we could feel safe and accepted. Then the Christian hate groups descended in white vans…parking outside the clubs and harassing the club goers with both verbal hate chants and picket signs saying we were going to hell. And lots more epithets I won’t even bother to repeat. I never saw them again after my Christian goth friend went over and challenged them on their own grounds. They packed up and left.
Then the news crews showed up–doing exposes on the evil Satan worshippers of the goth club scene and how we were all vampire wannabes up to all kinds of sick and twisted shenigans. Because of the danger of the romantic appeal of the Anne Rice vampire novels on impressionable youths, ya know.
Then the frat boy types came. Then the police began targeting the clubs, with their thuggish police brutality beat-downs.
The goth/alternative scene often intersected with the LGBT scene…both providing havens for Florida’s misfits and fringe communities within Florida’s intolerant, noninclusive cultural climate in the 80s and 90s.
But I read the articles about this event, and Florida just seems to come off as this tolerant, accepting place, where this sort of hate-fueled violence is an anomaly and completely uncharacteristic. I absolutely mean no offense to the people affected by this violence, and express my deepest sympathy for the victims and their loved ones. But, Florida, I’m not letting you off the damn hook. The truth is, as a previous long-term resident of Florida–born and raised there–this type of hatred and rabid intolerance is ingrained in Florida’s culture. I saw it everywhere growing up.
The perspective of these articles act like the Zimmerman types are not commonplace, and that people have already forgotten about Trayvon Martin. But, even as I neared my more mellow 30s, I still experienced it firsthand. It was 2013-2015 and the level of racism and sexism freely expressed by a group of local public performers was astounding. One of them threatened to flame me on Facebook for posting “bleeding heart liberal crap” on my own page, and said that Trayvon Martin “deserved to die” and that “he should have never been in that neighbourhood in the first place”. Another person in this same group at a social get-together said that it was too bad that was illegal for him to take an outspoken woman that was a friend of my friend outside “and beat her head repeatedly against the wall to teach her a lesson” for daring to talk back to him. This is the real Florida: where if you don’t fit a narrowly circumscribed status quo (rich, white, elite, Republican, male, conservative) you do not matter. You have no rights. You do not exist.
Yes, the articles have explained that Omar Mir Seddique Mateen committed the attack in support of ISIS-type beliefs, but Florida has, and is, a culture of hate and intolerance in itself. Thankfully, I am no longer a resident of Florida (I successfully escaped, finally), I can only hope that this incident will serve as a wake-up call–a mirror–for Floridians’ own tendencies to the same levels of hatred and intolerance within their own communities and cities. And within themselves. Put an end to this hatred. This kind of hatred is not an isolated case in Florida, it’s an epidemic…take the word of a born-and-raised former Floridian.