In light of the recent gun violence that took place at STEM High School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado on May 8, 2019, the PLHC would like to offer anyone affected by those events a content warning on the blog post, below, which details instances of gun violence against youth and young adults, specifically LGBTQ+ individuals.

The Pulse Nightclub Shooting

The clock strikes two a.m. at a gay nightclub in Orlando. Suddenly, bullets and screams drown out the music. People fall to the ground, blood spraying across the floor. A man is shot in the leg three times, and pretends to be dead in the hope his life will be spared. The woman next to him is shot. It will all be over in a second. Yet it isn’t over, not in a second, not in a year. It isn’t over because that man survived. That night is etched in Angel Colon’s memory as a survivor of the 2016 shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

Everyone has moments that they will remember forever. Some remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy, others the events of 9/11. Those haunted with these memories have had their suffering and stories permanently recognized through a national memorial, historic site, or monument. The survivors of the Pulse shooting in Orlando do not yet have that permanent testament to their pain or the deaths of their friends.

Memorials and monuments tell America’s story to the public, influencing the way history is perceived and recognized. This recognition of stories is vital, especially if the story is from a perspective most rarely hear from. In the instance of Pulse and other sites related to violence against LGBTQ+ people, the LGBTQ+ community’s perspective awaits recognition.

The Legacy of Matthew Shepard

On the evening of October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard lay tied to a fence with his face caked in blood after being struck approximately twenty times “in the head with the butt of a .357-caliber Magnum Smith & Wesson pistol,” trauma that later resulted in his death. Matthew Shepard was a gay student at the University of Wyoming who had been approached hours earlier by two men claiming to be gay as well. These men tricked him and coaxed Shepard to the fence where they beat him, robbed him, and left him dying in the snow. [1]

This hate crime rocked the country, attracting international media attention and causing a massive push for LGBTQ tolerance and more progressive hate crime legislation. Memorializing Shepard’s death is to memorialize the impact his death had on the world. Despite the importance of telling his story, however, the only memorial to Shepard does not mention his story or death. Ten years following Shepard’s death, the University of Wyoming installed a bench outside the university’s Arts and Science building. Below is an image of the message attached to the bench.

 

Photo of the Mathew Shepard Bench at the University of Wyoming, photo courtesy Matthew Shepard Foundation https://1e0cf40b52337e50815e-e71e132bd957a89bd4220c79dfec8f56.ssl.cf1.rackcdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/bench.jpg

The inscription did not mention Shepard being a victim of a hate crime and the omission was a catalyst for international activism focused on promoting LGBTQ+ inclusivity and acceptance. The fence located at the site of his death has since been taken down. Some believe it was taken down due to resistance from local residents and the owners of the land; it is believed that local residents did not want a permanent memorial or monument there.

Regardless of the motivation behind the alterations, changes to the site of Shepard’s death erased history. There remains no permanent site that embodies Shepard’s legacy; who he was, how he died, and what his death stands for. The only permanent memorial to Shepard is the bench on campus, which fails to tell his whole story. This silence makes it easy for the public to forget or not recognize the horror of Shepard’s death.

Professor of Theater at the University of Wyoming Rebecca Hilliker recalls, “A lot of people in the community went through a sense of grief, in a very poignant, heartfelt, painful way, and I think eventually the pain became so great that they don’t want to think about it or hear about it.” [2] It is possible that a permanent monument or memorial to Shepard would serve as a reminder of his death that the residents in Laramie do not want. As Hilliker stated, the pain of his death likely pushed residents to the point of wanting to avoid thinking about it.

The stories that are the hardest to tell are often the ones that most need to be told. Though painful, it is vital that Shepard’s story is told and that his legacy is remembered not only by the LGBTQ+ community, but by the nation as a whole. Recognition of stories like his is especially crucial for a minority group over 50% of whose members have experienced slurs, harassment, employment discrimination, or violence. [3]

Stonewall National Monument

Some recognition of LGBTQ+ stories has taken over the past thirty years. The park across the street from the historic Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village became a national monument in 2016. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1999, the building that houses the Stonewall Inn has remained under private ownership and is an operating bar to this day. The inn was the initial site of 1969 LGBTQ+ uprisings in response to police raiding the inn. Rather than dispersing, the crowd resisted the raid, and the uprising spilled across the street into nearby Christopher Park, where the national monument is now located. Efforts are currently underway to elevate the national monument to the status of a national park. The Stonewall uprising began the LGBTQ+ tradition of pride parades and pride month in June in commemoration.

In 2016, President Barack Obama created Stonewall National Monument under the American Antiquities Act with an executive order. The monument can be looked at as a model for telling LGBTQ+ stories through public lands and the monument tells the story of the Stonewall uprising.

Since the monument was instated, the “National Park Foundation has been working in partnership with the National Park Service and local community organizations” to develop “education programs for local New York City students that focus on anti-bullying, civil rights, and activism.” [4] This initiative is centralized around the monument, serving as a testament to its impact in the local community. The Stonewall monument serves as a permanent physical embodiment of LGBTQ+ stories and history.

Remembering Pulse

After the blood was wiped away and the nightclub in Orlando shut down, one question still hung in the air: what do we do now? The shooting was at the time the deadliest mass shooting in American history and attracted international attention. The Eiffel Tower lit up in rainbow colored lights, rainbow banners hung in cities across the world, and vigils were held in major cities in dozens of countries. The world will never forget Pulse.

Or will it?

Matthew Shepard’s death received similar attention, and yet his legacy is fading in the nation’s collective consciousness. Many believe the way to solidify something in the nation’s memory is through establishing memorials or monuments. However, as made evident by Matthew Shepard’s memorial, not all memorials tell stories well. In discerning what to do in wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting, Stonewall should be looked to as an example of proper storytelling. However, it must be acknowledged that Stonewall’s success is due to a highly motivated group of public supporters, a sympathetic presidential administration, and a moment in NPS history amenable to LGBTQ+ stories.

The tremendous impact Pulse had on the United States is reminiscent of the impact left by Matthew Shepard’s death and the Stonewall uprising. One of various criteria must be met in order for a site to be considered for being designated as a national historic landmark. In the case of the Stonewall Inn, the site was instated under National Historic Landmark program’s Criterion 1, that it was “associated with events that have made a significant contribution to, and are identified with, or that outstandingly represent, the broad national patterns of United States history and from which an understanding and appreciation of those patterns may be gained.” [5] Though recent, the Pulse nightclub shooting fits not only within a broad national pattern of anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination, but also within the broad national pattern of gun violence in public places such as nightclubs, movie theaters, and schools. Evidence of broad national patterns such as these fit easily within Criterion 1. Currently the second most deadly shooting in United States history, Pulse and the people who lost their lives in the shooting deserve a permanent place in the American historical landscape, and formal protection from intentional or accidental erasure.

Commemorating Locally and Nationally

Led by the club’s owner, Barbara Poma, the OnePULSE Foundation formed after the shooting. The non-profit organization is currently in the process of trying to give Pulse the recognition it deserves. Their efforts are being advanced with support from the City of Orlando, Orange County, and other organizations. However, the Pulse nightclub shooting was an event of national significance, and should be recognized as a national historic site so it can be given national-level attention and resources to supplement ongoing local efforts and ensure that the site is permanently protected and preserved.

Photo of the Pulse Interim Memorial in Orlando, Florida, photo courtesy OnePULSE Foundation, https://onepulsefoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/New-Renderings-_Page_3-1-e1519654164312.jpg

As of the publication of this post, OnePULSE Foundation has created the Pulse Interim Memorial and is in the process of creating a permanent memorial and museum to honor the forty nine lives lost in the Pulse shooting. The foundation has announced that they will only move forward with designing and building the memorial once they have collected information from both survivors of the shooting and family members of those lost. [6] This respect for those impacted by the shooting is of paramount importance in creating a memorial to this event, regardless of whether the memorial is of local or national recognition.

Though the Pulse Interim Memorial is a step in the right direction, there is a considerable difference between the impact of locally instated memorials and nationally instated memorials on the nation’s collective memory. A national memorial or historic site is given greater national attention than one that is locally instated. To avoid the Pulse shooting being erased from the nation’s memory, steps should be taken to make the upcoming memorial a national matter. Ideally, the final management of the Pulse Nightclub memorial would involve both national and local interests, combining local perspectives and accounting for the community’s need to mourn lost friends and family members backed by national-level resources, expertise, and impact.

According to Alexandra Hernandez, National Park Service National Heritage Areas Regional Coordinator, local communities play a massive role in helping national historical sites come to be. Community members can reach out to the National Park Service or to their congressional delegates if they believe a story or a place hasn’t been given proper recognition. According to Hernandez, national historic sites are the “nation’s story tellers.” It is in the public’s hands to determine what stories we tell and how we tell them.

To help, you can reach out to the National Park Service, politicians local to Orlando, or the OnePULSE Foundation itself. Tell them you believe there should be a national historic site in remembrance of the Pulse nightclub shooting.

Christopher Hendrie 

[1] Jason Marsden, “The Murder of Matthew Shepard,” Wyohistoryorg Encyclopedia, November 8, 2014, https://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/murder-matthew-shepard

[2] Patrick Healy, “Laramie Killing Given Epilogue a Decade Later,” The New York Times, Septemer 16, 2008, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/17/theater/17laramie.html

[3] Discrimination in America: Experiences and Views of LGBTQ Americans, NPR Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, November 2017, https://www.npr.org/documents/2017/nov/npr-discrimination-lgbtq-final.pdf

[4] Danielle Grieser and Emily Kamin, “Celebrating a Lasting Pride in Your Parks,” National Park Foundation, May 16, 2019, https://www.nationalparks.org/connect/blog/celebrating-lasting-pride-your-parks

[5] “Section IX: How to Apply the National Register Criteria for Evaluation, National Register of Historic Places Bulletin (NRB 15),” National Parks Service, https://www.nps.gov/nr/publications/bulletins/nrb15/nrb15_9.htm

[6]”Memorial Process,” OnePULSE Foundation, May 31, 2018, accessed July 12, 2019, https://onepulsefoundation.org/onepulse-foundation-memorial/memorial-process/