Nightclub attack a reminder of how far nation has to go

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

In college, at Michigan State, there were two places I felt I could truly be myself.

One was The State News, the college newspaper.

The other was Paradise, a gay bar down the street in Lansing, where I was a bouncer-slash-terrible dancer.

I was a bouncer there for two years or so.

I've been a terrible dancer all my life.

This was back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, long before gay marriage was even banned by so many states — and back when the idea of gay marriage being legal from coast to coast was a fantasy, right up there behind unicorns.

Festival goers at the Motor City Pride in Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit on Sunday, hours after a gunman killed 50 people and wounded 53 others inside a club in Orlando.

Being gay wasn't accepted like it is today, yet every night I went to work — and every other night when I went there to dance, terribly — I never recall, not even once, feeling scared.

Paradise, and our sister club, Spiral, across the way in Old Town, were our safe sanctuaries, places of total freedom, free from the dirty looks, nasty names, judgment of any kind.

It never once crossed my mind that I was in danger, nor were my coworkers, my gay friends, or my straight friends who often went along — because the music was better and the drinks were stronger.

Back then, I'd have been exponentially more nervous about holding my boyfriend's hand just walking around campus than spending my nights gay-clubbing.

My heart absolutely sank early Sunday morning, and in the days since, with the gut-wrenching reports out of Orlando, where a lone gunman — who may or may not have been acting on his religious beliefs, or who may or not have been a self-loathing closeted gay man himself — killed 49 clubgoers at Pulse.

I haven't been able to stop thinking about this, nor have I been able to stop reading the incredibly sad stories of the dead — including way-too-young women and men like Detroit native Christopher "Drew" Leinonen, whose dad was a cop, like mine, and who was getting ready to marry his boyfriend, Juan Guerrero. Now, instead, they'll be buried side by side.
Some start to Pride Month.

Progress, but still room to grow

It's a question I get asked a lot.

Why do gays need a Pride Month?

I marched in my first Pride parade in Lansing in 2000 or 2001, the same year I attended my first Pride festival, marching on the state Capitol in Lansing.

All these years later, Pride, you better believe, still matters — and it always will, so long as we continue to have more states where you can get fired for being gay, including Michigan, than those where you can't; so long as there are places, in the United States where you can be evicted for being gay; so long as attacks on gays and lesbians make up the second-most hate-crimes attacks in this country, behind attacks based on race, according to FBI statistics; so long as there are certain places in public I still can't hold somebody's hand; so long as too much of the general public couldn't care less when the latest sports star shouts the word, "fag"; so long as we can't donate a vial of blood; so long as politicians call you a danger to society for wanting to have children.

A little less than a year ago, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a landmark ruling making same-sex marriage legal across the land. It was a fantastic day; but while that 5-4 decision took away the roadblocks to marrying your soulmate, it didn't take away all the hate — not even close. Just like Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 still hasn't wiped out racism.

Sunday morning's massacre, the deadliest mass shooting in the history of this land of the free, was a sick reminder. And there could've been another tragedy later Sunday, had a concerned citizen in West Hollywood not tipped off police to a man who looked out of place — and, it turns out, was, having traveled from Indiana with a car full of guns and ammo, on his way to Los Angeles Pride.

It was a little less than a year ago that I came out, publicly, on local TV, WXYZ Channel 7. Anchor and good friend Brad Galli had asked the night before if I was game, given the recent SCOTUS news, and I agreed, despite some serious nerves.

I didn't want to do it for any grandstanding, look-at-me purpose. I did it because I'm proud of who I am, I'm proud of my community, and I was proud of the Supreme Court.

Pride, it matters. A lot.

I expected backlash. But the email and phone calls were almost 100 percent positive. One call stood out among the many. It was from Attorney General Bill Schuette, who had defended Michigan's marriage ban in court, but who, along with Gov. Rick Snyder, dropped his efforts after the SCOTUS decision. Not all politicians did this, but Schuette did. It was a very nice phone call, between two people with different views, but no animosity.

The lieutenant governor of Utah just came out this week to say he was ashamed of his previous statements on gays, and vowed to change. This is progress, to be sure.

Being gay isn't a choice. Like becoming a major-league star, you're either born with the skills or you're not — I was born gay, but, sadly, I was not born Miguel Cabrera. So I write about baseball, instead.

Could be worse, to be sure.

Political rhetoric remains a huge problem when it comes to the LGBT community. The bathroom laws are a joke, yet remain a priority in so many Legislatures — even in Michigan, which could probably better spend its resources fixing Flint, or our roads.

Religion is a roadblock to freedoms, too. Many folks were eager to jump to Facebook and denounce all Muslims after Sunday's attack, though this story continues to unfold and be reported. But his religion isn't alone. I'm a Catholic, and the beliefs of my faith, while not as extreme, are still crystal clear.

There certainly are more allies of the LGBT community than ever these days, and the renaissance has taken shape in a hurry. The nation is evolving, and rapidly, mostly because younger people tend to be far more progressive. They aren't afraid to be heard, and so many of them know and are friends with lots of members of the LGBT community.

But there is a long way to go, as is the case with any fight for civil liberties, none of which ever has happened overnight.

A crowded nightclub was attacked early Sunday morning, drawing countless "thoughts and prayers" from around the globe, and both wings of politics — when the LGBT community, sadly, still gets attacked, verbally, every day of the year, by our leaders, of government and faith.

Yes, you see, Pride Month still matters.

Pride prevails in Detroit, Ferndale

Detroit Pride — both in Ferndale and at Hart Plaza — went off without a hitch last weekend. So did a vigil at Ferndale's Affirmations, a community center for the LGBT community, where more than 500 folks packed the place this week. Grand Rapids will have Pride this weekend, and Lansing in late August.

There will be dancing — some terrible — drinking, laughing, smiling, and, yes, advocating for continued change and progress.

I would suspect safety measures will be stepped up, greatly, for the coming events, as they were for Detroit Pride.

But I wouldn't suspect any diminished turnout, even in the wake of the horrific night at Pulse.

To be scared is natural. But to be proud is absolutely essential.

It's been impossible this week not to think back on my days working and partying at Paradise in Lansing. Scrolling through all the photos of the Orlando victims, so many so young, I couldn't help but think of the lives, many so promising, they'll never get to lead. Lives like Andy, a server at Paradise who went on to become a teacher in Texas. Like Brian, a fellow bouncer at Paradise who went on to become a legislator — and a rising star in the Democratic Party — in Pennsylvania. Or Chris, a Realtor in Florida. Or myself, a sports reporter in Detroit.

Those victims could've been any of us, any of my friends, any members of the LGBT community, and our allies in the straight community.

I never once fathomed such an awful act when I was working at Paradise, and I still can't believe it today. It just doesn't seem real.

Then again, nor does a nation with too many outrageously narrow views, still too few sensible LGBT protections, and too many folks who are simply not willing to close that gap.