How the Orlando attack prompted a quiet debate on gay America among the global LGBT community

For years, the United States has been viewed as a haven for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people around the world, with immigration authorities approving asylum for LGBT people fleeing violence, LGBT students coming for college, and wealthy internationals choosing the U.S. for vacations.

But after the massacre at Pulse, the gay club in Orlando, Fla., where 49 people were killed and 53 wounded this week, some in the international LGBT community are questioning the country's reputation as global leader in acceptance and safety. Others, watching tearful vigils against backdrops of rainbow flags and the forceful repudiations of homophobia, have marveled with hope at how the nation is responding to anti-gay violence.

FULL COVERAGE: Orlando nightclub shooting »

Via social media, in houses of worship, and through public demonstrations and vigils all over—in Bangalore, in Nairobi, in Singapore--the Orlando killings have brought together global LGBT communities like rarely before, and opened up a quiet debate on gay life in America.

“What has surprised me is the bigotry and racism and hate that has been exposed because of the Orlando attack. As a gay Muslim man, I would be terrified to live in the U.S. I’m thankful to God that I don’t,” said Qasim Iqbal, 45, executive director of Naz Male Health Alliance, an LGBT social services organization in Lahore, Pakistan.

“Pakistan is now seeming more and more to be a better place," said Iqbal, who lived in the U.S. until a decade ago. “Yes, we may not have gay rights here, but the U.S. recognized gay rights [such as same-sex marriage] just a few years ago.”

For Gourab Ghosh, a gay rights activist and student at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, the Orlando shooting points to larger issues in society. “The massacre is sad and horrific, but it also highlights several kinds of phobia and discrimination,” he said. 

Gay sex is illegal in 73 countries, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Assn. In 13, the punishment for homosexual activity is death.

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FOR THE RECORD

11:27 a.m.: An earlier version of this article said gay sex is illegal in 75 countries, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Assn. The correct number is 73 countries.

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Although activists in the U.S. campaigning for anti-discrimination laws and legal protections for transgender people say the country still has strides to make on LGBT rights, the U.S. places high on global rankings of LGBT friendliness. A 2013 Pew Research Center survey named it 13th among 40 countries for residents’ acceptance of homosexuality. The U.S. is one of 22 where same-sex marriage is legal nationally, and several states allow gay couples to adopt children. Gay clubs like Pulse are common in major American cities, and not unknown in smaller ones too. 

Ghosh said that, although segments of society continue to shun and condemn gays, there is still a sense in other countries that that the U.S. “is an LGBT-sympathetic country. The migrants from Turkey to Syria to Uganda to India look [toward the U.S.] for a space that they can call a rainbow home.”

Nicholas Lim, a 36-year-old gay Singaporean who helped organize a Tuesday vigil of 400 people, said the American response to the tragedy gave him faith amid sadness.

“The LGBT community has always been a visible target and, for a shooting to take place in a location where gay men gather and be themselves, to many of us it was inevitable,” said Lim, who runs GLBT Voices Singapore, a Facebook page with 48,000 followers that put together the vigil. “But we have no doubt that Americans will come back stronger from this,” he said, adding that the “LGBT community has been most loudly championed by people in the U.S.”

The Orlando killings were not only one of the largest mass shootings in the U.S., but also the largest attack on a U.S. gay club. The last major one was in 1973 when 32 people died after an arson at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans. With scant coverage at the time, the news also didn't have the advantage of social media to spread it.

That's how Zayan, a 19-year-old student in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, first heard of the Orlando deaths – via Twitter.

“Initially, I was like ‘oh, well, another shooting in the U.S. What else is new?’” said Zayan, who asked that his last name not be used because his family does not know he’s gay. “But when we started getting more information on the whole situation like about the fact that it was a hate crime against LGBT people, I legitimately broke down,” crying at his desk while in class.

“Growing up in a Muslim country, you know, you see all these countries in the West as probably the safest for LGBT people. Although it was this one incident, after the shooting I’m having a hard time trying to figure out the difference between how LGBT people are treated there and how they're treated here,” said Zayan, who studies accounting and finance and had dreamed moving to live with relatives in New York City. “I’m leaning more towards Canada now,” he said.

Ishalaa Ortega, a transgender Mexican immigrant and activist in New York, said many of her friends were discussing the Orlando killings this week. But she noted the conversations were more optimistic.

“At the end of the day, it’s still the best country for an LGBT person,” Ortega said. “Here, everyone is horrified and people are rallying to protect the community. In Mexico there was a shooting where seven people were killed in a gay bar last month and nobody heard of it.”

Such violence “happens every day around the world and nobody talks about it,” added Ortega, who is from Tijuana and was granted asylum in January. “This is why we are coming here asking for help.”

Jaweed Kaleem is The Times' national race and justice correspondent. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

 

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