Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocates say heated political rhetoric and policies dealing with sexual orientation in recent years are partly to blame for violence like the Orlando shootings at an LGBT night club.
Chris Hartman, executive director of the Fairness Campaign in Louisville, said the rhetoric has created an atmosphere that allowed the shooting to happen.
“I feel like everyone who has stood against LGBT rights is in a way complicit in the atmosphere that’s been created that suggests LGBT people are ‘less than,’ that they deserve to be victims of violence or prejudice or discrimination,” Hartman said.
Omar Mateen killed 49 people and wounded 53 others at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando early Sunday morning. Authorities are still investigating the motive of the attacks and whether the rampage was fueled by Islamic extremism, homophobia or some combination.
Hartman said the shooting should dampen fierce anti-LGBT political rhetoric that has taken root in Kentucky and states throughout the South in recent years.
“Shame on anyone who continues after the shooting to stand against simple LGBT discrimination protections and other basic civil rights, because it is abundantly clear that our community is being targeted,” Hartman said.
In Kentucky, Gov. Matt Bevin recently joined a multi-state lawsuit against the federal government opposing new federal guidelines requiring local school districts to accommodate transgender students in school bathroom policies.
The state also served as the political epicenter of the fallout from last year’s Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis drew international attention for refusing to issue marriage licenses after the ruling, citing her religious opposition to homosexuality.
In contrast, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer this week has been outspoken in his support for LGBT rights and on Tuesday encouraged residents to attend the Kentuckiana Pride Festival this weekend in the city.
“Let’s send a message to all people that no matter their sexual orientation, gender identity, race, background, religion or nationality, we in Louisville stand united,” he said.
Kent Ostrander, executive director of Kentucky’s Family Foundation, called the association between violence and religious freedom initiatives “foolishness.”
“We need to get past using every incident that happens in America to try to bash somebody and get some kind of political gain out of the incident,” Ostrander said.
The Family Foundation pushed for a bill in this year’s legislative session that would have protected businesses from being sued for violating local anti-discrimination ordinances based on sexual orientation.
Ostrander called the shooting “horrific” but said it wasn’t fair to tie the issue to the so-called religious freedom movement.
“What we have is a radical Islamic terrorist trying to express his religion in a devastating way,” Ostrander said.
That bill’s primary sponsor, London Republican Albert Robinson, said policies like his proposal have nothing to do with people who engage in violence against gay, lesbian and transgender people.
“That’s all separate, there’s no kinship to them at all the way I see it,” he said.
Robinson used the now-common example of a baker, saying he or she should be able to refuse writing a gay pride message on a cake if it violated the baker’s sincerely held religious beliefs.
“The writing on there that’s offensive to them and against their conscience, no matter what it should be, they shouldn’t be required to go against their conscience,” Robinson said. “That’s not discriminating. It’s really discriminating against the person if you require them to go against their conscience.”
Ellen Riggle, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said anti-LGBT legislation isn’t the primary influence in discrimination against gay communities — but it helps legitimize the activity.
“When we live in a culture that includes anti-LGBT rhetoric and at the level of a state office, it gives that debate on human dignity a certain type of legitimacy, and that is what I think is dangerous,” Riggle said.
Matt Staver, CEO of Liberty Counsel, the law firm that represented Davis last year, accused politicians and advocates of using the incident to promote political agendas.
“Deal with the facts of this tragedy and do not use it to promote false statements or political agendas,” Staver said.