• Ideas
  • politics

Republicans, Start Saying ‘Gay’ When You Talk About Orlando

3 minute read
James Richardson is a former spokesman and advisor for the Republican National Committee and Governors Haley Barbour and Jon Huntsman.

Nearly 35 years to the day before a lone gunman would enter a gay nightclub in Florida and butcher dozens of innocents in the deadliest mass shooting in America’s bloody history, the federal government’s public health institute documented five cases of a rare lung infection that would quickly spiral to claim the lives of 25 million.

Then, just as now, Republican condolences have been chilling. Indeed, as conservatives broadly lament the tragedy only to gracefully sidestep the acute animus that bore it, they continue in a shameful tradition of indifference to the lives, and disproportionate suffering, of gay men and women.

The horror and breadth of the incident—some 49 perished as another 53 were injured, clinging to a life that will forever bear the scars of hate—commanded a response, just as the deaths of nearly 7 million AIDS victims compelled President Ronald Reagan to begin addressing the crisis in earnest, some four years after those first documented cases in 1981.

The symmetry is startling: just as Republicans of the Reagan era for years took shelter from the subject of AIDS, today’s partisans have notably whitewashed the sexuality of the Orlando victims.

Say it, damn it: they were gay, and for it they were marked for death by a radical Islamist terrorist. Now, that’s not to say the victims were singularly defined by their sexuality—indeed, they were sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, friends and lovers—but to blur their identity is to willfully disrespect their memory and their fight to live authentically and freely.

Silence is no conservative ethic, and yet it continues to tether our pained present to the shameful stigmas of our past. With sparse exception, many Republicans pointedly refused to utter the word “gay” in the hours that followed the massacre. It was almost as though they feared their own sexual orientation would shift with the utterance—gay!

Men and women were slaughtered. Not for their nationality. Nor for their creed. But because they were gay. And still GOP leaders hide behind broad and bland references to “victims and their families,” apparently a sophist euphemism for queer.

On Monday, Republicans’ presumptive presidential nominee asked a New Hampshire crowd to consider who would be a better White House partner to women and the LGBT community: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who, he said, “wants to allow radical Islamic terrorists to pour into our country” to “enslave women and murder gays,” or himself.

Well, if you put it that way.

Today’s Republican Party is older and whiter than any period in its 162-year history. Today’s electorate, though, isn’t: it’s young, it’s diverse. And it’s also just a little gay.

Courting diverse communities is no longer a whimsical coincidental strategy for Republicans, but a singular, imperative one. That means actually addressing those communities. That means actually identifying them—yes, saying the word gay.

It took years of suffering, of healthy young men spoiling into half-living cadavers, for Republicans to acknowledge the AIDS epidemic. Their silence took a fatal toll. Don’t allow the same to happen with Orlando.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.