What is it that brings people out to vigils? When a tragedy befalls a nation, it’s normal, I think, to want to do something. There are political responses, and calls made to loved ones, and social media sermons—and always, there are vigils, which are now a fixture of America’s ritual response to mass shootings. After the Pulse nightclub shooting, I attended one at Stonewall, a sacred site of the LGBT rights movement, a center of gravity for LGBT politics, organizing, celebration, and on this occasion, grief.
On the walk to Stonewall, a church group—I never figured out the denomination—marched together waving Pride flags and singing a hymn that they’d apparently written for the occasion. We are gentle, angry people, they sang, and we’re singing, singing for our lives. It was moving to see and hear. I joined them for a few blocks. A man in front of the marchers, presumably some type of leader in the congregation, called out lyric changes. We are gay and straight together, and we’re singing, singing for our lives, and so on. (Some grew perturbed by the singing, and when it finally finally ceased, a man behind me sang a parody version: We are grateful you stopped singing…)
Tragedies invite complicated responses; these days, nothing feels simple because nothing is. Stonewall wasn’t exceptional in this regard. The crowd chanted about the need for gun control. Various elected officials gave speeches. I was too far from the stage to see any of the dignitaries, but I could hear the words, not all of which were well received by the crowd around me. “Everybody on that stage is a straight, cis-gendered person,” one man said. He had a point. Most of the speakers, like me, couldn’t fully grasp the sense of vulnerability, of unsafety that this community lives with. “We’re the ones getting shot,” the man said. “We’re the ones dying.”
Others clapped for the expected lines. I saw a lot of hugging, crying, loving hands placed on sweaty backs. I also heard derision, directed at politicians who recycled similar lines about diversity and inclusion and “New York values.” A man next to me said, “God forbid they go off-script,” which anticipated the “Go Off Script!” chant that emerged later. And as the night wore on, one chant prevailed over them all, marking a point of convergence among the varied mourners: the chant was “Say their names.”
The crowd’s insistence that we hear the names of the fallen grew louder and more exasperated. Say their names! This became our singular demand. I wasn’t entirely sure why; it wouldn’t have been my first thought; but the crowd won me over, and I was chanting, too. This was our request. To stop the show for just a moment, and to hear the names. To take a moment and offer them up to God. To think about these people—all with names—and imagine what kind of people they were, how they had laughed and danced and sang songs as they walked home at night; the way they hugged their mothers and chided their fathers; the way they might’ve felt when looking in the mirror in the morning and preparing for a new day of their lives; what plans they had for the days and weeks and months they’d been denied; the people they loved and who loved them.
In front of me I saw a Latino kid with long, curly hair, wearing a ripped, white jean jacket. On the back of his jacket, he had written the words of the first stanza of Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.” I thought of the line, “You may kill me with your hatefulness/But still, like life, I’ll rise.”
A great irony of American democracy is that the people at the margins of society—the people denied full participation in the dream of America—are often the very people who push the country to be better, freer, more humane. At any given time, the country has the most to learn from the people it most marginalizes. I thought about the history of the LGBT struggle in the United States, and how it had made life better for us all—all the people who had come out, and spoken up, and at great personal cost to themselves, changed the world.
But the violence at Pulse was a reminder of the distance still to travel, the arguments still to be won, the attitudes still to be confronted, and the lives still to save. The LGBT community had seen violence before, and the people gathered at Stonewall were unafraid. They were beautiful and various and not entirely in agreement, and they emphatically weren’t going anywhere.
When the last of the event’s speakers had finished, it was time to read the names. The sky was dark. People lifted their cell phones and lighters to the sky.
After each name was read, the crowd, together, would say, “Presente.” Here. I asked a man next to me about this.
“The shooting was on Latin night,” he told me. “A lot of the victims were Latino.”
I told him I’d read about that.
“And ‘presente’ means they’re here with us,” he continued. “It means they’re always here.”