On The Power Of #SayTheirNames: What America’s Victims Of Mass Violence Have In Common
Drew Leinonen and Juan Ramon Guerrero were destined to be together. “They were honestly so in love,” Guerrero’s sister, Diane, told TIME. “They were soul mates. You can tell by how they looked at each other.” The young couple, just 32 and 22, respectively, were thinking about getting married. Those plans, however, were tragically cut short Saturday evening when the two men were gunned down at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
Their families plan to honor their love by having a joint funeral for them, instead of the wedding of which Leinonen and Guerrero dreamed. “I think my son wanted to do that,” said Guerrero’s father, also named Juan. “That’s why.”
Those were just two of the many names released to the public the wake of the killing, as the LGBT community remembered the queer lives lost over the weekend. These names include Eddie Justice, 30, who texted his mother for help as the shooter began to open fire on the Orlando gay bar. “Mommy I love you,” Justice said, taking shelter in the bathroom. Akyra Murray, 18, the youngest victim of the attack, graduated high school last week. She was an honors student, third in her class, and the star player on the school’s basketball team.
On Tuesday, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper read the names of each of the victims, except for one notable omission. “There’s one name I want to tell you that you will not hear during this broadcast tonight, one picture of a person you won’t see,” the openly gay newscaster said. “We will not say the gunman’s name or show his photograph. It’s been shown far too much already.”
In the wake of the shooting, a hashtag campaign is encouraging mourners to do the same: #SayTheirNames. Far too often, media coverage focuses on those who perpetrate mass murder, picking apart everything from their childhood hobbies to what they had for breakfast the morning of the attack. After a young couple killed 14 people in San Bernardino, reporters even started rooting through the personal belongings of the shooters live on air, from baby pictures to a driver’s license left on the bed.
Our obsession with those who commit acts of unimaginable violence often obscures the victims of these atrocities, making them footnotes in their own deaths. It also minimizes the very reasons they lost their lives: The attack on Pulse was not a “senseless act,” as goes the common refrain following mass shootings, but a strike against the LGBT community.
This was not happenstance. The shooter’s father, Siddique Mateen, said that prior to the shooting, his son had witnessed a gay couple engaging in a public display of affection. “We were in downtown Miami, Bayside, people were playing music,” Seddique told NBC. “And he saw two men kissing each other in front of his wife and kid and he got very angry. They were kissing each other and touching each other and he said, ‘Look at that. In front of my son they are doing that.’ And then we were in the men’s bathroom and men were kissing each other.”
Mateen’s statement was compounded with reports that his son (whose name will not be mentioned here) may have been grappling with a lifelong struggle over his own sexuality. The shooter was a regular at Pulse, where he frequently tried to buy other patrons drinks. Others claimed that the shooter, who was married with a young son, had profiles on gay hookup apps like Grindr and Jack’d.
The fact that an armed shooter may have taken his own feelings of self-loathing and internalized homophobia out on innocent LGBT victims is yet another reminder that marginalized peoples bear the brunt of violence in the U.S., whether it’s police brutality or mass shootings.
The #SayTheirNames hashtag suggests an overt connection to #SayHerName, a campaign that emerged on Twitter in the wake of Sandra Bland’s death. On July 13, 2015, Bland was stopped by a police officer in Waller County, Texas for failing to signal a lane change, a routine traffic violation. After the exchange between Bland and the officer on duty, Brian Encinia, escalated, she was forcibly detained, thrown to the ground, and arrested. Bland would be found dead in the jail days later; she hung herself.
The Twitter campaign highlighted how frequently women are the victims of systemic violence in America and how seldom we talk about it. Although the untimely deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner sparked a national conversation on how the volatile relationship between police and marginalized communities, Miriam Carey, Mya Hall, and Shelley Frey failed to receive the same attention. All died in police custody.
Although the majority of people of color killed by law enforcement are men, #SayHerName highlighted the extreme violence to which women are nonetheless subjected, especially sexual violence. Daniel Holtzclaw, a former Oklahoma police officer, was convicted last year of sexually assaulting 13 black women between the years of 2013 and 2014. His case received little attention, despite the fact that such incidents are sadly common. In 2015, an AP investigation found that over a six-year period, nearly 1,000 law enforcement officials were dismissed by their departments due to sexual assault incidents.
When we say the names of these women, we are reminded that they were assaulted, abused, or murdered because they dared to be black and female in America. The same is true for the victims of mass shootings in Lafayette, Isla Vista, Charleston, San Bernardino, and Orlando. Although statistics have shown that 98 percent of mass shooters are male, we rarely talk about who they target: people of color, women, queer people, and folks living with disabilities.
When a gunman opened fire on a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana, he killed two people: Mayci Breaux and Jillian Johnson. These women were attending a screening of the romantic comedy Trainwreck, starring Amy Schumer. Schumer is an outspoken feminist comic famous for her salient critiques of gender politics on Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer. Calvin Floyd, who hosted Georgia’s Rise and Shine radio show in the 1990s, told the Washington Post that the shooter used to frequently call in to discuss his views. “Rusty had an issue with feminine rights,” he said. “He was opposed to women having a say in anything.”
Veronika Weiss, 19, and Katherine Cooper, 22, were members of the Delta Delta Delta sorority house at the University of California Santa Barbara. Their killer viewed these young women’s deaths as retribution for the fact that he was still a virgin. “College is the time when everyone experiences those things such as sex and fun and pleasure, but in those years I’ve had to rot in loneliness, it’s not fair,” he said in a manifesto posted to YouTube. “I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it.”
Women like Weiss, Cooper, Breaux, and Johnson make up the majority of victims in mass shootings. Most of these deaths take place in the home, perpetrated against wives, girlfriends, ex-partners, and children. Between the years of 2009 and 2012, 40 percent of the men responsible for mass violence had abused an intimate partner prior to the attack.
The couple responsible for killing 14 people in San Bernardino last year targeted Inland Regional Center, an organization that provides resources to people with disabilities. Although news media and politicians often scapegoat the mentally ill as the perpetrators of violence, San Bernardino put a spotlight on the fact that people with mental and physical disabilities are more likely to be the victims of abuse, not those responsible. People with a diagnosed mental illness are responsible for an estimated 3 to 5 percent of mass shootings, while a 2012 study found that 25 percent of that population is the victim of a violent attack each year.
The clubgoers dancing, tossing back drinks, and stealing kisses in between tracks weren’t just queer — they were people of color, gender nonconforming, and transgender. On Saturday, Pulse was hosting its “Latin Night,” and a vast majority of the faces circulating on social media are Latino and black. In his memoriam photo, Stanley Manolo Almodovar III, a 23-year-old pharmacy technician, is wearing hoop earrings and lipstick. KJ Morris, a bouncer who worked at Pulse, was a well-known drag king, described as an “idol” in the community.
Erica Hatoum, a friend of Morris’, told the Daily Hampshire Gazette that Morris was often concerned that her appearance would lead to trouble. “Because of the way she looked, she was always afraid to travel,” Hatoum said. “She would hold her bladder so she wouldn’t have to use the bathroom in some other town or get yelled at or called something in another place.”
These words are a sobering reminder that LGBT people and other marginalized communities aren’t safe in an America where they continue to be targeted for harassment and physical harm, whether they are dancing the night away at a gay club or just trying to use the restroom in peace.
Although Gov. Pat McCrory has downplayed the shooting’s connection to House Bill 2, a discriminatory law that forces trans people in North Carolina to use the restroom that corresponds with the sex they were assigned at birth, it’s hard not to look at these problems as a continuum of mass violence. Since the passage of McCrory’s bill in late March, transgender people have been followed, harassed, and kicked out of public bathrooms, while others have been ejected for simply looking like they might be trans.
In the wake of the attack in Orlando, politicians have attempted to place the blame solely on the shooter’s religion or a number of other factors, but when we look at the lives lost and the culture of hate that surrounds their deaths, the patterns are unmistakable.
Naming the dead and the injured, thus, serves a profound purpose for LGBT people. For a community grappling with tragedy, it helps us make sense of what happened. For those who lost their lives, it honors their bravery in dying to be the person that they wanted to be. And for America, it’s a reminder that toxic masculinity doesn’t just kill — it kills the same kinds of people over and over again.
When we say their names, we’re not just memorializing our brothers. We’re screaming that we’ve had enough.