A group of Homer residents and visitors gathered around the gazebo in WKFL Park on Friday evening and read the names of the 49 people who died in the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida early in the morning on June 12.
During an open-mic session after the reading of names, Homer city council member Catriona Reynolds announced to the gathering that she is working on an anti-discrimination ordinance to introduce to the city of Homer, similar to the one passed in Anchorage in 2015. Reynolds is working with the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska on the ordinance, which would prevent discrimination based on a variety of criteria, including sexual orientation and gender identity, she said.
Love for Orlando, an event designed to mourn and to show support for the Orlando and Homer LGBTQ communities, was arranged by a group of Homer residents who needed to take action in the wake of a tragedy.
“Monday was back to work as usual and that just felt so weird and then Tuesday we started talking and were like, ‘We have to do something. We just need to honor that this happened,’” said Homer resident Rachel Romberg. “The idea was to give people in our community a place to express grief and thoughts and also to give a chance for our LGBT community to be more visible.”
Participants at Love for Orlando had the opportunity to fill out a book with their thoughts and wishes, which will be sent to the LBGTQ community of Orlando to show support, Romberg said. Flags with the names of those killed in the shooting will be also sent along with the book.
“I feel like we are so numb to these types of tragedies … it seems like we just do small things,” said Homer resident Tara Schmidt. “We post a sad status on Facebook or change our profile picture, but we don’t really do anything beyond that and I just wanted to, myself and the other people who are helping get it started, wanted to do something a little bigger, have some compassion and send a message to the wider LGBTQ community. We’re here for you and we support you, as well as the people in Orlando.”
In addition to giving people the chance to process their grief and shock over the mass shooting, the idea was to give more visibility to the Homer LGBTQ community. Over the eight years that Romberg has lived in Homer, the community has shrunk and become less visible as members moved away.
“I think after this tragedy what I was really missing was the sense of community that I had in places like Portland and San Francisco when I lived there before and it also has really given me pause to think, if there’s a person who’s coming out or there’s a person who’s new to the community or just for everyone, how do we express that there’s safety here. I think there is,” Romberg said.
During the open-mic session at the event, Schmidt encouraged Homer residents to be an ally to the local LBGTQ community and other marginalized groups. One of the ways to do that is to ask questions and to keep an open mind, Schmidt said.
“If you hear a comment that seems homophobic that you don’t feel comfortable with, one of the ways that we can humanize is to call something out or to question it,” Schmidt said. “I don’t think we think about stuff in the moment. I myself have made disparaging comments and made mistakes and am trying to be better. Calling out homophobia, or racism and sexism is a good start.”
There was a general agreement that while violence toward the Homer LBGTQ community has not been a common occurrence in recent years, there is a lack of knowledge or understanding of those who are part of the community. Schmidt has heard from high school students that there is not a lot of bullying of those who come out at Homer High, but many people dismiss the person as “going through a phase.”
Danny Bolton, a Homer resident who is transitioning from male to female, has only experienced “a snide comment and glaring eyes” a handful of times. There was also controversy over Bolton participating in the production of “The Nutcracker” a few years ago, but Bolton ended up taking the lead role of Uncle Drosselmeyer for two consecutive years.
“After all the nonsense in Orlando … I think we have it pretty good after all,” Bolton said. “I think Homer is a warm and embracing and accepting place with open minds and good people.”
In contrast to Bolton’s experience, however, Homer resident Bill Kaiana told the crowd during the open-mic session that he has had his life threatened in Homer three times over the years.
“I was an effeminate child and am an effeminate adult and people make assumptions and whether they’re right or wrong is not their concern,” Kaiana said.