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Michael Barnes

What the Orlando shooting says about LGBT safety in Austin

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The place matters.

Dylann Roof chose an African-American church in Charleston. Adam Lanza picked out an elementary school in Newtown. James Eagan Holmes decided on a crowded movie theater in Aurora.

It appears that Omar Mateen, who lawmakers say had pledged his allegiance to ISIS, settled on an LGBT club in Orlando.

That matters.

All these places give vulnerable people a sense of safety. During decades of overt persecution, the LGBT community sought out bars and clubs like Florida’s Pulse because they offered refuge.

Austin, historically a tolerant place, never hosted a “gayborhood” because, generally, we felt safe here.

aam-gay-pride-7

Gay Pride on West Fourth Street in Austin.

A 2001 study that I conducted with social scientist Sean Massey — published in the American-Statesman — confirmed that sense, along with some discontents.

“An overwhelming majority of lesbians and gay men feel safe, comfortable and satisfied with the quality of life in Central Texas,” we concluded. “Yet they miss certain aspects of traditional gay culture and community, such as social spaces, businesses and other resources dedicated to gay men and, especially, lesbians. A first-of-its-kind newspaper study found that gay men and lesbians came to Central Texas for the same reasons that brought other newcomers — high levels of education, jobs, natural beauty and tolerance of difference. Yet they are less content with the lack of social opportunities in a city with no lesbian and gay community center or cohesive gay district.”

We’re more visible every year. In 2015, we revisited 25 years of Austin Pride and focused on the huge Apple presence at the 2014 parade.

“That one of the country’s leading corporations assembled more than 3,000 supporters — twice the total number of participants in the first Gay and Lesbian Pride Fiesta in 1990 — for a Pride Parade that attracted north of 125,000 spectators to downtown Austin last year says something about the seismic shifts in social attitudes during the past 25 years. Consider, too, that in April 1970, not long after the Stonewall Riots ushered in the modern era of gay rights, the first publicly promoted meeting of Austin homosexuals drew only 25 brave souls to the University Y on Guadalupe Street.”

And yet every few years, there’s an incident, sometimes violent, on West Fourth Street, where LGBT businesses congregate. We are not immune to hate as a city.

Tonight, civic leaders will join mourning members of the LGBT community on West Fourth and at the State Capitol for vigils . I plan to be there. Not as a journalist, although I will report what I see and hear in these pages, but as a gay man, out since 1972, who is stricken with grief for a community that might never feel completely safe.

UPDATES: An earlier version of this post provided the wrong name of the Charleston shooter. Also, a second vigil has been added.