Give Them Hope

First, on a serious note.  Early last Sunday morning, a gunman burst into a popular gay bar in Orlando and opened fire with an AR-15, killing 49 people and wounding 53 others before being killed by the police. This is the worst mass shooting in American history by a single gunman, and LGBTQ people, specifically LGBTQ people of color, were explicitly targeted. All people were struck by the scale of this tragedy, but personally, it has hit me hard. Mass shootings are always more terrifying when you can see yourself in the people who were killed.

It can be hard and scary to be visible. A lot of queer people spend much of their adolescence, and sometimes much of their lives, hiding a big part of their identity. For me, even now that I'm fully and totally out, I'm faced with a lot of daily situations in which I have to make a choice between hiding a part of myself and coming out to a person I don't know very well. Sometimes I don't have the energy, sometimes I genuinely feel it's none of their business, and sometimes I feel I have reason to fear for my safety.

Gay bars are important because they're one of the only spaces where I know for sure that I don't have to feel unsafe being gay. Unlike everywhere else in the world, in a gay bar, my sexual orientation is the default, and I don't really have to explain myself to anyone. That's why this horrific hate crime cuts so deep. Gay people were murdered in a place where they felt safe, and it has just reinforced for me that, as a gay woman, most places in this world are not safe. This danger is further magnified for people of color, trans and gender non-conforming people, and people of different religions.

After the shooting, I was feeling hopeless for a variety of reasons. I was frustrated that people didn't seem to be acknowledging the nature of the hate crime. I was worried that this shooting would be used as another excuse for Islamophobia. I was outraged at Republican politicians tweeting that their thoughts and prayers were with the victims, when their past actions had facilitated the societal homophobia that made a man think it was ok to murder people for being gay.

I was exhausted by the rhetoric calling for better gun control. We've had so many mass shootings in this country that I had no reason to think that this one would motivate Congress to pass an assault weapons ban, or close the gun show loophole that allows people to buy guns at gun shows without submitting to a background check. In fact, I became frustrated that people were talking about gun control because it felt like such a futile conversation.

And then on Wednesday at 11am, Senator Chris Murphy from Connecticut started speaking on the Senate floor, and with the help of other Senators, specifically Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey, held the floor for 15 hours and renewed my faith in government.

Before I go into the details of this specific filibuster, I am a political process blog at heart, and thus I have to explain what a filibuster is. In Congress, the vast majority of bills can be debated on the floor. In the House, there are time limits for how long people can speak on a bill, usually between one and five minutes. The House is allowed to set time limits for debate overall, limiting consideration on a specific bill to forty minutes total. The Senate, illustrious and elitist body that it is, has no such time limit. Usually, Senators keep their speeches short, and debate can move fairly quickly. But individual Senators have the right to speak "as long as necessary" on any issue.

Yes, I know this is the one we're all thinking about.

Yes, I know this is the one we're all thinking about.

Traditionally, filibusters are used as a delaying tactic. In 1957, Strom Thurmond took the record for the longest filibuster, clocking in at over 24 hours when he stalled debate on the Civil Rights Act. Huey Long, a Senator from Louisiana, would routinely filibuster bills he thought hurt the poor, with one of his filibusters reaching 15 and a half hours. But filibusters can also be used by members of the minority party to pressure the majority party into action, as was the case with Senator Murphy's filibuster.

Senator Murphy took the floor a little after 11am, and said he would stand on the Senate floor as long as he could. In order to "hold the floor" or retain his right to speak, there were a couple of rules that Senator Murphy had to follow. The biggest rule is that once you start talking, if you sit down, stop talking, or leave the floor for any reason, you have yielded the floor, and debate can go on without you.

Unlike some places (Texas being a notable example where people cannot stray from the topic of discussion even once) United States Senators can talk about more than just the bill they are delaying, or the cause they care about. Senator Long, in his fifteen hour filibuster, read recipes, analyzed the constitution, and read Shakespeare. Senators can also yield for a question, without losing their right to the floor. While a Senator can yield to anyone for a question, it's common practice to only yield to members in your own party who are on your side, so you know that they won't filibuster your filibuster, and monopolize the floor themselves.

The Texas rules are hardcore, and merit a separate post, but we don't have time for that so enjoy Wendy Davis.

The Texas rules are hardcore, and merit a separate post, but we don't have time for that so enjoy Wendy Davis.

In this case, Senator Murphy often yielded for questions, allowing other Senators to speak about their views on gun control and the Orlando shooting. Almost every Democratic Senator, and a few Republicans, came to the floor and spoke for extended periods of time, finally phrasing a question at the end of a marathon speech, usually something like "what will it take for the Senate to pass common sense gun reforms?" These long questions would give Senator Murphy a break from talking, and allow him to drink and eat.

During a filibuster, the only things you can drink are water and milk (I'm really not sure why you can drink milk, but this post is already so long, that's going to have to be a question for another day). You can't eat anything, except the candy from the candy desk on the Senate floor. Yes, that's right, there is a desk on the Senate floor that is full of candy, but you have to walk all the way over to Senator Mark Kirk's (R-IL) desk to get it.

This is a real desk in the real Senate.

This is a real desk in the real Senate.

You don't want to drink too much though, because you cannot leave the Senate floor for bathroom breaks. And here's the most fun thing I learned about filibusters this week. Elected officials have all kinds of ingenious ways for avoiding nature's call. Wendy Davis wore a catheter. A St. Louis Alderwoman had her aids set up sheets around her lower half while she relieved herself in a bucket. Strom Thurmond set up a bucket in the Senate cloakroom and peed into it while keeping one foot still on the floor. And if you think that's an unprofessional thing to put in a semi-serious blog post, then you will be dismayed to know that I shared these facts with my boss as soon as I learned them.

When does a filibuster end? Some end when the person can't talk anymore. Some can end when other Senators get 60 people together for a cloture vote, to end debate on the subject, effectively killing a filibuster. Or they can end when the Senator gets what they want.

Senator Murphy brought his filibuster to an end close to 2am, with a newly secured promise from leadership that they would hold votes on universal background checks and preventing people on the terrorist watchlist from buying guns. The final seven minutes of the filibuster is one of the most emotionally powerful things I've seen in politics. To editorialize, I can feel how much Senator Murphy cares about this issue, and his passion makes me believe that the government can step up and do something to combat the huge, complicated, terrifying issues that we are facing that seem to be impossible to tackle. 

The actions of Senator Murphy, Senator Booker, many members of the Democratic caucus, and Senator Tammy Baldwin, the only LGBTQ Senator, who gave a moving tribute to the victims of the attack, gave me hope that had been lost in the wake of the devastating hate crime in Orlando.

Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) during the filibuster

Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) during the filibuster

Hope alone can't do everything, but nothing can be done without hope. I know that now, just as sure as Harvey Milk knew it in 1978 when he delivered a speech motivated by tragically familiar actions, and a message that is as relevant and important for LGBTQ people today as it was in 1978.

"After Dade County, I walked among the angry and the frustrated night after night and I looked at their faces. And in San Francisco, three days before Gay Pride Day, a person was killed just because he was gay. And that night, I walked among the sad and the frustrated at City Hall in San Francisco and later that night as they lit candles on Castro Street and stood in silence, reaching out for some symbolic thing that would give them hope. These were strong people, whose faces I knew from the shop, the streets, meetings and people who I never saw before but I knew. They were strong, but even they needed hope. 

And the young gay people in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias and the Richmond, Minnesotas who are coming out and hear Anita Bryant on television and her story. The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right."

As we all, but specifically we in the LGBTQ community, work for a better world and fight for what's right, we must also try to find the symbolic things that will give us hope. They won't be the same for everyone, but for me, someone who has put a lot of energy and faith in the government, watching this filibuster, watching my Senators speak so passionately in favor of gun control and in support of LGBTQ people, and watching the first openly lesbian Senator speak about the pain she was feeling from the attack, gave me hope. I hope it does the same for all of you.

First Published: June 16, 2016