June 15 2016 12:22 AM

From Lansing and Orlando, shock, sadness and unity

Michigan State University staff member Amber Cordell is comforted by Lisa Laughman of MSU during a vigil for those murdered inn Orlando Sunday night. The two were participating in an event at The Rock on MSU's campus.
Todd Heywood/City Pulse
As the cast of Riverwalk Theater’s production of “Rent” slowly merged back into the crowd of people — some wearing “Love Wins” t-shirts, and others wrapped in rainbow flags — standing before the steps of the state Capitol Sunday evening, another group of people quietly walked up. They stood at the back of the gathering of politicians and members of the LGBT community. There were men and children and women wearing hijabs.

They were members of the Islamic Center of Greater Lansing, present to stand with the community.

“For us, we mourn along with the nation the loss of life,” Thasin Sardar said after the candlelight vigil. Sardar is the former president of the Islamic Center of Greater Lansing in East Lansing. He also serves on the advisory board for the Council on American and Islamic Relations of Michigan. “We are here not as Muslims, but as Americans. We wanted to join the community here.”

Before the vigil, the Lansing Association for Human Rights, a gay rights organization, issued a statement rejecting attempts to use the Orlando shootings as a reason to single out Muslims.

“We want to make clear, this can be an act of hate and an act of terror, and not something that implicates all Muslims — simultaneously. LAHR cannot support the use of this tragedy, our lost LGBTQ lives, to fuel anti-Muslim agendas and the irrational fears of those who are different from us,” wrote Emily Dievendorf, a board member of LAHR. “Terrorism has no skin color or religion. When we see it implied otherwise we will call that what it is, opportunism and ignorance, and it has no place in our mourning and does nothing to help a nation heal.”

This was just one of many gestures of solidarity — large and small — Sunday night as the greater Lansing community mourned and processed the apparent terror attack in a gay nightclub in Orlando that left 49 club-goers dead and 53 in the hospital. The attacker, Omar Mateen, was an American citizen and pledged his allegiance to the terror network ISIS during a phone call with 911 during the attack. He was killed by police.

President Barack Obama called it an example of “homegrown extremism,” but he noted the killer’s motive was unknown.

A patron of Spiral Dance Club prepares to release a lit lantern written with words honoring the murder victims in Orlando on Sunday night.
Todd Heywood/City Pulse

“Although it’s still early in the investigation, we know enough to say that this was an act of terror and an act of hate,” Obama said in a statement Sunday afternoon. “And as Americans, we are united in grief, in outrage, and in resolve to defend our people.”

That resolve was on full display at the Capitol Sunday night.

“We refuse to be silenced, refuse to allow fear to overcome love,” the Rev. Nicolette Siragusa, pastor of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Grand Ledge, said. “It is in this spirit that we unabashedly gather here — in public, on the steps of our state's Capitol. We refuse to hide in fear, we refuse to shrivel up and die.

“In fierce opposition, we boldly declare June to be our month of Pride. The Pride movement was birthed in a nightclub, led by beautiful trans folk who refused to be beaten down and shamed any longer,” Siragusa told over 100 people gathered at the Capitol. “LGBT clubs have long been our community centers, our safe-havens, our places where we may claim our Godgiven sexuality and celebrate that we are made in the image of the divine.”

That God-given sexuality links former Grand Ledge resident Drew Spangler, 46, to the massacre and its aftermath. He lives in Orlando, where one of the victims was an on-again, off-again sexual partner for years. And as often happens, the two grew apart after Spangler met his husband four years ago. They’d see each other at the gym and chat socially. Promises would be made to meet up. And those meetups would never happen.

He learned of the death of his friend Monday morning. Also on the list of the dead was another name he recognized, a passing acquaintance.

“I am sure I will know other people,” he said in a phone interview. “Some of the dead, I am sure — some who were shot.”

A handmade sign and fresh flowers rest against the steps of the state Capitol after a candle light vigil for the victims of the June 12 shooting at a gay bar in Orlando.
Todd Heywood/City Pulse

He added that had he and his partner been at the Pulse club Saturday night — he’s not been there in a year — they would have been caught in the massacre. They like to close down the bar together, he said.

Spangler said he was surprised the attack came at a gay bar, the weekend after the “Gay Days” event at nearby Disney World. That event attracts members of the LGBT community from around the world who spend their day at the theme park and their nights in the bars in Orlando.

“I never thought it would be a gay bar [that was attacked],” he said. “I thought it would be one of the parks.”

The tragedy does have him thankful for his husband, and he encourages others to think of that as well. “When you look at your significant other, your friends, your family and loved ones, be thankful for what you have,” he said.

In Lansing, reaction to the massacre was one of sorrow and reconciliation. Speaking Sunday at the Capitol, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero said, “Their goal is to divide us. We’re united —exactly the opposite of what the terrorists want.”

To punctuate the togetherness, Bernero pointed out that State Sen. Rick Jones, R- Grand Ledge, was present. He also noted the attendance of Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum and Lansing City Councilwoman Jody Washington, who is often at odds with him over city-related business. Also attending was Adam Hussain, the Third Ward representative on the City Council. The Michigan State Police stood by.

Michigan State University Vice President for Student Affairs and Services Denise Maybanks addresses a gathering of students and community members Sunday night at The Rock. Members of the campus LGBTQ community had painted the rock to honor thohse killed in the June 12 shootings at a gay bar in Orlando.
Todd Heywood/City Pulse

Byrum fought back tears as she was interviewed following the Capitol vigil.

“It isn’t very often I am at a loss for words,” she said. “The hate. The hate that is so prevalent. It is so disappointing. I do believe love will conquer all. Through love we’ll move forward.”

She paused and looked away. Then quietly, almost to herself, she said, “It’s just horrible. It’s just horrible.”

In East Lansing, in front of the Michigan State University Rock on Farm Lane — famous for being painted for all sorts of causes — about 50 people gathered to remember and reflect. Here, the reflection was darker, as younger members of the LGBT community struggled to understand how spaces, like gay bars, that were once safe havens in a world considered hostile, could no longer be safe.

“I don’t even have words,” said Denise Maybanks, vice president of student affairs and services. “Nothing seems fitting. Nothing seems adequate.”

An hour later, with dance music thumping away in the background, people gathered in the parking lot of Spiral Dance Bar, a gay bar, in Old Town. It is a club not unlike Pulse, the Orlando gay nightclub where the shooting took place. There were LGBT patrons, as well as families with children and a gaggle of political and community leaders. Bernero was there standing with Lansing Police Chief Michael Yankowski, City Councilwomen Patricia Spitzley and Kathie Dunbar were with them as was Lansing Community College Trustee Andrew Abood. On the other side of the lot was Lansing City Council President Judi Brown Clarke and her husband, 54-A District Court Judge Hugh Clarke. Two uniformed police officers stood by, watchfully.

This group gathered to send 50 burning lanterns into the sky. It was somber and nearly silent. Delicious, a longtime Lansing drag personality, was uncharacteristically subdued as she quietly directed the line-up and launch.

Written in black marker on one lantern was a simple message: “Compassionate. Respect. Identity. Community.”