Coast gay community sharing tears, grief, disbelief over Orlando shooting

BILOXI -- They thought the hate had subsided, the members of the Coast gay community commiserating Sunday morning, at Just US Lounge.

They cried and they thought about the times they had been bullied,  or beaten,  in decades past. They thought those days were over.

America had come to accept homosexuality; the U.S. Supreme Court had legalized gay marriage.

Todd Waller of Moss Point thought he had finally won the right to be himself — until he was scrolling through Facebook on his phone while he waited for friends early Sunday at Just Us.

He couldn't believe the news: 20 shot dead in a gay bar in Orlando. Then the number grew to 50. The shooter was enraged, his father said, when he saw two men kissing awhile back in Miami.

Waller read it all and then spent much of the morning crying, as did others in the lounge.

'I grieve'

Bar owner Lynn Koval, who arrived around 1:45 p.m. for a staff meeting, said her grief is especially overpowering because the shooting in Orlando happened to a community she considers family. She was only hoping none of her friends from the Coast had been caught up in the violence and waiting, waiting to hear.

After Mississippi's House Bill 1523 passed this session, giving businesses and other groups the right to deny service to homosexuals, Koval said people in her circle started talking again about fear. And now, the shooting.

"We went through this 15 years ago," she said. "You think you fought the war. You think you got there. The only thing that was lacking was the legitimacy of the political and the laws, but we got there as a community."

She thinks Americans are becoming immune to gun violence. She reads the headlines daily.

"I'm gay, and then I'm American," she said. "So I hurt every day as an American, but today, I grieve. I'm so heartbroken for those families, it's like my own family. It is family."

She hopes people will come out from behind their computers, put down their mobile devices and pay more attention to what is going on around them.

"This is not a matter of me reaching across the aisle to the heterosexual community or to other minorities that might have an issue with my sexuality," Koval said. "We have done that hard work and prevailed in such a big way. It's not about communicating anymore. It's about just being vigilant and ready to act — ready to protect oneself. And I'm not talking about 'Everybody strap on a gun.'"

The boogeyman

Waller said he had been to the Orlando bar before, and he had even been invited to disc jockey. He worked for years as a disc jockey in New Orleans. He remembers the fire set intentionally in the stairwell in 1973 at The UpStairs Lounge in the French Quarter, killing four. That was almost 43 years ago.

And now the worst mass murder in U.S. history has happened at a gay bar, during gay pride month.

"You get to the point in your life as an adult and you get the freedom to be who you are able to be," he said, "and then you see something like this and it's like, they took that away from you."

Koval remembers dark days when she went to open her bar and found three nooses on the door, or men in trucks with Confederate flags mounted on them, swinging chains and waving baseball bats outside another gay bar in Biloxi, long closed.

This is different, she said. "This is like the boogeyman you can't see, so it's certainly scarier but of the same cloth."

Vigils planned

As people come to terms with the country's latest mass shooting, groups in Mississippi are planning vigils for those who died in Orlando.

In Jackson, a vigil will be held at 6 p.m. Sunday at JC's, 425 North Mart Plaza.

A candlelight vigil will be held at 7 p.m. Sunday at The Spectrum Center, 210 South 25th Ave., in Hattiesburg,

A candlelight vigil will be held at 7 p.m. Monday on the beach south of the Biloxi Lighthouse on Porter Avenue. The vigil is sponsored by the Mississippi Rainbow Center, Mississippi Rising Coalition, Lighthouse Community Church, CAYA and the Human Rights Campaign.

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