Before the carnage at a gay bar in Orlando, the N.C. Values Coalition had lined up 125 Hispanic pastors and faith leaders for a Tuesday news conference in Raleigh designed to promote North Carolina’s House Bill 2 – known to its critics as the “anti-LGBT law.”
By Monday morning, following all the news reports about the mass killings on “Latin Night” at Club Pulse, about half of the North Carolina pastors and faith leaders had pulled out of the news conference.
It’s still on, said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the conservative group, but “because of the tragedy in Orlando, that number (125) has been revised down a little bit (to 65).”
Will the bloody deaths of dozens of people in Orlando’s LGBT community change the politics – or at least the tone of the political rhetoric – in the state that gave the country HB2?
Will the debate about who can use which bathroom seem quaint after chilling narratives out of Orlando about gay men hiding in the bar’s bathroom in hopes of escaping the notice of a gun-wielding terrorist whose father told police he had been outraged at the sight of two men kissing?
Maybe, said Susan Roberts, a political scientist at Davidson College, but the Orlando nightmare is the kind of event politicians and their interest group allies “can frame so many different ways: Is it about guns? Terrorism? Gays and lesbians? It is a hate crime or terrorism?”
Just hours into the wall-to-wall TV coverage on Sunday, Democrats and Republicans were already stressing different aspects of the story.
President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and other Democrats cast it as an attack on the LGBT community and called yet again for new laws to make it harder for killers like Omar Mateen to buy guns.
For many Republicans, starting with Donald Trump, the main headline was that Mateen was a radical Islamist terrorist who had pledged allegiance to ISIS.
The detail many Republicans left out of their statements: The victims were gay.
N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory, a candidate for re-election who signed HB2 into law, called those who died “innocent victims of an inexcusable act of violence” and offered prayers for their families. But he did not note that they were gay.
Asked about the omission, McCrory campaign spokesman Ricky Diaz emailed the Observer this: “The last thing that should be on anyone’s mind after an unimaginable tragedy like this is politics. The governor is completely focused on ensuring all North Carolinians are safe, and providing any support we can to Orlando and the family members of the innocent victims.”
Attorney General Roy Cooper, McCrory’s Democratic opponent, sent out a Tweet on Sunday that called what happened in Orlando “horrific news.”
On Monday, his campaign followed up with an email to supporters portraying the attack as “a crime driven by hate – targeting a nightclub where people in the LGBT community came together to feel safe and live freely.” The email also encouraged Cooper backers to consider donating money to support the Orlando victims and their families.
Fitzgerald of the N.C. Values Coalition called the Orlando killings “senseless” and “heartbreaking” and said that “we stand with the families (of the LGBT victims) and we offer our prayers and support to everyone surrounding that terrible crime.”
But she also stressed that Mateen was an “Islamist jihadist” and said her group’s “fight toensure that all North Carolinians remain safe” from potential bathroom predators “will continue.”
HB2 overrode a Charlotte city ordinance that would have expanded protections against discrimination to gay, lesbian and transgender individuals. It would have allowed transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify.
Paul Shumaker, a North Carolina political consultant for U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and other Republicans, said traumatic events like the Orlando attacks could “reshuffle” the issues before voters in this election year. National security could end up on top – a development that might help Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, in his re-election bid.
The question, agreed both Shumaker and Roberts, is whether the focus on Orlando will, like 9-11, profoundly affect the political conversation. Or will its power fade as an election issue, as happened after other mass shootings?
For now, at least, the sober news in Orlando may be softening the usual harsh rhetoric.
Not long after the Orlando story broke Sunday, North Carolina-based evangelist Franklin Graham announced that he was sending chaplains to the Florida city to offer spiritual support and help families in their grief.
That brought some angry online reactions from some, who pointed out that Graham has been outspoken in condemning what he has called the LGBT agenda.
Wrote one: “Yes, that’s what gays need now, clowns telling them God hates them.”
On Monday, Kelly Burke, an ordained minister and manager of emergency response and logistics for the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, told the Observer from Orlando that six BGEA chaplains were on the ground.
He said the chaplains have met with some families of victims. And he said they did not bring up the subject of the victims’ sexual orientation.
“We’re not here to preach, we’re not here to judge, we’re not here to point out the error of their ways,” Burke said a day after Orlando. “We’re here to show them the love of Christ, who tells us to love one another.”
Contrast that tone with Graham’s a year ago, way before Orlando, when he explained why he was pulling his ministries’ money from Wells Fargo after the bank ran an inspirational ad featuring a lesbian couple.
“Of course we love them,” Graham said of gays and lesbians. “We should love them enough to warn them that, if they don't repent and turn from their sin and receive Christ … they will spend eternity in hell.”