WASHINGTON - There will be many moments of silence for the victims of the Orlando shooting in the days ahead, but on Sunday night in front of the White House, the dead were remembered in song.
Singing the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington marched up Pennsylvania Avenue to join a vigil quickly organized on social media.
Circling around a makeshift memorial of flickering candles and handmade signs protesting hate, the chorus sang the National Anthem.
Many in the crowd of hundreds openly wept. Partners hugged, wrapping the rainbow flags of gay pride around each other.
“This was an act of terrorism intended to strike fear into the hearts of LGBT people” said John Becker, a gay man from Washington who stood as close as he could to the gates of the White House waving a gay pride flag.
Becker said gay clubs – like Pulse, the Orlando, Florida nightclub where Omar Mateen murdered 50 people and injured 53 others – were safe spots when he was growing up and coming to terms with his identity.
“Those are spaces LGBT people through the decades have found safe havens to meet people like us,” he told VOA. “For many of us – myself included – they’re one of the first places we felt comfortable being and expressing ourselves. That was shattered in Orlando today.”
Becker grew up in a culturally conservative town in the state of Wisconsin and said that while there has been progress, “there’s a lot of misinformation, a lot of misunderstanding.”
The crowd was filled with self-described “straight allies” who joined the vigil to help counter misunderstanding.
“I didn’t want hatred to win,” said Lauren Rose, a young woman from Washington.
She struggled through tears to explain why she felt it was so important to be part of the vigil.
“Any terrorist attack is hard but this one really shook me to my core because of where it was – it was supposed to be a safe space for people to be who they are,” she said.
Watch: White House vigil
Lauren often stopped talking to look at the vigil organizers who took turns calling on members of Congress to act on gun control.
She kept repeating to herself, “What a nightmare.”
The potential impact of the 2016 presidential campaign was on the mind of the vigil organizers and for Lauren.
“I’m tired of homophobia, transphobia, racism, xenophobia,” she said. “Especially right now with the Trump campaign galvanizing all of these bigoted groups.”
In the early hours after the tragedy, social media turned into a circle of finger-pointing about LGBT rights, terrorism and gun control.
One young woman took the microphone to push people to act after the news had faded, a reminder that a seemingly endless string of tragedies can often obscure the emotion felt in these kinds of moments.
“Allow me to allow you to be something more than your cell phone,” she shouted, “something more than your Facebook page. How many of you will use those connections to be heard?”
The White House is often a rallying point for the causes and beliefs that shape Americans. But the unique nature of the Orlando attack – an Afghan-American man who reportedly pledged allegiance to ISIS before the attack – meant the vigil organizers had a range of issues to confront. Some mentioned past mass shootings and called for stricter gun control. Other held up signs calling Islamophobia “un-American.” But all of them mentioned the hatred LGBT people still face.
And that bothered Chris and Kristen, two tourists visiting Washington from South Carolina. They sat on the curb of Pennsylvania Avenue watching the crowd.
“If you believe in the Bible and I do,” said Kristen, “I believe all of that’s not supposed to be.” She nodded toward the crowd of gay and lesbian men and women, many of them still wearing the colorful outfits for the Gay Pride march held in Washington earlier that day.
Kristen and Chris – who asked to be identified only by their first names - are in their late twenties and said they had seen significant changes in attitudes towards gays and lesbians in their short lives.
“Growing up in school, you still talked about God, you still had God in school, you still had the Pledge of Allegiance every morning,” said Chris. “They’ve taken all of that out of schools now – even in the South – and it seems like our youth is just awful. You take God out of the equation and this happens,” he said.
“Here we go again with the rallies – in your face,” Kristen said about her first thoughts upon hearing the news this morning. “Put your guns away – all that stuff.”
They both said they were not concerned by reports about the shooter’s pledge of allegiance to ISIS but were worried by the calls for gun control. Chris said in his home state of South Carolina, gun culture was strong and shootings like Orlando could be avoided if he and other law-abiding citizens were armed. They said they were offended by some of the language and actions of the gay and lesbian men and women at the vigil.
“You can’t change it now – they are how they’re going to be,” said Chris. “What I don’t like now is they push it in your face.”
John Becker acknowledged this problem. “The flip side of that progress is that there are people who see this inclusive America,” he said, “And they respond with fear and anger and hatred and we may have seen that in Orlando today.”
The chorus began “We Shall Overcome” for a second time, lit by news cameras and the illumination that surrounds the White House at night.
“There have been so many times when we’ve felt like we’ve had turning points,” said Becker.
“We have to keep speaking out about the value of everyone’s life – whether they’re gay, straight, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, male, female – every person’s life has dignity and value.”