Although it occurred thousands of miles from Muskoka, the June 12 mass shooting at a gay club in Orlando hits far too close to home for many in the local LGBT community.
“Because this happened in a designated safe space there are a lot of people who think – of my goodness this could have been me. It could have been anywhere,” says Shawn Forth, a board member with Muskoka Pride who has been involved with the group since their inception eight years ago. “With some of the intolerance that pervades society, the time and location don’t really matter.”
Forth says there’s been a lot of discussion among the local LGBT community regarding the shooting, particularly on social media.
“It’s been affecting people in different ways depending on their own experience,” he says. “ For myself growing up in a small community there was never really the gay bar or nightclub kind of scene… but when you go to university or a larger centre that becomes a safe space that didn’t necessarily exist growing up in a small town. For a lot of people that was their first real safe space to hold someone’s hand or to be open about who they are.”
The most common reaction among the local LGBT community has been one of shock and sadness, says Forth.
“Anger is not the word I would use,” he says. “There’s empathy in realizing that these are people that we would know. The ages range from (18 to 50) and these are the faces of people I could have seen at any Toronto Pride event or even a Muskoka Pride event. It really hits hard.”
When you begin to hear the backstories of the victims, he says, they become much more than simply a number.
“They were releasing text messages people had sent to loved ones during the shooting and it brought me to tears – trying to put myself in that situation,” he says.
Forth says he first became aware of the tragedy on Sunday morning as the newsfeed on his phone began to fill with information but it wasn’t until he turned on the television that he became aware of the enormity of the situation.
“I needed to leave my house to get away from technology for a while because it was really hitting me hard…realizing the scope of the shooting,” he says.
In the days that have followed, Forth says he’s been “heartened and overwhelmed” by the outpouring of support for the LGBT community – both internationally and within Muskoka.
The Township of Georgian Bay is flying their rainbow pride flag for the week, and the Town of Bracebridge has lowered their flags (including their own rainbow pride flag at town hall) to half-staff.
There are vigils set for Barrie and Midland, but Forth says the geography of Muskoka makes planning a vigil here slightly more challenging.
The Muskoka Pride Festival is set for July 15 to 24, and Forth says it’s too early to determine how the annual festivities will be affected by the events in Orlando.
“We’ll be in discussions to see what tone things should take,” said Forth. “Ultimately pride is a celebration. This year it might take on a more reflective tone for some of the events.”
How to move forward and heal as a community is also something that could take weeks or months to come to terms with, he says.
“The best response I’ve seen was from the chair of Muskoka Pride (Heather Hay) who advocated that we pause and take in our own emotions. Today is about feeling – tomorrow is about actions,” says Forth. “Fighting hate with hate won’t lead to a solution. It’s a time to love, spend time with your family and those who are important to you.”