The candles were lit at dusk, more than a thousand of them on the lawn of City Hall.
The crowd of people — many with rainbow flags and signs calling for love and remembrance of the 49 people killed in a shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub early Sunday morning — stretched so far back that dozens could only listen to the speakers on the steps of City Hall. They condemned the kind of hatred that led to the attack, paid their respects to the victims and offered support to the LGBTQ community.
Just before Mayor Sylvester Turner took the podium, City Hall was lit up in a rainbow.
"We recognize in this city that every person's life has value," Turner said. "In this city, we say no to hate. We say no to discrimination. We say no to terroristic activities. We say no to any person or group who would seek to divide or separate us in this city."
Many of the night’s speakers that preceded him demanded action: Council member and Mayor Pro-Tem Ellen Cohen called for reviving the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, urging hundreds of people to vote 'yes.' Bishop James Dixon called on state and national lawmakers to amend the “insane gun laws” that create the kind of loopholes which allow suspected terrorists like the Orlando shooter to purchase assault rifles.
Although calls for action are ringing out across the nation in wake of the tragedy, on Wednesday night, words were given just as much weight.
“Words matter. Words plant seeds, seeds that grow into social interactions,” said one of the first speakers, Fran Watson, president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. “Let’s think about the seeds we want to plant.”
In a city where many transgender people felt demonized and depicted as predators during last year's fight over HERO, Watson’s message rang particularly true. Cohen challenged the crowd to actually do something when they hear the kind of homophobic fear-mongering that doomed HERO.
Black Lives Matter activist Ashton Pierre Woods, who is also gay, reminded the crowd that children are looking up to them as role models, saying they deserve to grow into a better world than this one. Pastor Troy Treash, from the Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church, prayed that no one would use the Orlando tragedy to marginalize more minority groups.
Just as the crowd and dozen-plus speakers stood with the LGBTQ community, they also expressed solidarity with the Muslim community. A Muslim imam, Wazir Ali, closed the night by leading the multi-faith crowd in the Lord’s Prayer, reminding them that if they are praying people, then they are all praying to the same God.
By then it was dark, and among the hundreds of flickering candles across the City Hall lawn, 49 remained unlit on the City Hall steps, plus a 50th candle to be lit for people who have been targets of hate crimes or terrorism around the world.
Several speakers read the names of the 49 people who lost their lives. The speakers each read slowly, deliberately, articulately.
The crowd was silent, and so was the city. No police sirens rang out; no car horns honked. Only the names of victims permeated the silence.
We ran into Lou Weaver afterward, who helped read the names. Weaver, a transgender man, recalled having read earlier this week about some emergency workers who thought that the crime-scene investigation at Pulse nightclub would be solemn and quiet, but had instead found the cellphones at the scene kept ringing—text messages and phone calls that would never be answered.
He said he couldn’t stop thinking about those families on the other end of the line as he read off eight names: Edward Sotomayor Jr., Stanley Almodovar III, Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, Akyra Monet Murray, Luis S. Vielma, Juan Ramon Guerrero, Christopher Andrew Leinonen and Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera.
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Weaver said he was thankful to the speakers and faith leaders who acknowledged the victims were targeted and killed because of who they love. In the days after the attack, he said he and other LGBTQ members have been infuriated by rhetoric suggesting that those who died at Pulse should not be considered "LGBT" victims, but just victims, just Americans, as though their identity had nothing to do with the reason someone harbored hate against them and took their lives. It felt like people were trying to erase their identities, he said.
Weaver wondered if the solidarity with and recognition of his community would continue after that night. Would the 15 of 16 City Council members who stood with the LGBTQ community last night stand with them at the Pride Parade?
"We have to be together all the time, every time, because this is about equality for every single Houstonian, every single person that showed up tonight, including the people from the [Muslim] community," he said. "The man who sat next to me was fasting until the sun went down, and someone thankfully brought him some water, because it’s Ramadan, and he was out here sitting next to me, and he hadn’t eaten all day. Is it his fight? Yes, it’s his fight. It’s an intersectional fight — every single one of us matters. And language matters, because if we erase one, we erase all."
A small group of people slowly gathered around Weaver as he spoke. When he finished, a young woman asked him if she could give him a hug. "I really needed to hear that," she said.