LONDON – The lewd streets of Soho — unsilenced for 300 years — were preternaturally quiet for a summer evening. Old Compton Street’s bars and pubs, packed with the post-work crowd, interrupted the flow of Stella and gossip to honor the victims of the bloody massacre in an Orlando, Florida, gay club early Sunday morning.
The release of 49 balloons into the muggy June sky — one for each person killed — marked the end of the two-minute silence as the assembled crowd burst into spontaneous applause. Even the summer rain failed to dampen the spirits of those gathered in the British capital’s most notorious gay haunt: It was on this street, 17 years ago, that the Admiral Duncan pub was the scene of a nail bomb explosion that killed three people and wounded around 70 in a homophobic attack. Most of the people present Monday night were too young to have been here the first time around, but they viewed the Orlando mass shooting as the most recent in a long history of assaults on LGBT people and their way of life.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who was among a bipartisan group of British politicians who paid their respects, told the Evening Standard, “London’s LGBT+ community knows what it’s like to face a murderous attack … But no one should be frightened away from being who they are [because of Orlando] and we must carry on proudly celebrating our differences as a city.”
Khan’s call to arms was one shared by the colorful flock. Son of a Tutu, a striking drag queen who looked far younger than her 48 years, and one of the organizers of the London vigil, said in an interview with International Business Times: “[The Orlando shooting victims] took a bullet for us — they took at least 49. Despite people chipping away at who we are, we still stand strong.”
This message of defiance was a recurring theme among the people IBT spoke to. “For far too long, we have tolerated intolerance. We can’t take this any more — we can’t tolerate fascism, people who hate, regardless of where they come from, people who live among us, who despise us,” said Lubo Fuzak, an Austrian teacher living in London.
The Orlando attack was not only an attack on gay people but also on the Latinx community (the gender-neutral term to describe the Latino community), activists said. Theo Braunerhielm, 19, a tourist, of Guatemalan descent, from Sweden, told IBT, “[When I first heard the news] I was scared. This could have been me. It could happen to any other [gay, Latinx] group around the world. Here, we stand as one, everybody support[ing] each other.”
To many LGBT members present, the vigil served as a form of collective therapy. “[The vigil is] somewhere to put my feelings of anger, frustration and loss. It’s a means for me to share the loss and express light in the middle of darkness,” Jordan Charles, 24, a charity worker, said.
Down the road, at St. Anne’s Church, red-eyed mourners laid wreaths and lit candles in memory of the dead. Anka Dabrowska and Sylvia Ferrari, sharply dressed artists, explained why: “[The attack] is a reminder that homophobia still exists … We’re here to spread gay love.” After news of the shooting broke, Ferrari said, she handed out pink roses to all her friends as a gesture of solidarity.
But it wasn’t only LGBT people who were pushing the message of love and equality. Jagraj Singh, striking in a canary yellow turban, had come to represent the Sikh community as a founder member of the charitable organization Basics of Sikhi. “I came here today to make a stand: Nobody should be persecuted because of their sexual orientation. Hatred is not God’s plan, whatever your religious values or beliefs.”
As the mourning ceased and the reveling began, similar scenes were playing out around the world, as people in Sydney, Paris and Berlin queued up to remember the slain: sequins and laughter on a dark night.