June 11 was a day of festivities and firsts as diplomats from a record eight embassies participated in the Capital Pride Parade in Washington, D.C. But the joyous mood was cut short the next day when a gunman stormed a gay nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.
“Taking part in the Pride Parade was a great honor and indeed a moment to remember. I joined my Nordic colleagues together with my entire family, including my wife, children and parents, to celebrate and signal that LGBTI rights are on the top of our agenda,” Danish Ambassador Lars Gert Lose told the Diplomatic Pouch, referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or intersex people.
“While we have come far with the LGBTI agenda, it remains an agenda we have to follow closely. With the tragedy in Orlando, the Pride Parade feels more important than ever,” added Lose, who joined his colleagues from Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden as the Nordic embassies marched in the annual parade for the first time.
Another newcomer was Canada, which was represented by Amarjeet Sohi, the country’s minister of infrastructure and communities and a longtime human rights advocate. Sohi led more than 50 embassy staff and other Canadians along the colorful, spectator-lined parade route.
Nordic embassies participate in their first Capital Pride Parade: From left are Icelandic Deputy Chief of Mission Erlingur Erlingsson; Finnish Ambassador Kirsti Kauppi; Norwegian Ambassador Kåre R. Aas; Danish Ambassador Lars Gert Lose; and Swedish Ambassador Björn Lyrvall.
Dutch Ambassador Henne Schuwer also attended, as did British Ambassador Kim Darroch. The Brits, in fact, are parade veterans, having participated in Capital Pride for four years now. Eight of Britain’s consulates across the U.S. also took part in sister Pride celebrations in Boston, Los Angeles and elsewhere.
“Last month, I marched in my first Pride parade, representing the U.K. as a leading voice on LGBT and human rights,” said Darroch, who came to Washington earlier this year. “Today, the U.K. has the most gay and lesbian members of parliament in the world, has been voted most gay-friendly in Europe and has LGBT service members and diplomats serving openly in our armed forces and embassies. We still have a long way to go, but in the fight for equality, we do not march alone.”
For British officials, the parade was no doubt a welcome respite from the Brexit furor that has consumed their country in recent months, culminating in the June 23 vote to leave the European Union.
Unlike the Brexit split, D.C.’s Pride Parade is all about solidarity, attracting tens of thousands of rainbow-clad supporters each year. The 1.5-mile parade route, which winds through Dupont Circle and Logan Circle, features an array of floats; it attracts politicians, celebrities, drag queens and even decked-out dogs.
That solidarity took on added resonance in the wake of the Orlando attack targeting Pulse, a popular gay nightclub. After a three-hour hostage standoff, the carnage ended when police shot and killed 29-year-old Omar Mateen, an American citizen who was born in New York to Afghan immigrants.
Amarjeet Sohi, Canada’s minister of infrastructure and communities, leads Canadian Embassy staffers and others in this year’s Capital Pride Parade. Photo: Connect 2 Canada
Authorities haven’t established any conclusive links between Mateen and the Islamic State — to whom he pledged allegiance — nor have they responded to rumors that the twice-married gunman was secretly gay. For now, the shooting rampage has been classified as both an act of domestic terrorism and a hate crime.
In addition to the search for answers as to the killer’s motives, the Florida massacre reignited a nationwide debate over guns, with Democrats in the House staging a historic sit-in to push for legislation to close background-check loopholes and prevent people on terrorist watch lists from buying guns.
The pleas for tighter gun restrictions — predictably — went nowhere. House Republicans have refused to consider any laws that might possibly infringe on the Second Amendment right to bear arms, dismissing the Democratic sit-in as a political stunt.
Washington’s inability to address gun violence despite a steady stream of mass shootings has confounded many foreigners, particularly Europeans, who often look at the staggering death toll gun violence has wrought on the world’s richest country with bewilderment.
Since 1970, more Americans have died from guns, including homicides, suicides and accidental shootings, than from all U.S. wars since the American Revolution. On average, guns kill about 30,000 people in this country each year — a rate unheard of in the developed world. In fact, the United States records nearly 10 times more gun murders than all other high-income countries combined.
From left, European Union Ambassador David O’Sullivan, Lady Vanessa Darroch and British Ambassador Sir Kim Darroch participate in the Capital Pride Parade.
Not surprisingly, the country is awash in guns, with 88.8 pistols, handguns, rifles and similar weapons in circulation per 100 inhabitants — hundreds of millions more firearms than the residents of the next closest country, India, according to a Time magazine audit. In contrast, Japan has 0.6 guns for every 100 people and England has 6.2 for every 100. And despite its hunting culture, Australia curbed its gun laws after a spate of mass shootings in the 1990s, and today has about 15 guns per 100 inhabitants.
Diplomats have generally refrained from commenting on America’s divisive gun debate, but many voiced strong support for gay rights in the aftermath of the Orlando shooting.
“The horrific attack in Orlando was particularly shocking coming as it did after the euphoria of the Pride march,” said Erlingur Erlingsson, deputy chief of mission of the Icelandic Embassy, who represented Iceland at the Capital Pride Parade. “It only steels us to continue to work against bigotry, violence and hate in securing equal rights for all — rights that are fundamental to what the Nordic countries stand for.”
The Nordic countries, in fact, are pioneers in gay rights. Jóhanna Siguroardóttir, Iceland’s prime minister from 2009 to 2013, was the world’s first openly gay head of state. In 1996, the Icelandic Parliament granted same-sex couples who live together the same legal rights as heterosexual married couples, making Iceland the fourth country in the world to pass such a law, following Norway, Denmark and Sweden.
The British Embassy joined the Capital Pride Parade for the fourth year with a reception and double-decker bus float featuring the hashtag #LoveIsGREAT. Photo: UK in USA
Back in 1989, Denmark became the first country to allow same-sex couples to register as domestic partners. More recently, in 2014, Denmark became the first European country and the third country globally to give its citizens the freedom to choose their legal gender. It is also set to become the first country to no longer define being transgender as a mental illness, which the World Health Organization does.
The Nordic nations have broken ground outside the legal arena as well. Two of the most beloved and well-known Finnish artists worldwide, comic strip author Tove Jansson and Touko Laaksonen, also known as Tom of Finland, introduced gay and lesbian characters into mainstream popular culture more than half a century ago.
Finnish Ambassador Kirsti Kauppi described participating in the Pride Parade as an “exhilarating experience,” the significance of which took on “a new dimension with the awful and tragic shootings in Orlando soon after.”
“In the wake of the Orlando massacre, Sweden stands in solidarity with the U.S., with the families of the victims and with the LGBT community around the globe,” Swedish Ambassador Björn Lyrvall told us. “At the same time as we are deeply saddened by this event, we recognize that it has brought us together and makes us even more empowered in our mission to replace people’s fear with human dignity.
Among the ambassadors supporting gay rights at this year’s Capital Pride Parade were, from left, Dutch Ambassador Henne Schuwer, British Ambassador Kim Darroch and Swedish Ambassador Björn Lyrvall. Photo: UK in USA
Sweden is a proud and longstanding advocate for equal human rights for LGBTI persons,” Lyrvall added. “Sweden has a deep relationship with the United States on LGBT rights, and I am proud of our efforts within the Global Equality Fund and our partnership with USAID. There are still many real challenges for the LGBT community globally, but let us make sure we also recognize the progress we have made.”
Sweden, for example, legalized homosexual relations in 1944. It granted same-sex couples adoption rights in 2003 and added a clause prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation to its constitution in 2011.
“Despite steps taken by several countries to decriminalize same-sex relations, discrimination is still widespread around the world. The human rights of LGBT persons are not respected,” Lyrvall cautioned.
In countries ranging from Iran to Uganda, gay people face not only discrimination, but in extreme cases death. Even in the United States, progress remains uneven. In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that the constitution guarantees Americans the right to same-sex marriage. Earlier this month, the Pentagon lifted a longstanding ban on transgender service. At the same time, the Pulse massacre was a powerful reminder of the threats that the gay community continues to face.
From left, Icelandic Deputy Chief of Mission Erlingur Erlingsson, Finnish Ambassador Kirsti Kauppi, Norwegian Ambassador Kåre R. Aas, Danish Ambassador Lars Gert Lose and Swedish Ambassador Björn Lyrvall march in the Capital Pride Parade, which regularly attracts tens of thousands of participants and spectators.
“The unimaginable horrors that took place inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in the early hours of June 12 have sent a shockwave through the world,” wrote Norway’s Kåre R. Aas in a Huffington Post article on June 14.
“Yet while mourning and condemning this homophobic hate crime, I see what happened as a reminder that the vision of equal rights for everyone — regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation — is still exactly that: a mere vision. Millions of people are suffering every day from oppression, whether psychological, cultural or in the form of physical violence and persecution.”
Sweden’s Lyrvall said collective global action and unity are needed to combat discrimination and hate crimes against the gay community.
Aas added that awareness often begins close to home.
“The other day, a colleague asked me why I have this personal investment in LGBTI issues,” the Norwegian ambassador wrote in his blog. “The answer is that my commitment comes from understanding, and that my understanding comes from interaction. I have gay friends and gay colleagues. I have seen how the frames of their lives have changed over the past few decades, as society has moved from abhorrence to acceptance. For me, the world is a better place when prejudice is defeated and dignity prevails. Doing my part seems only natural.”
Anna Gawel is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.