Vigil at The Rock for Orlando Victims

Sunday, June 12, 2016, 9:20 pm
Alice Dreger

About sixty people gathered at 8 p.m. tonight at “the rock” near the MSU Auditorium to pay tribute to those murdered at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, early this morning in the deadliest mass shooting in American history.

Dee Hurlbert, the Director of MSU’s Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, and Transgender Resource Center, told the people gathered that she appreciated “the gift of coming together with total strangers” at a time like this.

Hurlbert said that, although she had many times helped others paint the rock, today was the first time she had joined in painting it. She said that today’s mass murder “was not an act of terrorism alone,” but was also “an act of homophobic violence.”

Alex Lange, Assistant Director of the Resource Center, joined Hurlbert in painting the rock. Lange told the crowd, “the current ‘love’ rhetoric has failed us” and urged them to consider that “love requires more,” including activism and honest communication.

MSU’s Vice President for Student Affairs, Denise Maybank, said that she found herself at a loss for words today. “I’m not going to pretend I can make it make sense,” she said, while encouraging those present to support one another and to seek support from MSU staff as needed.

Others present spoke to the recent LGBTQ youth prom held at Peoples Church as an example of positive coming together, talked of the need to live “out” and proud, and expressed anger at a cultural climate that causes LGBTQ individuals to live in fear every day.

Earlier today, Michael Lee, President of MSU's GLBT Alumni Association, recalled to ELi in an email a vigil held at the same rock in 1998 on the occasion of the death of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student tortured and left to die in Wyoming:

“It was Fall 1998, early October. I was an English major at MSU at the time, living in Williams Hall. The year before, I’d co-founded Q-News, which was MSU’s first queer student magazine, and the campus felt like it was beginning to burst with queer student organizing and leadership. Barely a week before Matt’s death, there had been a ‘hate speech’ incident at the Rock, when National Coming Out Day messages were vandalized with graffiti saying ‘kill fags’ and other such messages….So when news came that Matthew had been attacked—and then that he had died—it was like a second kick to the gut.”

According to Lee, MSU “students, faculty, staff, and community gathered at the Rock at sunset. I remember sitting on the ground, holding hands with two friends as they sobbed. I was still in shock and sat there expressionless.” Lee remembers, “it really felt like it could happen in East Lansing, too.”

Lee says that MSU’s then-president Peter McPherson “had only just—just—said something supportive about our community after years of actively resisting efforts to make a more LGBT-affirming climate at MSU.” According to Lee, McPherson’s decision to speak rather than to listen at the vigil felt jarring. He says, “I wish he had simply been a respectful mourner that day instead of speaking.”

Lee also recalled that that 1998 vigil “ended with two lesbian women from the MSU community—Ann Tracey and Ann Flescher—singing a lullaby for Matt. Neither Ann is alive today, both lost to cancer, too soon. Ann T. was personally responsible for the incredible LGBT Special Collections at the MSU Library. Ann F. was a clinical social worker who worked at the MSU Counseling Center and was a beacon of light, hope, and affirmation for countless students who needed help.”

After graduating from MSU, Lee earned his Masters of Social Work and Ph.D. and he is now a lecturer in the School of Social Work at the University of Minnesota and an Assistant Professor at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. He told ELi today, “I hate that our communities are revisiting that awful feeling yet again, but it’s comforting that East Lansing is still East Lansing, and the Rock is still where people gather to comfort each other.”