After having promised to help following the Pulse massacre, U.S. Sen Marco Rubio has turned his back on Orlando’s pain and added to it by appearing at a controversial conference laced with anti-gay speakers, protesters charged outside that conference Thursday.
“Shame on you Marco!” was a message repeated by speaker after speaker, including by Barbara Poma, owner of the popular Orlando gay nightclub Pulse, where 49 people were brutally murdered and 53 others shot on June 12 in the most shocking attack in American history on gays.
The protest was organized by Equality Florida, the state’s largest and most politically active gay rights organization, across the street from the Orange County Convention Center, which is helping host the “Renew Florida Project” conference. The protest was attended by more than 100 people, including non-gays, Hispanic leaders and a handful of Orlando-area clergy who have joined the emerging, broad community coalition supporting gay rights.
Rubio, Florida’s Republican senator who is running for re-election, is to speak there Friday.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is expected to speak there Thursday afternoon.
Also speaking there are several Christian-conservative figures known for their harsh rhetoric attacking gays, including Mat Staver, Ken Graves and David Barton. The protesters proclaimed that by joining them, Rubio legitimizes their most hurtful anti-gay statements in a city whose gay community has suffered more pain than anywhere in America.
Rubio has said he sees the conference as a religious conference, not an anti-gay conference. He said in a statement issued earlier this week he was coming to speak about God and religion as he has often done throughout his career, in many places.
But not here, the protesters demanded. And not now: Friday is the two-month anniversary of the Pulse massacre.
Protesters also expressed ire against Trump, but it was not the same kind of anger. Trump never came to Orlando to offer support following Pulse.
And many of the protesters, including Terry DeCarlo, executive director of The Center, Orlando’s LGBT community center, said they recalled what they now consider Rubio’s empty promises. DeCarlo said Rubio took his hand in the days after Pulse and promised to help. DeCarlo said the senator has said and done nothing to help since, and instead is joining speakers who’ve already brought the community pain.
“People are very, very upset. This is a man who, two days after the Pulse massacre, came to shake my hand, and said, ‘We stand with you.’ And now he’s sitting in a convention center talking against us,” DeCarlo said. “He did not mean a word of it.”
While the protest was largely dominated by Democrats — with several Democratic candidates in attendance, including gay candidates Bob Poe, Beth Tuura and Carlos Guillermo Smith — they insisted their disappointment and anger toward Rubio has nothing to do with party.
Smith, who is a lobbyist for Equality Florida, noted the tremendous embrace the LGBT community received from Republican Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, and how she and 21 other Republican elected officials in Central Florida signed a pledge last week to support gay rights causes. Smith said he expects the LGBT community will respond and support them right back.
“The Orlando’s community’s response to the darkest day in our city’s history is one we are very proud of,” Smiths said.
They had hoped for something similar from Rubio, he said.
The most poignant comments came from an emotional Celia Ruiz, whose brother Juan Ramon Guerrera was killed at Pulse, along with his boyfriend.
“How dare you?” she said, aimed at Rubio. “Shame on you for doing this in our city, the city that you want to be in front of! Have you ever lost someone to hate crime? Why don’t you put yourself in our shoes and stop promoting hate. And start promoting love and peace. Shame on you Marco Rubio!”