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Philippe Corbé is the French correspondent in the United States of radio network RTL. On Sunday, June 12, 2016, he was one of the first journalists to travel to Orlando, the scene of the most deadly attack on American soil since 9/11. Early that morning, a man entered the city’s Pulse nightclub, murdering 49 people and injuring dozens of others who were dancing, having fun and partying. The club was targeted because it was frequented by the LGBT community.
Over the first few hours and the first days, Corbé did his job, telling the facts and trying to keep a form of journalistic and professional distance. It was only a few days later that the emotion and the uneasiness overwhelmed him. He posted this about his own experiences in the “sanctuaries” he considers gay bars to be: “Bubbles of fresh air for a few hours of relief. Kindness against the aggressions of a world that barely accepts them.”
Corbé went further, writing a very moving book, J’irais danser à Orlando. To detail the facts of the Orlando shooting, to give each victim an identity, to point out those who, for political or religious reasons, exploited Orlando and sometimes spilled their hatred on the victims and the LGBTQ community.
There are pages in this story that are almost unbearable, such as reading that one father refused to bury his son because he learned with the assassination that he was homosexual, or reading about the hate preachers who think gays got what they deserved.
There is anger and sometimes even rage in these pages. But the other great strength of Corbé’s book is that it links the drama of Orlando to the long history of LGBT rights in the United States, with successes and also failures and dramas. It’s a story that concerns us all because, according to the author, in the interview he gave us, the advancement of rights is a major achievement of the past 50 years.
Your book is overwhelming and emotional. Did you think about that fact when you wrote it?
That’s not something I thought of when writing. I did not try to have this emotion, but it was also mine. When I reported the first hours after the bombing, I clenched my teeth, and it was on the plane back that I had a kind of nausea. I was really physically sick, and for several nights I could not sleep. It was a week after the bombing that I started to write a first post that was short that I posted on Medium. There was a physical need to explore, to put it into words. I was not trying to recreate emotion, but I wanted to describe mine.
Particularly disturbing in the tragedy were these terrible homophobic speeches. It’s almost unimaginable.
I really wanted to write about it. I do not mean that politicians are complicit in what happened and the murderous madness of a man, but this attack does not happen by chance. It is necessary to relocate what happened that night — in this place between two highways of an average city of Florida — in a wider context. It’s a country where, in less than one year, a decision by the Supreme Court allowing same-sex couples to marry has been passed. The Orlando massacre shows that this country always has a problem with the freedoms of men and women to love whomever they want.
And it’s often the religious who hold the most homophobic words.
I am a believer, and I am practicing; this is something important in my life. In my mind, it is not contradictory with being gay, but on the contrary they are two sides of the same coin. My faith has helped me to live fully and naturally with the fact that I am gay. I never saw it as a contradiction. It never tormented me, even if I ask myself a lot of questions about the French Catholic Church. In the book I show how a priest, a few hours after the attack, welcomes what happened or regrets even that there were not more deaths. But I also point out that some of the victims were themselves Christians. They lived without difficulty in being queer.
Did the idea of contextualizing and describing the long history of LGBT rights in the United States come quickly?
You use the right word — the word history. There is of course this attack, the story of these queer men and women. I connect it to our stories. I am convinced, and it goes beyond the Orlando bombing, that in two or three centuries the historians who will look at our time will say that one of the striking elements is the advance of rights for gays and lesbians. This is a major change in civilization over the last 50 years. That’s also why I wanted to recall those places — bars and clubs from San Francisco to Los Angeles to New York, like Stonewall. Barack Obama made Stonewall a national monument. He was right, because it is a landmark in the history of America.
You entrust this book with very personal things. I also perceive some anger.
I was able to burst the ball that was in my belly. But you said just now that you find the book very moving. I may have missed what I was trying to do. I wanted it to be a book that makes you want to live, love and dance. I first wanted to make a book of hope. A few months later I went to dance in Orlando one night.
Why did you want to put the names of the victims on the book cover?
I had a hesitation with the names, because I did not want it to be a mausoleum. But what is strong is that there are ages and the fact that two-thirds of the victims were Latinos. The shooter came in during a Latino party. He came to target Latinos at the crossroads of two discriminations, with regard to their sexual orientation and with respect to their ethnicity. Many of them came from Puerto Rico, and they all had pretty much the same story. In Puerto Rico they are American citizens, but they chose to live on the American continent because they were discriminated against in Puerto Rico and could not be what they were and live freely. I think also of the trans black women, who are targeted the most in this country.
Do you plan to return to Orlando a year after the attack?
This weekend, on June 11, there is the Equality March in Washington, and I’ll be reporting from there. It is more a demonstration for certain values and to remind the new administration that America is valiant, standing up and will not accept the questioning of its rights.
Do you think Donald Trump can fundamentally challenge LGBT rights?
I’m suspicious, and I’m watching what Donald Trump is going to do. His own conscience and some of his entourage — his daughter and his son-in-law — I don’t think will let him not go as far as his Vice President Pence. I think he will challenge the rights of homosexuals more sparingly than women’s rights or the rights of minorities, for example.
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