Old Compton Street is about 4,500 miles away from South Orange Avenue in Orlando, Florida. But as thousands of people gathered in London’s historic gay district on Monday, it was easy to forget the distance separating us from our queer brothers and sisters in America. The message of the crowd: An attack on one part of our house is an attack on us all.
I’d come down early, but the roads were rammed with people who had squeezed into the street well before the designated 7 p.m. start time. One man stood on the pavement, a British flag in one hand and a rainbow flag in the other. A poster with the words “LOVE WINS” was strung between the two. Every so often, I’d hear a chant start at one end of the street and course its way up through the crowd: “We’re here! We’re queer! We will not live in fear!”
The klaxon signaled the beginning of the silence, and the people stopped shouting. From Shaftesbury Avenue and beyond, the road went quiet. It was only supposed to last for a minute but it went on for far longer. If you have ever stood in the center of London on a balmy evening, you’ll know how odd that is. The only thing I could hear, almost word for word in the eerie stillness, was a news broadcaster reporting from a nearby stoop.
Then, without warning, balloons were released into the sky—one for each person killed in the attack. One of my girlfriends wept. A boy in a black leather jacket—a complete stranger—turned around and hugged her close to his chest.
There was a pause, and then the London Gay Men’s Chorus started into the most English of things: a hymn. (It was really “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” but that’s a hymn too, now.) As the choir launched into the chorus, a hum shook in the air and tickled the back of my throat. Without knowing it, I was singing under my breath, and so was everyone else. We sang not so much lyrics as half-formed murmurs, held back by British reserve.
The vigil dispersed. I walked down Old Compton Street and heard the tinny sound of a speaker, as a boy in a red Stonewall T-shirt began to shout to a beat. “This is for”—clap clap clap—“Orlando!”—clap clap clap. “This is for”—clap clap clap—“Orlando!” People circled him, unsure of what was happening. Then he began to dance. He death dropped. He vogued. A boy in a gray tracksuit joined in. Then another. The crowd grew.
A boy in heels and leggings, probably no more than 19, sashayed across the street, holding a rainbow flag high. We snapped our fingers to the beat. We screamed along in a call and response. “This is what we do,” he told us. “When you feel this emotion.” He didn’t need to say anything, really. We all knew what he meant. This was our house, and we weren’t going to let anybody kick us out.