In the days after the Orlando massacre, I was among the many feeding an unquenchable appetite for information. I read everything I could find online, flipped through every channel on DirecTV while simultaneously listening to NPR, BBC and Chicago’s WBEZ. When the victims began speaking from their hospital beds, I cried myself dry listening to the details of their survival. In one of the videos, Angel Colon described how, after being shot 3 times in the leg while holed up in a toilet stall with several others he could, “hear the shotguns come closer, and he shoots the girl next to me. Then he goes to shoot me in the head, but it misses and hits my hand.” At this, I closed my eyes and slept.
When I woke, the death toll seemed to settle at 49 or 50. There were some 27 people still hospitalized, and 7 men and women fighting for their lives in intensive care.
The news coverage continued with the usual incendiary partisan babble about ISIS and radical Islam, and banning Muslims from entering the United States.
I sat up, then sunk back down when I realized that the death toll would grow in immeasurable ways far beyond the geography of Orlando, Florida. Why?
Because too many people of color struggling with their queerness will proactively erase or kill themselves.
Indeed, according to some studies, 43% of black gay youth have either contemplated or attempted suicide due to issues related to their sexuality. The Orlando mass-murderer clearly struggled with his own self-hatred and internalized homophobia, fueled by a problematic, if not hateful, interpretation of his religion. This may be an extreme case, but it is not unlike the messages too many young black and brown lesbian, gay, and transgender people experience from their own religions and faith traditions.
Thousands of young people in this country and around the world will see in this event no way forward for themselves. Many white queer folks will find refuge in Castro, West Hollywood and Chicago’s Boy’s Town. They’ll look to art theaters, Netflix and Bravo to find representations of themselves in the media; they’ll turn to gay men’s choruses, “open and affirming” churches, liberal families and sliding-scale therapeutic services at places like Chicago’s Center on Halsted for support and companionship. But these sheltering spaces aren’t available to everyone, which is why the nightclub In Orlando – on Latin Night –proves to be so important.
It is not lost on queer communities of color that the candlelight vigils in LGBT town centers like Boy’s Town are being held in the same locations where black & brown queer folk are largely unwelcome except as the objects of fetishes. The white queer community has already begun the pivot to using its considerable economic and political power to fight for gun control. This whitewashing and erasure will cause further psychic damage to black & brown queer POC.
Every day this enormous tragedy becomes more and more layered. But one thing is strikingly clear: it is about the hated, targeted lives of queer people of color;
not just targeted in the literal sense, but targeted the way all oppressed people are isolated, neglected and abused by the dominant culture.This is true even as the media and the public at large rush to position Orlando somewhere deep inside the narrative of the global war on Radical Islamic Terror (or the world’s 1 billion Muslim people, as some would have us believe).
When I can think beyond the specter of those young human bodies being ripped apart by the shooter’s bullets, I find myself feeling extreme pride in the victims’ strength and heroism. Not just because of the way they helped each other survive, but pride that they had the strength to show up at the club on a Saturday night during Pride, in defiance of those who ridicule, harass, kill and erase them as they choose to celebrate and love themselves in their black, brown and queer bodies. I haven’t been to a club in a while, but I have fond memories of closing down clubs in San Francisco, LA, Chicago, Paris, London and Amsterdam as we learned resilience and alternative family making out of necessity and desire.
There are people all over the country mourning the deaths of those young people in spite of the fact that so many of them were queer. Someone tweeted, “parents are learning that their children are dead and gay in the same phone call.” Those young people at Pulse were celebrating in the only place they could celebrate their lives with freedom and abandon next to friends, partners, lovers and others who accepted them unconditionally in all of their fabulousness.
“Mommy, I love you.” That was the last tweet Eddie Justice, a 30-year-old accountant, sent on Sunday morning. “In club they shooting. Trapped in bathroom. Call police. I’m gonna die,” he said. His mother replied that she had called 911. “Calling them now. U still there? Answer your phone. Call me. Call me.” When my mother, Mary Jane, was alive, I called her mommy too.
Several friends offered me their condolences in the hours after the Orlando shootings. My social media feeds were also replete with messages of support for LGBTQ folks, mostly from other LGBTQ folks and those in my church and social justice family. Interestingly, I noticed over the next couple of days that I heard nothing from my immediate family and straight friends. A friend asked if that hurt or angered me. It doesn’t.
After all, I’m resilient.
From the moment I came out over 20 years ago, I understood that my acceptance by my black, liberally-Christian middle-class family was conditioned upon the compartmentalizing of my life. And I want to be clear. I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve never had anything but love and support from my family and close friends. I am extremely grateful and know that I’m loved. I know that I’m alive today because of my family. But it’s also true that I don’t think I’ve ever been asked about my personal life – whom I might be dating, what I might be doing, etc. To be fair, they would assign that to the fact that I am known as intensely private. They would be correct, and will be saddened to learn that my privacy and distance is predicated by my learned-understanding, or interpretation, that I must keep a very important part of myself quiet and invisible.
Young LGBT people who are fortunate enough to have families who don’t kick them out into the streets over their sexuality often find themselves caught in an uncomfortable place somewhere between accepted and tolerated by their families and friends. The families often find this place comfortable for them, but the young queer POC often find it decidedly intolerable – an escape to the coast being the only solution. California and New York exist because of this dynamic.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was not just a military program. Tolerance does not allow room for authentic relationships. The strongest, most resilient, most fabulous soul needs support in this world. If you feel anything about Orlando, feel the need to contact someone in your life (and trust me, there are many gay, lesbian, transgender, queer and questioning people in your life). Together, figure out a way into an authentic relationship before the opportunity is lost. It’s scary, I know. But please find a way. They need you, and you need them.