Orlando: queerness, community, racism, ableism, masculinity, violence, etc.

I don’t cry over news very often, but I’m crying now.

No, wait, this is not how I can start a thing I want to put on the internet.

So, let’s do some disclaimers and explanations first. I’m writing this while I’m still in the process (and as part of the process) of figuring out how I feel and what I think about the mass shooting in the ‘Pulse’ gay bar on Latin night in Orlando where 50 people, plus the shooter, were killed and at least 53 additional people injured. So this is me thinking out loud as I piece together news reports and other people’s opinions and my own thoughts and feelings. This is not me writing an academic article or an objective news report or any kind of “final” word on any of this. I know that this is not a perfectly organized, completely thought-through, researched-for-weeks text. I still think there’s value in posting this as it is. So don’t come into my comments to tell me that I haven’t covered everything you think I should have covered. Or that my feelings and thoughts should be better organized at this moment.

I also want to acknowledge that my use of “we” to talk about LGBTQ people, including the LGBTQ people of color who were killed and injured in Orlando, is problematic since I am indeed queer myself but I’m also white. I don’t mean to appropriate the lives and experiences of people of color, but I also didn’t want to write about this as a complete outsider because I’m not. I have therefore ended up with some awkward and imperfect language that I hope expresses just that ambiguous position I inhabit. (Concrete suggestions on how to do better in this particular matter are welcome.) (Edit: Andrea Zanin has found a really good way to articulate this tension of being a white queer in all of this, so if you can only read one (more) thing on Orlando, I suggest you read her article instead of this one. Seriously.)

Content note: The links and tweets I have included in this post are somewhat randomly taken from my feed. There usually were other sources/opinions like them, so I mostly picked the ones whose wording I liked best or simply the ones I saw first. I found several of them as retweets in my Twitter timeline, and I didn’t necessarily check the rest of the accounts that originally tweeted them. So please don’t accuse me of supporting opinions I didn’t quote or explicitly recommend here. I have also not watched any of the videos that are embedded in the news reports (except the two videos I directly linked which don’t feature images from the attack) or looked at any of the picture galleries in said news reports, so I can’t give you more than a general content warning for those. Some of the news articles I have linked contain descriptions of the attack and/or quotes from survivors and/or descriptions of domestic violence the shooter directed at his ex-wife. Obviously, this post also talks about the attacks and related matters, but I’ve tried to keep descriptions to a minimum (while still avoiding euphemisms). Please proceed with caution and take care of yourselves as you read/watch (or scroll through or don’t read/watch) this post or any of the linked articles/videos.

So.

I don’t cry over news very often, but I’m crying now.

I’m crying over photos of people embracing and comforting each other and captions that call them “friends” and “family” of the people who were killed or injured in the mass shooting at the LGBTQ bar in Orlando. I’m crying because I see that this is how we keep people safe by not outing them. This how we demonstrate that we do indeed have friends and family. And yet it also makes our queerness invisible, when that queerness is clearly at the very core of this mass shooting. I read a report about a mother who got texts from her son who was later killed at Pulse. I read about all the phones that were ringing on dead LGBTQ people’s bodies while police and medical personnel were trying to secure the club. And while all these reports are horrific on their own, and I don’t want to minimize their impact on the people who experienced these things in any way, there’s still something missing from the picture for me.

Because I don’t see the kind of “friends and family” that I consider absolutely central to LGBTQ contexts in these pictures and early reports. Where your friends are your family because your family-of-origin may not accept or respect you because you’re queer, may have hurt you profoundly because of your queerness, may have kicked you out of what used to be your home because of your queerness, may not be very much of a family to you at this point in your life anymore. Where you don’t text your mother when you’re in a situation that makes you rightfully fear for your life but you text your friends. Because they are your support system in a crisis, they are who you want to talk to if that’s the last conversation you have in this life. And because your friends may also be your lovers, your partners, the people you’re kissing, the people you’re having sex with (or did kiss and have sex with in the past). And that kind of queer network is erased by all the pictures of parents and siblings and “friends” who are shown in the media. Even if that erasure may be what keeps us safe and respected at the same time. And it does keep us/them safe, so I’m not calling for anyone to be outed or endangered without their consent (or at least the consent of their next-of-kin) – I’m just saying that emotionally, I still miss seeing the faces of the people we lost instead of the face of the man who killed them.

But there was that one report about a few queer women of color who had lost several of their friends during the shooting. And the pictures that go with that report are what ultimately made me cry because they show who we have (also) lost: a queer, masculine-of-center women of color. And I need to see these faces because they’re the ones I care about. I don’t need to see the face of the killer, over and over again. I don’t need to see the faces of yet another politician trying to use this horrific event for their own (anti-Islamic, racist, ableist) agenda, which is terrifyingly similar across all parties. I don’t need my people to be invisible and without a voice yet again (and I still know that invisibility sometimes means safety, and that I personally benefit from just that invisibility and safety quite often – but I also believe that silence still too often equals death).

I’m moved by pictures of long queues of people who want to donate blood to save the lives of queers of color. I’m struck by the viscerality of this blood, the blood that non-celibate gay men themselves are prohibited from donating (at least as long as they are honest about having had sex with other men in the past year). The blood that makes a direct line to the blood that was infected with HIV during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, where the LGBTQ community lost massive numbers of their friends and family and lovers and partners, most of them gay men. While politicians indirectly killed them by doing nothing. And that blood is still the reason why gay men can’t give of their blood today to save their friends, their lovers, their partners, their family who have been injured by a man who hated gay men (and presumably other LGBTQ people as well) so much that he decided to kill as many of them as he could in one go. And I still don’t quite know how to articulate this particular history, this blood-line. It seems to call for a kind of poetry I’m unable to write myself.

[And while I’m talking about poetry and queer history, let me also draw a vague symbolic line between the city of Orlando whose name has now become a hashtag that will forever signify this mass shooting at a gay bar that had drag performers working that Latinx-focused night (at least to queer people and/or people of color) and Virginia Woolf’s gender-changing character of the same name. I’m sure there’s another complex poem somewhere around that line, too, and I would like to read it.]

I’m still trying to process the fact that this shooting happened at a gay bar, a queer night club, a place where LGBTQ people go to dance, to flirt, to kiss, to be with each other, to feel good and do so in safety. (Edit: This is particularly true for LGBTQ people of color.)

I have created places like this (much smaller and much whiter, though, and usually with less dancing) for over a decade, without any pay, and I still care deeply about queer spaces for celebration, connection, and sexuality. And I’m currently at a loss of words to express how important such spaces have been to me as a queer person, to express myself, my gender, and my sexuality, find community, find connection, find love and friendship and relief and laughter and relaxation, and to be seen and recognized in a world that often tries to deny me all of these things, or at least makes me work twice as hard to get them. Even Barack Obama understands this aspect of a gay bar (and says so publicly [starting at 2:34]). But let’s also not forget that gay bars (and other LGBTQ community spaces) are only relatively “safe” for some of us and let’s not deny that the LGBTQ community is not equally welcoming to all of us.

Oh, and let’s not act as if LGBTQ Muslims don’t exist (read this whole thread, please).

So I see all these tweets and I read all these articles and I watch a few of the interview videos (no footage of the actual shooting and its victims for me, please). And I get angry. I get angry because politicians rush to talk about “thoughts and prayers” (I want to know: What exact thoughts do you have? What exactly are you praying for? Whose face do you imagine when you think of this massacre? Where exactly is your point of connection in this?) when they are at the same time responsible for the fact that guns are so easily accessible to just about anybody in the U.S., that men who have sex with men are prohibited from donating blood, that trans people can’t even use a public bathroom in peace, and for a whole bunch of other anti-LGBTQ laws, rules, and rhetoric. (Edit: Here’s someone who has called out many politicians who offered “thoughts and prayers” in response to this biggest mass shooting in U.S. history while still accepting donations from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and/or voted for anti-LGBTQ legislature.)

I get angry because it’s apparently only a “terrorist” attack as long as the shooter is a Muslim (or can at least be associated with Islam in some vague way). I get angry because I already see that this is going to result in a new surge of anti-Islamic hate as if that hasn’t been normalized enough already. So let me say it very clearly: Not in my name. Don’t you fucking dare use the murder of 50 of my people to support your anti-Muslim agenda, whether you’re straight or LGBTQ yourself. Don’t pretend that Islam is the only religion that is used to support anti-LGBTQ views and actions, especially not in the U.S.A.. Don’t claim that religion as such is the cause of all this instead of just a vehicle people are using as justification to be disgusting assholes. I get angry because somehow this is all twisted so it becomes about an “Islamic terrorist” who attacked “Western democratic society as such” instead of an LGBTQ-hating asshole who very specifically attacked a gay nightclub where he shot, killed or injured mostly LGBTQ people of color, more precisely, LGBTQ Latinx people (whose names we are slowly learning and whose stories are slowly being told; edit: all of the 50 people have now been identified and their names released, list could possibly include wrong names for trans people; more faces, and a few background stories; here too).

I get angry because too many media try to brush aside the fact that the shooter had a history of generally being a violent asshole, and that his violence wasn’t necessarily about anything religious. Yes, he was apparently “a follower of ISIS propaganda” but he was also “fascinated by law enforcement” (as multiple pictures of him in NYPD gear affirm), and yet we hear so much more about (so far non-existing!) ties to any actual ISIS groups than we hear about his apparent desire to become a police officer. And we hear next to nothing about the way that, once again, hegemonic masculinity intersects with mass shootings and other forms of violence. Exceptions do fortunately exist, so please read this entire thread:

(Edit: There’s now also this article on the role of toxic masculinity in this case and context that rings true to me on many levels, even if I don’t agree with the author that “homophobia” is a good term to express the deep fear of femininity – because femininity is equated with weakness – that runs through much of this dominance-oriented masculinity. Because this is still not a phobia in a mental health-sense, and if gayness is hated because it is supposedly feminine, the problem is not anti-gay hate but misogyny and anti-femininity, regardless of the gender identity of the people who embody it or are thought to embody it.)

Well, I predict that there won’t be any kind of organized Islamist terrorist group behind that guy, even though ISIS apparently tried to claim his act as theirs. So stop looking for one and focus on the question why a guy with that kind of violent background was even allowed to own a gun, let alone multiple ones. And why the right to bear arms is still considered so much more important to the freedom of American citizens than their fucking right to live by so many people.

And let’s focus on the way that this is as much about gender as it is about (male) heterosexuality and general hatred of LGBTQ people and how these things are interrelated. (Edit: And they might be interrelated in an even scarier way than we originally thought. Because the shooter had apparently been to ‘Pulse’ before, several times, and there are reports that he exchanged messages with some men on a gay dating app. So that seems to twist that story into one where heteronormativity and toxic masculinity were so strong that it seemed a better solution to kill 50 mostly Brown and Black people and injure 53 others at this particular gay bar on that particular night (because their existence apparently hit too close to home to bear) and then get killed by the police than to be a gay or bisexual man oneself.)

And let’s also focus on the fact that this was an attack against LGBTQ people specifically, and that it could not have been everyone and anyone instead of us (this is where I disagree with Obama’s statement I linked above). This is not the ‘Bataclan’, even though there are similarities in the wider “symbolism” of the attacks. And saying so does not mean that LGBTQ people claim “ownership” of the “horror of this crime” (as the two straight people in this British TV show do [around 2:48] when the gay man calls them out for downplaying the fact that the attack didn’t randomly happen at a gay club; edit: here’s an article by said gay man about this experience and its context). It just means that we refuse to have our loss and grief and anger appropriated by people who will barely even say that the 50 people who were killed and injured are (probably) gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and/or trans people. were in an LGBTQ space and therefore (probably) assumed by the shooter to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender.

I think that if we draw any lines to any previous mass shootings, it should be to the ones that happened in the safe space of a historically Black church. Or the ones that were specifically directed at women.

I’m also angry because so many people are throwing around terms like “lunatic” when talking about the shooter and calling him “bipolar” when he apparently didn’t even have an official diagnosis of that illness (yes, that unfortunately includes his ex-wife, as much as I otherwise empathize with her). I’m angry because in all of this there is way too much talk about “-phobias” (homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia) that aren’t actually phobias but plain hatred, even by people I otherwise really, really agree with. Because this is, once again, equating hate with a mental illness, a disability, a medical condition, which is not at all helpful in countering the hate that is already directed at people with mental illnesses. Here’s a really good thread spelling it out more clearly (MH = mental health):

I also get angry because calling the shooter “crazy” and “insane” and all kinds of related terms only helps to Other him, make him “not one of us” so we can pretend that this attack wasn’t a particularly violent expression of the same anti-LGBTQ attitudes that many, many people share, even though they may condemn directly killing people as a result of that attitude. Because if you’re a politician you can just make anti-LGBTQ laws instead (yes, I am sarcastic here). And if you’re not a politician and still draw the line at direct, physical violence, you can at least support such laws. Or harrass people who don’t fit your ideas of a woman or a man. Or do a billion other little things – in words, in actions, and in inactions – that ultimately hurt and harm LGBTQ people. If you want to find the “group” behind this terrorist, look for everyone who thinks that guns don’t need (much) controlling, that women can be beat up and raped without consequence for the person who did it, that two men kissing each other is disgusting, that trans people are predators, that Black and Brown people can be killed without consequence for the person who did it (including by police officers), that Muslim people don’t really belong in Western societies, and so on. That is your group who egged the shooter on.

Oh, and German media in particular: “gay” does not only refer to men. A “gay bar” is a bar for gay men, lesbian, bisexuals, and (presumably) trans people. A “gay Pride parade” is an event for gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, and (to a degree) our allies and supporters. So stop translating “gay” as “schwul” (= gay male) and get your fucking facts right. Don’t add further violence by erasing queer women from this story – we have been there, some of us have been murdered, some of us have been injured, and many of us have lost their friends and family in this shooting. This matters, too.

And I don’t quite know what to do right now. A part of me wants to put up rainbow flags and go to this year’s Pride march even though I deeply distrust flags and superficial solidarity and even though I don’t usually feel very welcome in the mainstream part of what is supposed to be “my” community. And I also really don’t do well in crowds. Or with mere slogans to express my political views. And another part of me wants to stay away from all the large events because I’m pretty sure I would end up yelling at fellow LGBTQ people for their anti-Muslim hate and go home feeling even more excluded than I did before. And I also don’t quite feel safe to go out in public and be seen as a queer person, although I still carry enough white and middle-class privilege to not worry about that the most.

So I guess I’ll start by publishing this thing here and see how I feel later. And maybe it’s okay to just take some time to think and process and then make decisions about what to do instead of jumping into random action just so I feel I’m not doing nothing. And if you feel differently about that, I’m not judging you, and I’m certainly not telling you to stay home and be silent if that’s not what you want to do. Because there is probably room for more than one approach, and I’m sure there are a lot of approaches that don’t support racism (especially the anti-Muslim kind), ableism, misogyny, OR hatred of LGBTQ people.

And because it works for me, today, have a picture of a rainbow-colored mirror ball to express my vague, queer hope that things will get better if we choose these approaches (image source).

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