My family listened to news of a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in the U.S. unfold on an AM radio station as we drove through the arid Karoo region of South Africa. Far from home, far from the internet, and far from the ensuing flood of public opinion, we did the only thing we could, we mourned with those who mourn. By the time we returned to the noise of the world, a few days later, I still didn't know what to say. Nothing felt adequate, nothing felt appropriate. In the face of such evil, nothing felt right coming from the straight, white, middle-class American enjoying a dream vacation with her family. The truth is, I didn't have anything important to say, except for "I'm sorry." I am so very sorry.
At a time such as this, it seems far more valuable that we hear from my friend Jenna. Jenna has something important to say. I pray we will listen.
I was recently asked if the shooting at the Orlando gay club, Pulse, has made me feel less safe as a queer person. After giving it some thought, I have to say that no, this has not shaken my sense of safety. It can’t shake my sense of safety because as a queer person, I never had one. I cannot internalize this event as an anomaly, or a threat to some non-existent security. I keep coming back to this event as the logical outcome of a gun-enthused, patriarchal, homophobic, white supremacist society.
In my own political journey, it was the Aurora shooting that most profoundly changed my understanding about guns and how unsafe we are with them. I was raised to see events like this as tragedies that, unfortunately, cannot be avoided, and perhaps even as the price we pay for “freedom.” After watching the events unfold after that shooting in the theater in Colorado, I realized that there was actually a lot we could do to curb gun violence – we were just refusing to do it. And then Sandy Hook. And then Charleston. And the countless others. And now this. Why should I expect anything different when we have done absolutely nothing to address the problem? Will we be magically healed? Was I supposed to exist under the delusion that this would never happen to my people? Every time they happen, I internalize mass shootings in a way that I don’t internalize other tragedies. For whatever reason, they have deeply impacted me. And now I think about them almost every single day – almost every time I’m in a crowded room. I have come to expect nothing different although they grieve me to my very core. As long as we continue to exist in this violent, gun-saturated culture, this is exactly what we should expect. I’m genuinely not sure why anyone is acting surprised.
And as for sensing a heightened threat to my queer body, I do not. This is only the logical outcome for our homophobic society. I was coming of age, coming out, and coming in to my queer identity during the wave of young queers taking their own lives in the early 2010’s. I remember hearing about Tyler Clementi at 4:30 am as I was opening my downtown San Francisco coffee shop, counting in my register through tear-blurred eyes. When you live in a culture that says you are less-than, wrong, sinful, disgusting, invisible, you don’t have to wait for someone to do physical violence to you. You become brain-washed, your body colonized, and you will do to yourself the violence that your country, your culture, your religion, and even your own mom and dad teach you that you deserve.
I remember feeling at that time like I had to do something. I know that I escaped my own colonized hand only by the luck that I had one or two adults who saw me, loved me, and taught me to love myself. Besides that, there is no good reason that I have survived. I think a lot of us felt similarly after those events. So we fought and we continued to fight. We talked and continued to talk. We tell our stories and we yell from the rooftops to young people that it gets better, that we love them, and that we are waiting for them with open arms.
This resistance has won some of us some things, yes. But when the colonized people say that we will no longer act out the violence against ourselves that the colonizer desires, the violence doesn’t stop, but comes from the colonizer more directly. And so we see the continued American tradition of gay men getting the shit beat out of them, the continued American tradition of trans* women of color being murdered in the streets, the continued American tradition of queers being assaulted in their own bars. And once trans* people, a people who so strongly threaten the gender dichotomy on which the patriarchy depends for its very existence, begin to gain by becoming more visible, why should it surprise me that a club full of queers of color get slaughtered? Does it break my heart to the point of little eating, little sleeping, violent nightmares, days of crying and wanting to just hold my queer chosen-family? Yes. Does it enrage me to the point that I cannot concentrate and feel like I want to scream for as long as my lungs allow? Yes. Does it make me want to follow my wife around like a puppy dog just so I can be near her because I feel so shaken and she is the safest person? Yes. Does it surprise me? No. Does it threaten my sense of security? To what fucking security are your referring?
Every time I step out of my house, I feel the weight of my haircut beaming violent attention to myself. Every time I hold my wife’s hand in public, I fear the insults, and god knows what else, that might be hurled at us. Every time I walk into a public bathroom I wonder if this will be the time that I get profiled and assaulted. Every time I walk into the men’s section of a clothing store, I feel the generations of hate and disgust as I flip through the sizing tags. Every time I stop for gas on a road trip, I am hyper-vigilant, wondering if there will be a man there who will desire to “teach me a lesson,” Boys Don’t Cry style. These feelings never leave me.
Straight people, cis people, white people – do not be fooled into thinking that the marginalized have won. We are still living in colonized territory. The events this weekend in Orlando are just the newest reminder of that fact. At a vigil, I saw my 14 year old queer friend. Looking at his beautiful young face, I burst into tears thinking that we had failed him. He was supposed to grow up in a different world. He was supposed to feel safe and to live in a world where he could be free. Those were our goals. But he is colonized just as we are colonized, just as our queer ancestors were colonized. As long as the white-supremacist, homophobic patriarchy is in place, none of us are safe. As long as the NRA owns Congress, we will continue to see mass-shootings. The events at Pulse are a threat to me and to queers everywhere. But as long as we continue to support the status quo, they will upset my sense of safety no more than the current cultural and political atmosphere, because what happened at Pulse is only the logical conclusion to it, not a departure from it.
Jenna is a Ph.D. student in Hebrew Bible at UC Berkeley. She is interested in biblical narrative and its social function. She lives in Oakland with her wife, Malka, and their precious pooch, Leviathan.
It's no secret, Jenna is my favorite.