I’ve spent the last week struggling with the events of Orlando. Not since I was a teenager and fully realized the import of Matthew Shepard’s death have I felt this way: angry, terrified, and deeply, ineffably sad. How is it possible, I find myself wondering, that in 2016 I should still feel like my life as a queer person is somehow worth less than my straight friends? How is possible, I ask myself, that a group of young queer folks could be gunned down in cold blood in a gay bar? How?
However, in the days since, I’ve become increasingly convinced that if the massacre has done anything, it has ruthlessly torn away the myth that we are living in the golden age of assimilation, when we have all been thoroughly incorporated into the fabric of American society. We queer folks have made some tremendous advances in the last year, and we shouldn’t forget that. However, if we had believed that the legalization of same-sex marriage was the apex of our political struggles, the events of a week have ago have put the lie to that myth. We may have gained some legal power, but we are still systematically marginalized.
One can see this in the way that the mainstream media has already co-opted what is most certainly a queer tragedy and spun it neatly into already-existing discourses surrounding terrorism and gun control. The issue for is not that these aren’t important and pressing issues; it’s that the importance of this event for LGBT+ folk gets subsumed into a set of issues that mainstream American political culture is infinitely more invested in and feels comfortable discussing. Furthermore, it just highlights, again, that we as a culture seem utterly incapable of thinking about the ways in which different issues intersect. Oh, the pundits and thinkers pays lip service to this sort of intersectional thinking, but then they immediately retreat into their comfort zones. If you want to hear substantive and meaningful discussion about what this event has meant for queer people, and especially queer people of color, then you should check out a program like Code Switch (a great podcast in its own right, I might add), which recently released an episode focusing on the intersection of race and queerness in the aftermath of Orlando.
This event has also reinforced for me the necessity of collective spaces of queer mourning. As an academic and someone who spends a great deal of their time thinking through the complexities of these sorts of issues, I understand the impulse to seek out explanations, to find some way of making sense of what has transpired. At the same time, I think we queer and feminist scholars do ourselves a grave disservice if we retreat too quickly into the academic and the cerebral. Instead, I strongl believe would do better to truly engage with our feelings and affects. These are our queer brothers and sisters that were slain in that night, and acting as if the incident is a mind puzzle to be unlocked does little either for us as mourners or for those who lost their lives.
Just as importantly, this has also reinforced my long-standing philosophy that being queer (a designation I utilize to include all variants encompassed by the LGBT+ communities) is, in itself, a political act. The legalization of same-sex marriage a year ago suggested that, after years of agitating, the assimilationist wing of the movement had at last emerged triumphant. HRC and others like them might have been excused for believing that they had succeeded in their (laudable if somewhat limited) mission of integrating queer folk into the fabric of mainstream society and politics. Now, however, we know that these efforts were in their origin always limited. If we want to make this world a safer place for queer folk, we must consistently, every single day, work against the systems of normality and exclusion that have made this event possible.
If you think that being gay is just being part of your identity like eye or hair color, I can only say, without equivocation, that you are wrong. Look around you, and you will see that your life, your love, and your family matters less than our straight fellows. One need only look at the recent wave of “religious freedom” and “bathroom” bills spreading like a poison through state legislatures to understand that the LGBT+ community is under direct and vitriolic attack from the American Right. If we do not stand up for ourselves, if we do not denounce the infuriating hypocrisy of those who send their “thoughts and prayers” with one hand while propagating hate-filled legislation with the other, then we will be swept into the dustbin of oblivion.
The battle lines are drawn, my friends, and the time has come to decide which side we are going to take. On one side are those who will stop at nothing to ensure that their vision of “morality” and “ethics” is forced onto the rest of us. Religious zealotry has taken many forms in 20th and 21st Century America, and we must do everything in our collective power to ensure that it is does not have any more of a chance to spread its noxious poison into our political and cultural institutions. The American Left has been negligent in the last 30 years as these groups have exerted an influence far exceeding their actual relevance, and that must come to an end.
On the other, however, are those who remain invested in making this a safer and more just world. This isn’t just a matter of who you love–it is far more complicated and urgent than that. There is a war against our very identities currently underway. To ignore this fact would be to perpetrate a grave injustice against those 49 innocents who lost their lives in an Orlando gay club (and don’t get me started on the way in which some members of the media insist on referring to as a generic nightclub). If we want to survive, we have to fight.
And we have to–WE WILL–win.