The first gay club I ever went to was The Coliseum in Fort Lauderdale,roughly three hours south of Orlando’s Pulse. My boyfriend at the time and I were both under 21, and he basically dragged my fresh-out-of-the-closet ass to “18 and up night” at the vaguely Roman-themed nightclub. When you’re young and Queer, you spend a lot of time doing two things: feeling out of place nearly everywhere, and constructing emotional armor in an attempt to stave off that feeling. What young Queers are never prepared for is the first time they get to take off that armor. It’s terrifying and wonderful to step into a place where you can be yourself, something many others will never fully understand. For all of us outsiders—especially LGBTQ+ and People of Color—safe spaces are what keep us going in a hostile world.
On June 12, 2016, 49 people were murdered and 53 injured in what was supposed to be a safe space. As a gay club hosting “Latin Night” in Central Florida, Pulse was likely the only intersectionally safe space available to its patrons that night, the majority of whom were Latinx and Queer. The phrase “safe space” is important, because a general misconception about Queer culture is that it is rebellious, that it is arbitrarily contrary to “respectable” social norms; that Queer people are somehow foisting their lifestyles on an innocent public just to see them squirm. In reality, Queer spaces have only ever been a means of survival. For centuries, society has pushed Queer people—on pain of death—into secret clubs, and then violently invaded those clubs. Though the Pulse massacre was utterly heartbreaking, it was not new. One man pulled the trigger that night, but we all pushed Queers of Color into that safe space, and it’s our hate that put guns into the shooter’s hands.
We call the murders “senseless” and we engage in a lot of wide-eyed, feigned confusion: How could this happen? We immediately attempt to distance ourselves from homophobia and racism by either bragging about our tolerance or downplaying the role of queerness and color in the shooter’s choice of victims. The social media posttragedy parade rushes along, everyone searching for someone or something to be the villain, a convenient single enemy to unite against. “See? He talked about ISIS on the phone. He’s one of them. Not one of us.” We shake our heads in mock consternation, looking for a way to isolate the shooter’s hate, rather than admit that he merely took our own homophobia to its logical conclusion. The difference between someone sitting in passive disapproval of LGBTQ+ “lifestyles” and someone deciding that Queers don’t deserve to live is really just a matter of degree. But we insist on ranking culpability in the oppression of Queer lives. Over-the-top bigots like the Westboro Baptist Church, Donald Trump, and others allow straight liberal America to feel like angels by comparison for being passive bystanders, for being tolerant. Neutrality just north of apathy is regarded as a heroic act of moral compromise: “I may disagree with their lifestyle, but they certainly don’t deserve to die.”
And so after the tragedy, we become obsessed with unity. It’s us against them. The victims aren’t Queer; they’re Americans, like us. The shooting isn’t a reasonable result of all our more subtle forms of systemic homophobia; it’s terrorism, by them. And in an act of forced unity—renamed solidarity—we brush aside the identities that make us uncomfortable. You may think you’re gallantly taking up the Queer burden by rebranding the shooter’s clear homophobic motivation as “terrorism against Americans,” but what you’re actually doing is robbing the LGBTQ+ community—and especially Queers of Color—of the little comfort that comes after such a tragedy: the hope that this will be the act that wakes everyone up to the reality of the Queer experience. Straight white America calling the Orlando victims “Americans” and refusing to acknowledge their Queerness or their race is not unity; it’s erasure. The liberal chest thumping over who cares the least about gender/color/sexuality is not moving the conversations about identity forward; it is silencing them and reframing oppressed identities as objects of straight white sophistication.
Of course, it’s not that people who hashtag-pray in solidarity don’t have good intentions. It’s that trying to share in grief over this particular instance of horrific violence perpetrated against the Queer community—while ignoring the constant barrage of bigotry that very clearly led to it—is part of the machine that drives oppression. There was nothing “senseless” about the shooter’s actions. Our society uses legislation and systemic violence to demonize Queerfolk and People of Color, then leaves the gun cabinet unlocked and looks the other way.
We did this. There is no “they.” And while we talk about guns and mental health and terrorism, we also need to talk about all the ways we subtly reinforce the oppression of Queerfolk and People of Color, if we truly want change.
One thing that is changing, post-Orlando, is that a lot of LGBTQ+ are done apologizing for their existence. I’m done having polite conversations with you while you “respectfully disagree” with my “lifestyle.” My identity is not submitted for your approval. I’m done calling you a hero because you’re “tolerant.” You can no longer hate the sin and claim to love the sinner.