One of the worst mass shootings in United States history occurred last weekend at the Pulse, a queer nightclub in Orlando. The Pulse hosted a weekly Latinx party, featuring drag performers and DJs on multiple dance floors, inside and outside the venue. Forty-nine people were murdered by a single perpetrator who also wounded more than fifty other patrons. The hundred-plus shot by the gunman represented approximately a third of the people who were in the building at the time. As investigators removed the victims from the scene, names and ended lives emerged, marking the beginning to the collective grieving process of the LGBT community across the country.
The horror of the past weekend is the 173rd shooting in the United States this year and it is far from the first act of violence directed specifically at queer bars. The Stonewall Inn riots, after all, were about trans and gay bar patrons, mostly people of color, rejecting yet another unwarranted police raid at the venue in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. Other attacks since the 1969 riots have seen fire set to queer bars and explosions meant to kill as many people as possible. In many more incidents over the past forty years, patrons of queer bars have been attacked heading to or leaving a night out.
Most of these violent incidents have gone unnoticed outside the LGBT community, but they are one of the reasons that gay and lesbian couples still fear being affectionate in public, and why trans women build solid social networks to look out for each other. As the FBI crime data have tallied the crimes against LGBT people, they have revealed disproportionate violence against individuals of color.
For many, marriage equality may now be the law of the land, but victimization and discrimination persist. The year following the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage has been one of the most frightening for the LGBT community, with more than twenty legislative bodies introducing more than 200 anti-LGBT laws. Somehow the pendulum has moved from government indifference to the suffering and deaths of gay men and trans women from the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s to a hostile agenda of rolling back established civil rights, writing over existing antidiscrimination laws, and instituting penalties for things as basic as using a public restroom.
In many ways, what happened this weekend at the Pulse reminds us of the grief in responding to other mass shootings, like the one at Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut, or the shooting at a historic Black church in Charleston, South Carolina. This time around, homophobia and racism intersect to touch nearly every aspect of this horrific event from the shooting itself to the social media response and the media coverage. And these systems of bias move us away from an accurate understanding of the loss just suffered, toward a politicized understanding in which LGBT people, typically the targets of reactionary anger, are now leveraged against a caricature of Islamic terrorists. It is perhaps an Americanized version of pinkwashing, the deliberate branding of Israel as gay-friendly in order to deflect from a violent occupation of the Palestinian people.
Consider the following: Several GOP politicians tweeted immediately after the Orlando shooting that the victims and their families were “in their prayers.” We’ve gotten used to this as the Republican response to a mass shooting tragedy and many have named the “thoughts and prayers” statement as the NRA-endorsed reaction to whatever shooting has just occurred. But in light of the GOP’s legislative and rhetorical attacks on LGBT people as their party has marched rightward politically, many of these prayers are in this case uncomfortably over the dead bodies of people they have openly reviled in life.
This has forced something of an erasure of the sexual orientations and gender identities of the victims in these tweets. They are merely “lives,” “victims,” and “families,” marked only by the location of the attack in Orlando. When Mike Huckabee, who almost a year ago victoriously raised the hand of Kim Davis in her quest never to sign a gay marriage license, asks the public to pray with him and his wife over the lost queer and trans bodies of the shooting, homophobia dictates that their identities be masked to fit his narrow narrative.
The media too has struggled not to whitewash many of the victims—often putting a rainbow flag in the background during their reporting as some gay placeholder, or mentioning that the shooting occurred at a gay bar, while forgetting to talk about the deaths as the deaths of LGBT people of color. Their focus has more often been on the gun used, on the personality and mental status and religious preference of the gunman. When more detail came out late Sunday and into Monday about the lives, dreams, and hopes of the victims, major media outlets shifted a little to include more content that included that these were gay men, a few fiancés and newlyweds among them.
Still, despite the repeatedly shown picture of drag queens and trans women performers, most reports failed to include talking about them as such. It is as if holding the orientations and gender identities of these people up at the same time as their Latinx and Hispanic heritages is too challenging. Perhaps it cannot yet be that America is capable of mourning queer and trans people who are also people of color. Perhaps we have supported too many stories of dirty immigrants and told too many lies about gay pedophiles for us to come together to grieve Black and brown LGBT victims.
Where we do see race talked about with regard to the shooting is in the names of the victims. Martinez. Vielma. Gomez. Alvear. Menendez. We see their faces in a stream of candid photos flashed on a newscast or nested in neat rows on our screens, but these are devoid of the nuances of gay Latinx culture, or how queer bars have served as protective spaces for decades, or any discussion of the full demographic range of LGBT people across race and ethnicity.
Where we do see ethnicity talked about here is regarding the gunman’s heritage, especially insofar as it provides a racist backdrop to his supposed religious radicalization. As Monday progressed, questions sneaked out about his own sexual orientation, and the reading was generally that he could not at once be Muslim and homophobic and gay. But why not? In a culture in which queer and trans identities are disparaged, called abominations, and restricted legally, why wouldn’t a queer or trans person become filled with self-loathing, no matter one’s religious upbringing?
The Pulse nightclub shooting represents a terrible, terrifying moment for LGBT people, many of whom have at least one story about their own queer bar experience. Many of us also have lived through some kind of harassment, abuse, or violence as a result of being queer or trans or gender nonconforming. We very easily place ourselves at the scene because many of us have entered similar spaces already searching for the exits, should we need to run to them. The way in which we culturally are accessing this latest and very extreme mass shooting has everything to do with why so many LGBT people live with chronic stress, and very little to do with understanding that stress and working through the America we’ve made. We must do much better to acknowledge the full lives of LGBT people and come to terms with the dangers that years of hateful rhetoric and campaigning have brought us all.
Photo: Benjamin Kerensa/Creative Commons