Pulse: One Year After
I came into work on June 12th, 2016, as if it were any other morning. One of my daily tasks is to check all of our social media channels. I opened Twitter to find people talking about Orlando.
A nightclub. No, a gay club.
A pride celebration. A space that was supposed to be safe. A space that had once been safe for so many.
A number of victims that climbed higher and higher until it was the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. 49 dead, 50 injured, most of them young, queer people of color.
A feeling of horror, of rage, of grief pouring from every direction.
Our organization and team chose to make ourselves immediately and fully available in our direct services without any foreseeable end so we could be available for those who needed help, including somewhere to process this news. We spoke to young queer people from across the country, listened as they voiced how the shooting played on every feel and dark feeling they had about being queer. We listened, and we empathized, offered resources where we could. Furious that we lived in a world that meant we couldn't promise them they'd be safe. Heartbroken that even at such a dark time, young, queer people felt and often were so alone. Grateful that digital work means the people you're caring for can't see or hear you crying.
I almost made it without crying. Focused on talking with youth, with compiling resources. Then the news came that first responders, walking through the club that should have been silent, could hear the cell phones of the dead ringing. It was too visceral an image, the phone ringing and blinking with the number of a loved one, with never to be answered text messages asking, "Are you okay?" or ,"Are you safe?" I sat at my table sobbing. I buried my head into my partner's shoulder when he came home.
That was something I had that many of the young people we spoke to did not.
The majority of those who came to us the day of, and the days following, were in isolated areas and came to us in part because their families and communities were unsupportive and unknowing at best, but more often outright homophobic or transphobic. They themselves were closeted in order to survive. This compounded the trauma they felt. Not only were they coming to terms with the violence against their community; they were having to do so in secret. There was no one nearby to reach out to. No vigils or ceremonies to attend to help them mourn. Worse, many them had families who spoke about the shooting as if it was deserved. They spent the wake of the tragedy listening to people who should love them talk about how this was what you got for daring to exist as LGBTQA.
Mass shootings are nightmares made real. For the queer community, part of the nightmare is that one day you'll wake up to find that every gain that's been made to make the world safer for you to exist in has been stripped away. That you're not as safe as you thought you were. For many young people in the U.S., this was the first highly visible, homophobia-driven incident of violence in their lifetime, and it was clear that for many of them this served as a jarring reminder that there are people in this world who want them dead because of who they are. An awful demonstration that, no matter how many adults assure that things are so much better for the LGBTQA community now than they were ten or twenty years ago, horrible ideas and feelings are still alive and well.
What compounded the sorrow at the loss of so may lives and the trauma of a whole community, and what turned it into rage for so may of us, was the denial that came after the massacre. The attempt by so many to make this about ISIS and not about the cultural homophobia that pervades much of the U.S.. This incident was about a very homophobic man who most likely presented his actions as about ISIS because it made him feel and look more macho than it being about his homophobia. After all, he did not choose a gay club as his target by accident. But those of us touched by the event watched a country who largely latched onto the ISIS story immediately because of a toxic combination of Islamophobia, denials about cultural homophobia, and the ability to avoid having to talk about -- or worse still, take account for -- their own nonsupport of all of us who are members of the LGBT and queer community.
Then there was the way in which so many people tried to minimize the importance of the shooting being in a gay club, as if they aren't locations of immense historic and current importance to the queer community. As if a major era of queer and trans activism and the events that lead to June being named Pride Month, were not ushered in by queens and trans women hurling shot glasses to protect the few, often the only, spaces where they could not only be, but actively celebrate, who they were. As if mass violence occurring within a specifically queer space wasn't going to ripple outwards so that all spaces like it no longer felt safe to the people who need them. Gay bars are often very real churches: places of joy and places of comfort, places of safety and community and love, and taking that away -- taking away that feeling of safety -- is part of the huge, horrible loss of all this.
The denial that followed Pulse is not a one time incident. At the start of this year's pride month, the sitting president did not make a speech recognizing it as such. Hardly a surprise, as he chose an openly and proudly anti-LGBTQA cabinet. It's doubtful he'll bother to mark the anniversary of Pulse, though even if he did there'd be a putrid irony to making a statement when the party he belongs to is a primary source of the rhetoric that leads to events like the shooting. You can't promote shock treatment to "cure" queer youth only to throw up your hands and wonder how someone could possibly get the idea that queer people deserve violence (though that doesn't stop people from trying).
Resisting the silence and denial are ways in which the LGBTQA community can exercise power. Violent acts like Pulse are designed to keep a community silent. Failure to acknowledge those acts or the communities they harm is done in the hopes that if you don't acknowledge the communities they'll just disappear. By visibly mourning and supporting each other, by demanding that those in power recognize that queer and trans people do not go away if you ignore them, we can remind ourselves and others that we're not going anywhere.
As the saying goes, "Mourn the dead, fight like hell for the living,"
All of us who worked direct services in the days after Pulse still think of the young people we talked to, especially thoses trapped in families and communities filled with the same kind of beliefs that fueled the shooting. Unless they've run away to find a more loving space, those young people are still there. With the current administration, the beliefs their families spouted that forced them to grieve in secret have likely been strengthened by seeing those same bigoted ideas in seats of power. The anniversary of the shooting is going to bring all sorts of hard emotions to the surface, and for many people they'll be made all the worse by the increased hostility ushered in over the last few months. It's crucial we do what we can to care for ourselves and each other.
If you're an adult, our ask of you is the same as it was a year ago: please do what you can to reach out to and emotionally support young people who are struggling with the emotions that Pulse and its fallout create; with the emotions simply being queer in this cultural climate create. Please.
Even if you don't think there's a young LGBTQA person in your family or social sphere, you can never be sure and you may just be the only adult they've heard offer support around this. Listen to what they have to say and offer resources when you can. If you're queer or trans yourself, fostering connection between older and younger members of the community can be incredibly healing for everyone involved. It can be helpful for young people to talk with someone who has seen or experienced intense homophobia or transphobia and survived.
If you're a young person, do what you can to be gentle and loving of yourself and others in the next few days (and always). If you have queer and/or trans community, if there are opportunities to come together and be with people who understand and support you, we encourage you to seek them out. If you're isolated or surrounded by bigoted family or friends, reach out across the internet if you can. If need be, you can come to our direct services and talk. You deserve a space to be heard and understood. For all of you, we will continue doing what we can to support you. We love you, and we are still, as ever, here for you.
And by all means, please hold in your mind and your heart those taken from us and those who loved them at Pulse a year ago:
- Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34
- Stanley Almodovar III, 23
- Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20
- Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22
- Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36
- Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22
- Luis S. Vielma, 22
- K.J. Morris, 37
- Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30
- Anthony Luis Laureano Disla, 25
- Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35
- Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50
- Amanda Alvear, 25
- Martin Benitez Torres, 33
- Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37
- Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26
- Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35
- Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25
- Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31
- Oscar A Aracena-Montero, 26
- Enrique L. Rios Jr., 25
- Miguel Angel Honorato, 30
- Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40
- Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32
- Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19
- Cory James Connell, 21
- Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37
- Luis Daniel Conde, 39
- Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33
- Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25
- Darryl Roman Burt II, 29
- Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32
- Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21
- Jerald Arthur Wright, 31
- Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25
- Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25
- Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24
- Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, 27
- Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33
- Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49
- Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, 24
- Christopher "Drew" Leinonen, 32
- Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28
- Frank Hernandez Escalante, 27
- Paul Terrell Henry, 41
- Akyra Monet Murray, 18
- Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24
- Antonio Davon Brown, 29
- Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez, 25
Rest in power, rest in peace.