When I was a young journalist I used to dream of covering wars in far flung places, embedding myself amongst the violence that touched others to show the world the atrocities that existed. Then I came out, and so did AIDS, and I saw the cruelty and indifference and violence that existed here at home and I realized one woman’s war is another man’s AIDS epidemic. We had far too many wars of our own to cover here at home, none more important than literally saving the lives of LGBT people, from AIDS and indifference, from suicide and self-harm, from domestic violence and gay/trans/bi hate crimes.
Still I usually feel the call to “be there” covering (or uncovering) when something happens in our expanding but still small LGBT world. Many of my colleagues from The Advocate are already on-the-ground in Orlando this week, working alongside survivors, grieving families, local officials, hospital workers and more; covering not just one of the world’s largest mass killing of LGBT people but our nation’s largest mass shooting. As much as some politicians and pundits want to focus only on the shooting and not on the queer people in the crosshairs, make no mistake: this is all about us.
I have to admit that with Orlando, I’m glad not to be there. I feel enveloped in grief from 2,000 miles away; I can’t imagine being in that community now, near the nightclub I’ve visited before, with all that devastation around me and the kinetic energy of people doing anything to try to help in what is, in many ways, a helpless situation.
Though many of my friends have organized vigils around the country (and even globally like Tel Aviv and London) or taken to Pride parades and festivals with Orlando emblazoned on their backs to show our strength and solidarity and unwillingness to bend in the face of such deadly hostility.
I have not. I’m like Carlos Maza, who wrote so eloquently in the Washington Post about spending much of Sunday laying on the sofa, thinking about what he would text his mom if he was hiding in a nightclub about to be killed by a gunman.
Like Maza, I could not go to Pride, could not take a candle to a vigil, could not meet my friends at the bar for that annual celebratory drink where we laugh at the guys who wore too little in the parade, marvel at the same-sex parents and their adorable offspring on their shoulders, count rainbow adornments, and generally revel in the amazing diversity around us. Pride is normally a time of celebration, but this year, I couldn’t go. I stayed home, spent much of the day helping Plus assistant editor Savas Abadsidis chase down answers about the access to blood in Orlando; asking blood banks and hospitals and politicians if the federal ban on blood donations by gay and bi men and trans women would be lifted. “Why can’t we,” many men asked me, “help save our own?” As the trauma wards filled up, we pressed on.
Come Monday I had a to-do list with 47 urgent items on it, another 22 that were not urgent but needed done ASAP. Not one of them had to do with Orlando. And yet, at the end of the day, I had crossed off only one item (feed the goats, because they won’t live if I don’t) and though I had nothing to show for it, it felt like the Orlando massacre and aftermath was what my entire day was about. Today feels the same.
Back in California, my sister — after years of legal fights and red tape and thousands of dollars — finally today got approval to bring her young stepchildren to the U.S. from El Salvador. We need to raise thousands of dollars still for all the last minute things the U.S. government requires (lots of fees), but I recognize we’re doing so in a culture where anti-Latino sentiment is high. Indeed, the club in Orlando where the massacre took place wasn’t just an LGBT nightclub, it was a largely Latino LGBT club. As potentially future-president Donald Trump fans the flames of anti-Latino (and even more so, anti-Muslim) anxiety in the U.S. I worry for my niece and nephews, seven of whom are mixed race Latinos, and about our brown and black brothers and sisters who are queer and doubly terrified at this moment.
The thing underscoring all this is my sneaking suspicion that the narrative will be turning against the rest of us, regardless of color, soon enough. Right now, even if they can’t say the phrase "LGBT," public figures, the media, even the religious leaders of this country (outside Westboro Baptist Church) have supported us, the victims in this massacre, the community targeted in this hate attack.
But there’s a knot in my stomach, something churning since news of the shooter broke and his father said the shooter was very upset at seeing two men kiss: what if he’s secretly one of us. We’re taught that killers are able to attack others so viciously because they “otherize” them; like the Nazis or the slave traders or other morally repugnant mass killers, they don’t see the people and their humanity, they see a revolting creature, something other than humans worthy of life.
As a queer person, though, I know a thing of two about internalized homophobia and self-hatred and as soon as I saw the shooter’s dating-style selfies and his father’s suggested reasoning, I worried Omar did too.
Before I realized who I was, before I came out, I made a lot of jokes about gays and lesbians. I called boys I dated “fags” if I disliked their behavior. Even after I fell in love with my first girlfriend, we stayed closeted for two long years, double dating with men, denying who we were to roommates, even making sure to distance ourselves from other lesbians we saw. We were not them, this is something different, we would say to each other. Initially we pushed our beds together by night, pulled them apart each morning. Nobody could know. We were terrified of how the world, our families, our friends back home would act. We tried to change many times.
Coming out finally, embracing who I really am in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, and the March on Washington, and a few years later, amidst the boon in visibility of queer people in popular culture was all hugely liberating, like an anvil had been lifted from my back. After experiencing one huge rejection from a friend, I cut off ties with folks back home so I didn’t have to experience that again. I was queer and I was free.
I also realized how outwardly homophobic I had been, likely for years. Sometimes the biggest enemies against LGBT people are those who are closeted, deeply self-hating queers. But admitting that in public, at this moment, feels like it could open us up to — something frightening. The rightwing nut jobs could say the shooter’s alleged sexual identity crisis is proof LGBT people are mentally ill; that it’s a perversion; that all hate crimes are hoaxes; that our “lifestyle” is to blame (to which I generally counter that my lifestyle consists of work, paying bills, picking weeds, and going to sleep by 8 pm).
As reports seep out that Omar Mateen might indeed have been a closeted gay (or bi) man, that he’d asked a boy out in community college, had profiles on gay dating apps, had partied at the very nightclub in which he killed dozens of LGBT people; it’s only natural we all want to shove them under the rug. It changes the narrative, and in our enemies’ eyes, it pushes blame back on us.
It reminds me a little of an episode of the TV sitcom Blackish, when the Johnsons, the African-American family at the center of the show, are watching the news about a person who has committed a violent crime and the adults are all crossing their fingers, and muttering, “Please don’t be black, please don’t be black.” We can’t afford to give the haters — the politicos and religious leaders, the people most responsible for perpetuating homophobic (even internalized self-hatred) — more ammunition against us.
This is the first year since 1989 that I have not attended an LGBT Pride. For much of the last two decades, I actually attended half a dozen different Pride celebrations each year as part of my coverage of and outreach to the queer community. From the sweet families around picnic tables in Albuquerque, to vast mass of straight and LGBT tourists in San Francisco, to the sea of happy cowgirls in Montana, and drag queens in New Orleans; Pride is a time for us all to openly be ourselves.
But this year, I’m mourning rather than partying. I am mourning for the people in Orlando. But I’m also grieving that a political and religious culture exists that got Omar to that bar with weapons of mass destruction, and I’m mourning about the anti-gay, anti-Muslim hatred already cropping up on social media — and the turnabout from our “friends” I fear may still be on the horizon.