For a long time, I never understood. There wasn’t context or explanation about why organizations like PFLAG and ACT UP and so many others were necessary. I didn’t know what they were fighting for. I didn’t have any context as to why pride parades mattered or why living out-loud and proud was necessary. “Just stay quiet, inconspicuous, and out-of-the-way and nobody will care or know the difference.”
Or so I thought. I hid behind a toxic, stoic strain of masculinity. I laughed at and actively avoided effeminate men. I spent the majority of my time drinking and smoking, and buried myself in work. I avoided any real introspection that would have yielded substantive change. I kept dodging what might have helped me come to terms with reality: that I am primarily a gay man living in a straight world dominated by narrow-minded and oft-violent ideas about how the world should work. I spent the better part of my teenage years and early twenties alternating between binge-drinking at gay bars and crying myself to sleep at night alone.
I’d like to say I’ve done a lot of work since then. I don’t drink nearly as much anymore. I don’t see myself in the same ways as I did in my earlier years. What’s more, I don’t see other people the same way either. I see others’ beauty and innate positive traits and desires more often than I see them through a lens of fear.
There was, and still is, a part of that picture missing: the fact that I never “grew up queer”. I never had the history or the context to be able to see things the same ways as my aging peers in the community experienced it. I never “got it”. I never fully-understood pride parades, bars and nightclubs, or any of the other kitschy things that dotted the cultural landscape of the gay community. I just didn’t understand. I didn’t get it.
And then Orlando happened.
49 dead. 53 wounded. All in the span of a few hours.
I never got it… until Monday afternoon. It finally smashed me square in the face and got me to stare at the fucking thing until I couldn’t stop crying. The reason why so many of my peers were dead wasn’t just homophobia, xenophobia, or religious intolerance… it was, and still is systemic. Printed in the damn preamble on the social contract that people signed upon entering some level or definition of adulthood.
Don’t trust the Other. “They” are bad. “They” prey on children. “They” are degenerates. “They” are all going to Hell and it’s okay to kill them because they’re not people anyway. “They” get AIDS and die. Violence is divine punishment.
And so it continues.
Pride parades exist as a symbol and a beacon: you are one of us. We are many, and we are just as weird, flawed, and beautiful as you are. Life is hard, but we want you to come as you are. Come with us! Don’t let the world bury you or turn you against yourself. You aren’t alone; you never were and never will be again.
I’ve heard it more than once from well-meaning people that “straight pride parades don’t exist”. It’s fucking asinine. Straight men have never had to have parades because they’ve rarely, if ever, had to live in fear for something that should be so trivial to other people. They’ve never had to wrap their arms around themselves at night, trembling at the edge of terror and despair. They’ve never had to identify ingress and egress points or look over their shoulder for who might be following them in the doorway. They’ve never had to consider the ramifications of being seen entering or leaving a bar, club, bath-house, or anything other kind of facility. They’ve never had to carry a knife 24/7 because they never know who’s going to jump them because they decided to hold their partner’s hand.
All of these things never occurred to me growing up. I always thought I’d be able to avoid the fight; that people much louder, braver, and smarter than myself would finish it. This wasn’t supposed to be my fight. This was supposed to have been fought by the people who survived Stonewall, who lived through the spectre-of-Death AIDS terror of the 80’s and 90’s, who were loud and colorful and everything I wasn’t. Marriage rights, adoption rights, employment protections, social progress… all of this would end it.
My naiveté was just that. Naieveté.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. 49 people, most of which were barely approaching their mid-20’s, had their lives cut short by someone whose motives we are still grappling with as a society. I imagine the community will continue to do so for years to come, and society writ-large will move on in a few weeks. Profile photos will be changed, prayers and condolences doled-out like candy, token visibility offered to the system in exchange for illusory change. But we know this song-and-dance. In the wake of gun violence, and more specifically violence against the LGBTQ community, nothing will really change unless there remains a continuous flame, a rekindling of that spirit captured so carefully in the biopic “Milk”.
I know now why Sunday hit me so hard. This was our Stonewall. This was our galvanizing event. This was our fight, whether we wanted it or not. I was born into a fight–a damn war that I never signed-up for. The fact that I continue to draw breath is testament to the idea that every breath is a tiny rebellion; that the continuation of my existence as a person is a fracture in the otherwise seamless homogeneity of Western, Abrahamic culture. By virtue of existence and truthful living, I am rebelling. To continue, and most of all to dance in the maelstrom that we call life, is to prove that love informs more of life than hate ever will.
The questions I find myself grappling with in the wake of the attacks go beyond simple survival, though that ranks high among the points that concern me the most. Just how vocal should I be now as a gay man? Do I start taking extra steps to protect myself? Avoid public places? Stop being visible and heard? Stop advocating for the rights of my community? Is it even my community at all?
I think the aftermath of this event presents us a choice. To quote the late, great Bill Hicks:
The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your door, buy bigger guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love, instead, see all of us as one.
That’s what I see when I look at people now. I still see stereotypes trying to cloud my vision and confuse what a person is versus what they actually aspire to be. I still have a lot of fear to shed and a lot of ground to cover. I will fuck things up. I am just like the large portion of the gay community: I still hide behind “masc” and white, urban, affluent male privilege. I want to take steps to eliminate that privilege and to give the microphone to people that really need it and deserve it. I don’t want to be scared anymore.
The shooting shook more than a community, it shook my own faith in the world around me and it made me reconsider who I am and what I am actually capable of–really, what we are capable of. We’re capable of rising above this kind of violence and seeing each other for what we truly are.
We will bounce back. We will be able to move past this. We will address the issues, both individually and as a community. And I am no longer content in complacency. It’s no longer “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it”. Instead, I’d rather say “I’m here, I’m queer, I’m human. Let’s make things right”. Even in that simple sentiment, there isn’t a clear way to make anything right. How do we as a culture make it right for the thousands impacted by AIDS or homophobic violence? How do we heal the wounds of thousands of lives that have been forever altered by family, faculty, and peers whose intolerance could not be countered? What do we do to increase visibility and encourage dialogue and better understanding?