Reflections on Orlando

As another wave of violence, also directed at minorities — this time based on skin color — rocks the country, I am reminded of this unfinished post that I began about my feelings after the Orlando shooting on June 12th.  I cannot pretend the events are comparable beyond the fact they they were all driven by hate and fear.  And I don’t pretend the lived experiences of prejudice that gays/lesbians/queers face are the same as those whose identity is made evident by the color of their skin (many, though not all, of us can “hide” or “pass” — many, though not all, of us enjoy a relative amount of privilege through class, skin color, gender, etc.).  Still, the fact that hate and fear (which comes first…?) are common themes amongst acts of violence brings me back to thinking about my own life as a lesbian in the U.S. after Orlando (as well as after a more local act of hate:  the burning of a Pride flag at the Albany Damien Center).

This Nikki Giovanni poem that a friend of mine posted to Facebook after the murders of Castile and Sterling says more than I can:

Allowables

I killed a spider

Not a muderous brown recluse

Nor even a black widow

And if the truth were told this

Was only a small

Sort of papery spider

Who should have run

When I picked up the book

But she didn’t

And she scared me

And I smashed her

I don’t think

I’m allowed

To kill something

Because I am

Frightened

– Nikki Giovanni

 

*** 

Nearly two decades ago I went to my first Pride celebration in the progressive college town of Burlington, VT.  I was excited to attend, but still I spent most of the day trying to let go of my fear.  As someone who wasn’t out to any family and not many friends, I felt convinced that I would end up in some media coverage that would be seen by any one of my North Country relatives.  The less tangible, nameable fear, however, came from being new to the community and feeling like it wasn’t a good idea for all of us to be gathered, out loud and proud in this manner.  It just didn’t feel safe to me.  I felt like despite the numbers (or maybe because of the numbers), we were an easy target for hate.

Over the ensuing twenty years, things have changed.  I have grown up.  I have attended countless Pride celebrations.  I have embraced my community and been embraced back.  I have also become less reliant on the community in recent years as societally we have seen shifts in the direction of less hate, more open-mindedness.

Recently Dawn and I watched a special on TLC called Transgender Camp.  (While I believe we have made great strides in relation to LGBTQ rights, societal perceptions toward transgender people have not shifted as radically or in nearly as positive a direction).  The kids were describing the camp as a space where they could feel safe; where they could fully be themselves without question, without potential threats; where they could make friends without the looming question of disclosure.  While I cannot pretend to understand the challenges and the extent of discrimination that they face, their description of camp brought me back to Provincetown in the “old days.”  My first trip to Provincetown with my first girlfriend was probably the most liberating experience of my life.  The girl who had walked around her first Pride stiff with fear ran down Main Street — quite literally skipping, laughing, holding hands.  While Pride in the middle of a city felt potentially unsafe to me, this small oceanside town on the very end of Cape Cod felt shielded from any threat of hate and any action that might come from that hate.

Over the nearly twenty years since that first trip, Provincetown has never lost its magic for me.  While I have seen the demographic of its tourists shift along with the societal changes that I describe above, it continues to feel like a protected space.

I can only imagine that the men and women who were at Pulse that night felt some of these feelings of safety and freedom.  To have that shattered for them, shatters it for us all.

There has been a lot of debate on social media about how we characterize this attack:  a hate crime versus an attack on America/all Americans.  As a gay American I have struggled with this debate.  I truly understand both arguments, although ultimately it is an artificial division.  Yes, it is an attack on a marginalized group.  Yes, it is an attack on all Americans.  It is actually an attack on society as a whole — the larger good that exists worldwide in all cultures and walks of life.  I do think though that it is important to think about the impact this has had on a minority group: A group whose sense of safety, if anything like mine, has felt more firmly grounded in more places and spaces over the years.  While I realize sometimes I live in a kind of progressive echo chamber (despite trying to read widely and listen carefully to different points of view), I know that I have felt in recent years very comfortable as a lesbian with a wife and kid.  Most of the time, I don’t even notice that we are any different from the couples and families around us (because at the heart of it all, we aren’t).  It has been more than a decade since some young teenage boys yelled “Dyke” at me out their car windows and longer still since my first girlfriend and I heard similar words hurled from down to us from the upper level of a parking garage.  While almost silly to say, I honestly started to feel like no one hated me any longer for who I am (for other things perhaps, but not for my sexual orientation).  In nearly all circumstances I forgot that I am part of only ten percent of the population.

In the aftermath of Orlando, however, I think and feel differently.  Dawn and I recently purchased a Honda Odyssey.  This makes us like nearly half of the other families on the road and parked in shopping plazas (or so it seems).  Dawn keeps saying that we need to get some kind of adornment to add to the van so as to distinguish it from all the other “modern steel” Honda Odysseys out there.  I have contemplated getting a Pride flag window sticker.  I’ve never had one in any vehicle.  I’ve gone through phases of being too cool, feeling it wasn’t necessary, finding it corny, and so on.  But this phase is a new one:  I feel too scared to put one on my family van.  I feel like it makes us a target.

This is what happens when safe spaces for minorities are shattered by violence.  This is the aftermath of Orlando:  a fearful (queer) mom driving a minivan.