In 2010, Dan Savage launched the “It Gets Better” Campaign, which solicited confessional videos from LGBTQ adults aimed at informing depressed gay kids that if they could stick it out, their lives probably won’t suck forever. There’d been a string of prominently reported suicides of young adults who no longer believed it possible to live in this world and also be gay.
The campaign took off, attracting thousands of submissions including many from celebrities, us, and even the President of the United States. Mostly, people applauded the effort, but one line of criticism came up over and over: Dan Savage and many video-makers had far more privilege than the kids they were attempting to reach, and it wasn’t realistic to give said kids the impression that one day they’d have the financial ability or familial situation to do what Savage and his partner had done to improve their lives: move to the extraordinarily expensive gay mecca of San Francisco. (Their white male privilege didn’t hurt their ability to heal, either.)
But sometimes you move to San Francisco or wherever San Francisco is for you and you still die. Sometimes you find the community that could save you and you still die. Sometimes your straight mother is so supportive of your sexual orientation that she comes with you to the club and you live but she dies. LGBTQ folks have been attacked in our homes and gathering spaces for decades, and usually by people motivated by religious fervor, internalized homophobia or a perceived affront to their masculinity, even in “safe” places like New York, New Orleans, San Francisco, London, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Seattle. Our nightclubs and meeting places have been bombed, burned down and bloodied. LGBTQ people have been killed by their own family members as recently as two months ago. More trans women — mostly trans women of color — were reported murdered in 2015 than in any year prior, and already 14 trans people have been murdered in 2016. Their killers have rarely, if ever, been brought to justice.
At Pulse Nightclub this weekend, men and women who had found their community were enjoying it during a month dedicated to being proud of who we are, rather than scared of what we fear we’ll never be. A crowd comprised mostly of Latinx LGTBQ people had come out to dance and celebrate and nearly 100 of them were shot while doing so, and half of them died. When you read the stories of the Orlando victims it is striking how they differ from those of LGBTQ people murdered fifty years ago, people who were often sad and lonely and had run away from home — these are stories of happy people with jobs, full lives, friends, relationships, families who loved them. These are people who had so many other people in their lives eager to talk to reporters about the beloved human they’d lost. Things have gotten better, but things still aren’t good enough, because they still died. LGBT people, and particularly trans women of color, remain the most common targets of hate crimes.
This attack has inspired us all to discuss the importance of safe spaces, as if such a thing has ever existed, or could ever exist. No space is ever truly safe in every sense of the word, even the ones we create ourselves, even the ones comprised entirely of people “like us.” The most we can ask for, really, is Space, period. But we do need Space, and we do need Community, and we must demand and treasure it. We should be intentionally cultivating spaces of understanding until every queer and trans person can access them.
But we can’t do it alone, we need help from the institutions that govern us, too.
On the news and in social media, we hear from thousands of LGBT folks who are at vigils and rallies and clubs because they didn’t want to be alone, because they need their people close. Even social media itself and comment threads like the one we started on Monday have become intense and necessary virtual spaces to feel connected to each other and to an insurmountable loss.
LGBTQ folks and QTPOC specifically need community now more than ever, but despite gaining so much legally and culturally over the past decade, it often seems to be getting harder, not easier, for so many to access it.
This past weekend I was blessed and privileged to be in Savannah with my fiancée, reconnecting with old friends at the fancy lesbian wedding of actress/musician Haviland Stillwell and writer/producer Ashley Reed. Haviland and I used to do a YouTube show together in the mid-to-late ’00s where we made jokes we personally found hilarious and gave advice to queer folks who didn’t know who else to ask. (There are plenty of them these days.) I was at brunch with a bunch of homos when I got the news about Orlando, instead of alone at home with my laptop and my dog and my sleepy girlfriend like I usually would be on a Sunday morning. I knew that in only a few hours all our mixed-up feelings and sadness would be overwhelmed by a celebration of queer love. After the ceremony and reception, Haviland directed us to an after-party at Club One, a damp and homey basement gay bar she haunted once upon at time. They were hosting a drag show that night for a vibrant, racially diverse crowd (most of the white people were with our wedding party) of gay, bisexual, lesbian and trans folks eager to share space and celebrate resilience in the face of unspeakable loss.
I wasn’t thinking too clearly at the club ’cause I’d already consumed my body weight in whiskey, but the next morning I thought about how I wouldn’t have been with so many of my queer friends the night before if gay marriage hadn’t been legalized and if Haviland and Ashley’s families weren’t supportive of their union.
But even if I had been home, my situation still would’ve been a lot better than that of many other LGBTQ community members who don’t have queer friends, live near a vigil or club or feel safe accessing those spaces due to in-community racism, transphobia or biphobia. Many former community-building stalwarts like lesbian bars and women’s bookstores have shut down. If queer women can barely manage to financially sustain a bookstore, magazine, annual event, travel company, website, dating app or bar by themselves, can you imagine the difficulty in maintaining any of those things for a specific lesbian sub-culture defined by race, class, or trans status? Autostraddle and A-Camp are two of a small group of surviving for-queers-by-queers independent female-owned businesses left, and we likely wouldn’t be here without my assorted race, class and other privileges.
So this got me thinking about how legislation and bigotry and ignorance separates us not only from accessing spaces and privileges granted to straight cis people but also from each other. We’re a small slice of the population and often must travel to see our friends, chosen family, or partners. Our community is at once intimately connected and hopelessly far-flung, legitimately linked by no more than three degrees of sex partners on a worldwide daisy chain and profoundly lonely. I only had community last weekend because I’d flown three hours to get it.
This is why queer men and women move to San Francisco or Northampton, attend queer camps in San Bernardino and take lesbian cruises to Alaska, this is why we congregate in Palm Springs to behave like sex-crazed monsters. Why folks traveled from Puerto Rico or drove for hours from central Florida to attend Latin night at an Orlando club. So many of the dead were in the area on vacation. This bar was so good and this night so necessary and unique that it had become a legit tourist attraction for a specific type of tourist. The reverence with which I hear queer people and especially queer Latinx people talk about Pulse is a reverence I rarely hear in conversations about lesbian bars.
Unlike markers of class/race/religion shared by many biological families, queer folks often have no queer family members, neighbors or in-the-flesh role models. So if we want to meet other people like us we have to go out and find them, sometimes really far away. Marriage equality legislation has enabled me to see my queer friends two to three times as often as I would otherwise, ’cause weddings offer spaces to re-convene. The point of marriage equality wasn’t to enable long-distance queer friends to hang out more often, but damn if it hasn’t managed to do exactly that anyhow.
Marriage equality obviously isn’t the only legislation or cultural norm that impacts our access to community, there are many others.
Trans and gender-non-conforming people are often so horribly misgendered and mistreated by airline security that they decline air travel altogether, taking away access to events like A-Camp, Dinah Shore and Pride or even the option to visit queer friends.
Trans women of color are murdered and attacked at alarming rates. How can trans women of color find community and relationships if walking home from a club alone or going on a date with a man is a potentially fatal decision?
Unarmed black men have been murdered or injured by cops again and again, as well as by self-appointed vigilantes like George Zimmerman. How can black trans men or black masculine-of-center women find community and relationships if walking outside in a hoodie or putting their hand in their pocket could be a potentially fatal decision?
Anti-trans “bathroom bills” in states like North Carolina bar trans folks from using the restroom that aligns with their gender, which puts them at considerable risk of violence or ridicule. How can trans folks find community if they literally sacrifice the right to urinate every time they leave their own home? (If they have a home in the first place.)
How do LGBTQ folks find other LGBTQ folks in their workplace if coming out could result in losing their job or if employers are legally able to fire or refuse to hire queer folks in the first place? Only 20 states offer complete anti-discrimination employment protection based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
How can immigrants or non-native English speakers feel welcome in queer U.S. communities where politically correct language policing is practically a team sport? How do isolated queers who didn’t go to college feel welcome in those communities when access to the colleges where these vocabularies are defined and social networks are expanded is prohibitively expensive?
How do single queer Moms make it to meet-ups when their child-care funds are already maxed out by the time they spend at work, working jobs that don’t provide or cover childcare?
This isn’t even getting into health care or economic inequality, which impacts literally everything.
But structural support isn’t the end of the equation.
The media continues reminding us that Orlando hasn’t united us like 9/11 did — but 9/11 happened before social media. Here, now, we see everybody’s clumsy methods of grief and commemoration, and the ensuing passive-aggressive responses to the clumsiest. Intent has to matter, or else we will lose allies and community members for whom everything feels impossible the minute their good and compassionate intentions are declared irrelevant. Instead of lashing back, we need the option to walk away — but “walking away” requires some place to walk away to. Queers need queer community, QPOC need QPOC community, trans folks need trans community — so that when we walk away from our clumsiest allies we can trust-fall into arms we can truly trust, and bear.
But even our self-created, self-sustained spaces can be unsafe in other ways, too. Even in our own spaces, people will often say or do or stand up for the wrong thing, and everybody seems so surprised every time it happens. But we’re just as human as the rest of them. Just as messy, just as complicated, just as stupid, just as selfish, just as uninformed, just as desperate, just as self-serving, just as busy. What we have in common is shared oppression, but that oppression comes in degrees based on other factors, like race, class, able-bodidness and trans status. There are so many ways to be oppressed at those intersections that we’re often at a loss for who owes who what, and when.
As a community, we need to be better than the mainstream culture we’ve been rejected from. How can we avoid playing into the patriarchal obsession with power and dominance, of calling people out to watch them squirm, of finding peace in somebody else’s hurt, of an eye for an eye until nobody’s looking anymore?
After that string of suicides in 2010, things started changing fast for LGBTQ visibility in the media. Gay men and even gay women have always been plentiful behind the scenes in Hollywood and they quickly answered the call and began influencing what stories were getting told. We were dying and so all at once we got different kinds of stories: stories where straight people stood up for us, stories where we fell in love and got married, stories where families reacted to our identities with love instead of banishment. Stories, period. I believe that this shift helped. It’s interesting that the Orlando tragedy has taken place on the heels of a nationwide campaign about the disproportionate tendency of LGBT characters to be killed on television.
What helps now? We are talking about the actions of one man who was probably beyond help. One man is responsible for taking so many lives, and I doubt Lexa or a repealed bathroom bill would’ve changed his mind. But this is an opportunity to think about the life we owe the LGBTQ folks who are still here, who have not (yet) become targets of somebody else’s hate, and how to call them in. About how disposable certain lives seem when they’re so carelessly taken in fiction, too.
On Saturday we were talking about what it would’ve been like to be one of the young nieces and nephews at the lesbian wedding, to be born into a world where this kind of wedding was normal, maybe even common. To see that story — two people of the same gender marrying each other, just like anybody else. To know a life like ours was possible, and how wonderful that would be.
But now there is this, too.
Now there is also this.