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I woke up to the sound of an incoming email on my cell phone. I rolled my eyes even in the drowsiness of waking — it was incredibly annoying when my boss sent out emails on the weekend. It was Sunday, for Christ’s sakes. A day of rest. On Sundays, I slept late.
But when I looked at my phone, it wasn’t an email. It was a CNN update. The app only pinged me if there was a serious emergency, so before I even read the alarming message my heart plunged to my gut. It reminded me of the day I heard the same little ping. Paris. Attacks. Terrorists. All that followed.
20 dead in gay nightclub shooting, more deaths feared. Orlando, FL. Shit. That’s my home state. I had been there the week before for an impromptu trip to Disney with Jess, my girlfriend. I clicked on the link and continued to read: 20 dead, 40 injured in a shooting that took place around 2 am in Pulse nightclub, a gay club in Orlando, FL which was hosting Latin Night. Shooter dead after police standoff. More details to be released as the story develops.
Jess had already gotten out of bed, and I hated the empty space on her side. I got up and found her reading a book on the couch. She loved to read in the mornings, and I felt genuinely sorry to disturb her peace by sharing the same story we’d come to hear over and over again.
“Jess, there’s been a shooting. Some guy killed a bunch of people at a gay nightclub.”
“Seriously? Another one?”
One of the most tragic questions of the 21st century. Yes, another shooting. Another person able to purchase military-style weapons. Another day of bloodshed. Another spot never to be removed from the hands of history — Lady Macbeth slowly losing her sanity.
We both sat on the couch and continued to investigate on our phones. The death toll continued to rise until the worst was confirmed: 50 fatalities, 53 injured. A massacre. One of the worst in the country’s history, based on numbers. But really no worse than the one just days before, when a man shot a 22-year old woman, Christina Grimmie, while she was signing autographs for fans. No worse than Sandy Hook. No worse than Aurora. No worse than San Bernardino. The impact of the loss of one human life, let alone 50, can never be measured — the ripples of grief can never be quantified.
In America, we’ve come to embrace a process of recovery from a shooting, one that seems to play on a single, nightmarish loop:
Hear about shooting. Feel shocked.
Find out everything there is to know about the shooter, create theories about motives.
Feel useless in the face of so much horror.
Call out for gun control/mental illness awareness.
Jess and I were already in the early steps of this cycle, probing the media outlets for a shred of information, anything that could tell us why this happened. Before we found out the truth, we hoped he would not have a “foreign-sounding” name. Please, don’t let this be used by politicians in their crusade against all things un-American. Please don’t let them point fingers at Islam like one Muslim represents all.
When the media began to do just that, we put our phones away and just embraced in silence. We felt nothing.
It is always deeply unsettling when a tragedy occurs — the turmoil in Syria; refugee boats capsizing; the terrorist attacks in Paris, Turkey, Israel, Pakistan; the shootings in schools and movie theaters and churches and government buildings and streets and any public space in the U.S. But this time, the hurt was rooted in a singular war, one which we often forget has not yet been won: the fight for the right to live outside the normative culture.
Obviously the people whose lives were lost in Pulse and the families that mourn them are and should be our focus; we need to say their names and honor their lives. At the same time, for me this is a moment that highlights what a daunting fight we face; a fight which I only recently realized was also mine when I fell in love with Jessica and discovered I could love within my own gender. I felt the weight of those before me fall like bricks on my shoulders. We lived together in Queens, embraced in the comfort of our apartment and frequently talked about what colors we’d wear if we ever got married. We were aware of the huge privilege of this. We still let go of each other’s hands in the presence of certain men, a form of self-preservation. But living in New York City in 2016, those occasions were not enough to keep us from feeling free.
I never had boyfriends growing up, something that both terrified and relieved my parents. They were relieved because I could focus on school and avoid teenage pregnancy — both areas in which I succeeded—but terrified because for Hispanic parents, having a boyfriend is an accomplishment; a cause for celebration. It is confirmation that your daughter is part of the norm, will lead a happy life, have plenty of babies and of course, feel the warm protection of a man. I suspect many parents of other ethnicities and cultures, part of the older generation, feel the same way. It’s something most of us shrug off and even laugh about, as we will live our own lives regardless of what they want, but can sometimes cause real turmoil within families should you choose to live openly against their wishes.
Year after year passed and every time a family member would ask: do you have a boyfriend? Tienes novio? I would respond: nope! No time for one. You’d think they’d give up after a while, but they didn’t. And though I didn’t have boyfriends, I’d had my share of heterosexual romance — I fully embraced the hookup culture for a while — but I couldn’t tell my parents that. After being single, the worst thing you can be is promiscuous.
One day, worried that I was in college and still had not brought any guys to meet him, my father sat me down and told me he’d be disappointed if I were a lesbian. He wasn’t religious, but he was conservative, especially since he’d had more kids recently and wanted to protect them from every harmful thing that existed in the world. He said life was always harder for gays. That he wouldn’t want me going through such a depressing life, that I would always be in danger, that I would never be safe. I wasn’t aware of my own sexual fluidity at the time, so I shrugged away his comments and told him to relax, I wasn’t a lesbian; I just hadn’t found anyone to my liking.
For years he kept repeating his stance, and it became obvious that he didn’t dislike the idea of me being a lesbian solely because it was dangerous. That was part of it, yes. But mostly it was because the idea stood in the face of all the machista ideology he was fed as a child in Venezuela, and was now being fed again in America. He was a Hispanic male, with white skin, and did not even understand his own privileged perspective — as if gay people should just cease to exist because it’s hard. Please. I was a low-income young Hispanic woman with brown skin; life was already harder than it should be, filled with ignorant people making assumptions about me — dumb, speaks no English, illegal — the minute I walked into a room. What’s one more label?
When I entered into a relationship with a woman, his stance enraged me — I pictured one day standing up to him and saying, you realize being gay is hard because of people like you? But other than my parent’s disapproval of who I chose to love, I felt the dangers that came with being gay were largely a relic of decades past. I’d heard the rhetoric that was constantly being spewed by demagogues. But still I thought, as long as I didn’t go to Texas, or 40% of the United States, I was fine.
The morning after the horrific shooting, and the days that followed, I understood part of my father’s fear. Animosity towards LGBTQ people has not gone the way of black and white T.V. sets, phone booths, or travel by horse and carriage. It was and is very much alive.
We, the LGBTQ community, were reminded of that the day of the Pulse shooting. Because of lax gun regulation, a bigot was able to purchase weapons to kill dozens of innocent people and invade a sacred space for the gay community. There are multiple perspectives on his motives, but it’s undeniable that rampant homophobia, which is very much alive and well in this country, played a key role. What’s worse, people have now been given a platform from which to project and protect their hatred.
Republican leaders have heroically spoken out against the attacks and “stood with the LGTBQ community in the face of senseless hatred,” but their words are empty. When did they decide they were with us — before or after they tried to have the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage repealed? Before or after they publicly declared all trans people are pedophiles and rapists? Before or after they created an entire political party dedicated to preserving extreme right-wing ideology? Before or after they blocked any and every measure of gun regulation policy? Words have power. Their intolerant rhetoric has consequences, and they cannot rid themselves of this responsibility.
Jess and I did not leave the house on Sunday. If we had, we wouldn’t have held hands, or snuck a quick kiss, or even looked at each other with desire. We must be careful, and vigilant. We must not think that the war is over. We must love and live together, make our plans and get married if we want to, adopt some children if we think it’s best. We owe it to all those precious souls who were killed unjustly to not live in fear — while also acknowledging the very real danger that many of us face, for whom fear is reasonable, and the choices necessary for survival. Living our authentic lives in accepting spaces and communities is fine, if we’re able. But fine is not free. This is an uphill climb — I’m so sorry it took a tragedy to make me realize it in this way.