I haven’t been able to shake Orlando. Not that I should.
I went to the New York Dyke March the Saturday of Pride weekend. I’ve been doing this thing for 23 years. Normally it’s my favorite day of the year, more than the Gay Pride march. But this wasn’t a normal year, not a normal Pride, especially not as a Black Latina lesbian.
I can count the marches I’ve missed on one hand — one of Homer Simpson’s hands. I helped organize the very first one ever and many more after that. The march started as an all lesbian/bi/trans* takeover during the weekend of the 1993 National LGBT March in DC. I was part of the New York Lesbian Avengers, the direct action group that co-created the event. Gays in the military was the big issue then and most of the talk and most of the imagery leading up to the weekend was saturated with gay maleness: Ads with homoerotic sailors in too tight uniforms or think pieces with solemn Marines saluting. As lesbians, we were feeling erased so…Dyke March. Through Dupont Circle past the White House, where Avengers ate fire then later had a kiss-in. We marched again in New York during Pride weekend and it’s been going on ever since, all over the world. Hundreds of us taking over Fifth Ave. and undulating through half the city. I’m proud to have helped create a piece of lesbian history, especially as a Black Latina. I feel like it connects me to the elders who came before me like Pat Parker and Sylvia Rivera. I was a marshal for the Dyke March for nearly 10 years. Nothing made me feel more like a superhero than running down the sidewalk from midtown to Washington Square Park, weaving through dumbfounded pedestrians, with a swarm of fierce committed lesbians who blocked traffic with their bodies. Now I love to see what the march has become, what I’ve passed on.
This year there was the usual small group of Christian evangelists on the sidewalk condemning us to hell, carrying large proclamations of their religious certainty and trying to preach over the defiant rhythms of women/gender non-conforming people jubilantly celebrating their electrified selves. And of course, some of the marchers jumped out to taunt the preaching, to confront their doctrine or disturb them by making out a breath away. I’ve done that in the past. It’s so tempting in a moment of being surrounded by your own, feeling protected in the power, to then get in the face of those who have lived to demonize our existence. It feels pretty satisfying. Plus that shit is just funny — watching the Christian soldier squirming as he tries to preach on while lesbians writhe. Still I found myself on 36th St. stopping my march. Halted, really. I found myself looking into the eyes of a man, black like me, melanin filling his skin with the same mahogany tones that encase me, baseball cap, no doubt in his body as he held his boldfaced sign proclaiming that I am an abomination. He shouted “Repent” since the sign was not sufficient, I guess. I found myself going up to him while topless Amazons danced in his face. I found myself going up to him to say this: “I love you. I have nothing but love for you.” I couldn’t help myself.
The beast who murdered people like me, the beast who I will not name, was from the same small town in Florida where I have close family, Port St. Lucie. I kept thinking about him passing my cousin while they each pushed their grocery cart in Walmart or sitting in the next booth at McDonald’s. Creepy. I have more fam in Orlando, so I know it’s a three-hour drive to Orlando from his town. He drove three hours several times to that club. You’ve been on a three-hour drive. You know how it goes. You drive for a while. You stop and get gas. You pick up a snack, go pee. I thought of him doing this on his way to Orlando that night. At any time, if his mind functioned in the orbit of balanced and humane, if it wasn’t saturated with wickedness, conviction and illness, he could have stopped himself. He could have pumped the brakes in his disturbed mind, turned the car around and gone home. He could have just gone to bed. He could have maybe even sought out help for his saturating pain, his mental illness the next day. And 102 people would have celebrated themselves like the hundreds I took the street with at the Dyke March.
One hundred and two people could have worshipped in the safety of their temple, on a night just for them to salsa, merengue, cumbia like maybe they did growing with Mami and Papi and abuelita, familia, in Puerto Rico or Orlando or wherever. Only now the dance partners are partners: same-sex girlfriends and boyfriends, husbands and wives who might not be welcome in Mami’s home to move to the rhythm among family. Latin night at the gay club — I know what that is. The planning: texting friends about where to meet up and should we go eat at that burger spot before and who’s picking up whom and what should I wear and the crackling of energy about the night ahead. And they were young and dazzling and expectant and fly. I know I was. Dancing close with a Dominican girlfriend who wasn’t allowed in my parents’ house because she was not my boyfriend. A woman I loved who was not allowed to enter the home where I heard the Celia Cruz and Beny More of my parents’ Panamanian youth, my youth in Queens. Not allowed to enter the home where I learned to love this music. I know how good it feels to bring all of you together in one place. It matters.
If he had just gone to bed. The next day while the beast was looking into healing himself, they would have gone on with their lives, maybe hungover, filling in friends about what happened at Latin night, how the guy they’ve been feeling bought them a drink and they hooked up. They would’ve shared tingly details about the first date with the lovely one they see in the elevator at work because their offices are a couple floors apart. Finally, got up the nerve to ask her to come out and dance. And that club would have remained a safe place to just be. But the beast didn’t turn around and go to bed because the idea of pumping the breaks was not available to him. He was on a holy mission — so he drove three hours that night to do what he felt he had to. Those thoughts have been neon in my head.
As I swaggered through the middle of my city among hundreds of lesbian/trans/bi/gender nonconforming people in a force of powerful sexy at the Dyke March, I kept thinking of the snapshots of the Orlando dead. Because for most of the world those frozen images—Facebook pics, profile snapshots and selfies — those pictures are how we know them. It’s the only way we will ever know them. While women banged out Afro-Brazilian drumbeats that throbbed in my body one of those pics would flash in my brain. A wave of grief would weaken me and I’d force myself to keep moving — for them. To feel the sensation of pride in my contribution to LGBT history, for them.
I saw these proselytizers, block after block, and felt fucking exhausted from people using their interpretations of God to justify emotional and physical battering. Orlando, people. Enough already. Seriously. So block after block I found myself going to those damning me to Hades, forecasting my impending end with their bible verses on four-foot tall banners, to look them in the face and tell them that I loved them, that nothing will stop me from loving them. The idea of hugging one of them banged around for a while but I was afraid I’d break down, crumple on the asphalt at the foot of a bible thumper. Because in the face of a massacre, in the presence of hate — the Islamaphobic media, ISIS, the resolute ministers who stood in pulpits to coolly declare that the dead got what they deserve — goddammit, it always comes back to love, doesn’t it? Shit. I don’t even really want to type those words because it seems so Hallmark. Really, what kind of cotton candy bullshit am I saying? But I felt powerless to do anything else but love them. The taunting is entertaining but loving them frees me. And I have to be free. They don’t get to win me. The shooter doesn’t get to win. Taunting would just be about my anger, and no fucking doubt I’ve got 49 flavors of rage.
I’m proud that I somehow showed these people love but I’m not saying this in a bid for canonization. I’m saying this to prove it can be done. Honestly, I shocked myself. I mean, I was wrecked for the first two weeks after it happened. I didn’t really sleep, wailed from my fury then zoned out on The Big Bang Theory and The Simpsons for days wrapped up on my couch. That shit broke me. I was wrecked by more than the horror itself, the coverage that just ignored the humans the bullets were destined for: Latin and Black LGBT folks and their friends. Because as much as the commentators want to blame Middle Eastern lands, the beast was born here. He learned how valueless LGBT people are, Latin people are, immigrants are — here. That motherfucker was homegrown. Yet the talking heads held Allah and foreign “devils” as the indoctrinators. Which had me screaming at the television during the first press conference when a reporter repeatedly asked if the shooter was a U.S. citizen, looking to assign responsibility to the distant barbarism of foreigners. And I stood up in my living room and shouted even louder when the FBI agent in charge of the Orlando office said that at the time it was too soon to call it a hate crime.
Then in the aftermath the cameras went to Stonewall and the vigils around the country and mostly spoke to white gay men and a sprinkling of lesbians about the effect of the killing. And except for a slender few, those interviewed didn’t have the deference to say that this massacre wasn’t about them, to tell the reporter to go find the closest Latinx LGBT group or maybe just turn her head to talk to the Latinx grieving three feet away. Forty-nine flavors of rage, I swear.
But still—still—love sat up in me and made me give, to the kind of crusader who helped create a culture that assured the shooter he was right to hate someone like me. The waves of rage will come for some time, I think. But I’ll be back at Latin night to dance for them and for me. I will always be free.