The Year Since Orlando Has Brought One Hit After Another—and a Renewed Commitment to Meeting Fear with Celebration
A year ago today we woke up to the news that a domestic terrorist had trapped hundreds of people inside a Florida gay club. He gunned some down indiscriminately before stalking others like prey. By the time I saw the headlines, 49 people—virtually all Latinx—had been confirmed dead.
I literally couldn’t get out of bed. A few hours later Barack Obama spoke, decrying the symbolism of a slaughter during Pride: “The place where they were attacked is more than a nightclub,” he said. “It is a place of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds, and to advocate for their civil rights.”
The mixture of emotions–horror at the scale of the violence and astonishment that, in my lifetime, the president would define a gay bar as a sacred community space—was enough to get me upright at the keyboard.
Because schools are Ground Zero. They are either safe spaces or they’re not, often literally to life-affirming or deadly effect.
Here’s a link to the resulting blog post, because try as I might, I can’t come up with a tidy beginning-middle-and-end piece of writing to mark the massacre’s first anniversary. I am, however, up, dressed and tending to business. After a fashion.
Because that’s how we’re gonna have to do in the new America, right?
The truth is the last year has been a heart-rending slog. A year ago today I told myself queer America was on the cusp of full equality and that we ought to pour our energies into fighting gun violence. I could not have imagined how hard things would get.
In the year since Pulse, the hits have just kept coming, with a notable quickening since the election. Within a month of Trump’s win, one of the friends who had held my hand at the Orlando rally and I were, separately but within days of each other, physically threatened by strangers. Neither of us were able to really talk about it publicly, a reluctance intensified by the hurricane of doubt that accompanied Rep. Ilhan Omar’s claim—true, a judge declared last week—that she had been harassed by a cab driver.
During one of our subsequent commiseration sessions I complained that I’d been confined on both airborne legs of a business trip next to people who, rather than understand the book I had my nose in as a cone of personal space, saw it as an opportunity to share with me their feelings about the notion that Eleanor Roosevelt had a female lover and, um, Mexicans.
Want a sample of the drivel coming out of grocery wholesale guy’s mouth while I tried to mind my own business? “Well, FDR was in a wheelchair. Maybe she was just bored.”
I’ve long been prepared for flat-out bigotry, I complained to my pal. Apparently now I was going to have to rehearse some new reactions. “No,” he said categorically. “What you need are some of those giant noise-cancelling headphones.”
Ha ha, right? How about this: We didn’t watch the inaugural at my house. We were too flattened by the realization that the White House pages on LGBT people and people with disabilities had been taken down even as the ceremony was ongoing. “How long did they plan this?” one of the kids–the one with a disability–asked.
Or there was the day my younger son, having absorbed news about “religious freedom” legislation, asked if we were going to lose our house. “No,” I told him. “I own it.” I sat there for quite a while contemplating the crappy bankruptcy of that answer.
Then there’s the formidable weight of the fact that his school had responded to the election by starting a Gay-Straight Alliance. I wholeheartedly support the effort, even as I worry about the fact that in 2017 the prevalence of gay and trans public figures is helping kids to contemplate their identities at younger and younger ages—so young, I fear, their skin hasn’t thickened enough.
But then again, who would have imagined that a few weeks later family engagement night at the same school would mean a presentation by immigration attorneys to talk, among other horror-show themes, about what to do if the kids come home and the adults are gone? Or that an eighth-grader who has already experienced this would petition the board to designate it a sanctuary school?
Of course the pray-away-the-gay lobby has been re-emboldened in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, not too many years ago the site of a cluster of student suicides.
I had to assure my worried mother that Twin Cities Pride was about the safest place a person could be on a sunny Sunday in June. I hoped like hell I was telling her the truth.
And most recently I’ve thought long and hard about the effect that the steady din of the vitriol has had on my voice. In many ways it was stronger when I raised it in reaction to Orlando last year. I had the luxury of believing I was batting cleanup in a crusade launched decades ago by the drag queens who revolted at one more police raid on the Stonewall Inn.
But like them, I do realize that without collective resistance, the bullies are just enabled. Which is how we got to Pride, right? Meet fear with celebration.
A year ago today I posted the piece below, dusted my traumatized patooty off and made my way down to Loring Park, where I had a good cry with a few hundred other folks. Near the end of the speechifying (memo to straight political candidates: God forbid there’s a next time, it’s not your forum) a couple of young Muslims mounted the stairs and came out. Suddenly there were a couple dozen or more, all trembling voices and nervous energy.
For a moment it felt hopeful. Like they would find safety in numbers. Like the experience of articulating themselves not furtively, but to a park full of cheering people charted them a different course from the get go.
And so I repeat last year’s plea: Schools are Ground Zero. They are either safe spaces or they’re not, often literally to life-affirming or deadly effect. Kids have the words to describe their nascent sense of identity long before they have the experience to step away from the hate and into their truths. That was more true last year than in my day, and it’s far more true this year than last.
Chances are your kid’s school, or the one where you teach, or the one that anchors your neighborhood needs help making sure the noise is drowned out by loving, affirmative speech. What are you waiting for? You have nothing to lose but your sense of isolation.