A few weeks ago, I was half way through an article about how Brock Turner, the Stanford Rapist, would likely only serve 3 months of his criminally short 6-month sentence. I moved my thumb from the smudged screen of my unfashionably small iPhone, and I stopped. I stopped subjecting myself to the hurt and horror of the USA Criminal Justice System’s misogyny. I stopped engaging with the unpoliced victim/survivor blaming in both mainstream and social media. I stopped anxiously reading about the competition at home between two old white men as to who can concede fewer rights to women and queer people. I realised that every story about someone in power putting money before vulnerable lives or leveraging fear of social change to maintain their power, that every time a journalist misgendered someone, found a way to justify violence against women or the limited rights of queer folks was reminding me that this society is one in which many would prefer that I didn’t exist. Having to face the queerphobia of my society and my lawmakers each and everyday was, as happens occasionally, wearing me down, shoving my head back below water every time I summoned the strength to rise up for a gasp of air. So I avoided the news for a little while, retreating into the world of my own making, with my queer chosen family.
And then Orlando happened.
A man with a military grade weapon walked into a gay nightclub’s Latinx night and murdered 49 people.
On the other side of the world I was ensconced in a bright, loud, delightfully queer party. I kissed my girlfriend and laughed with old and new friends. I danced like a fool and drank cold cider from the can. It wasn’t perfect; masc white men took up more space than they needed to and the bathrooms were needlessly gendered. But I was myself in a space that actively encouraged it, a rare and precious thing. When my partner and I left the party we were tired and happy and cold, the midnight winter wind giving us all the more reason to hold each other close.
Then she checked her phone. ‘Mass Shooting at Orlando Gay Nightclub’.
When I read the headline, all I could really comprehend was exhaustion. Sadness, vulnerability, horror and rage, these would come a few hours later on the train home, with tears clouding my vision as I read the latest update on the massacre. But in that moment of initial realisation, I felt the sort of tiredness that seeps into the bones. I was preemptively exhausted by the inevitable racism and Islamaphobia that the media and politicians would draw out from this, at the predictable erasure of the ethnicities, genders, and sexualities of the victims and survivors. I felt already sick of what I was certain would be a Facebook feed full of misery porn, of non-queer folks sending ‘thoughts and prayers’.
I had assumed that people would make the Pulse nightclub massacre about gun control, mental illness and ‘Radical Islam’, erasing the meaningful and devastating reality that this happened at a Latinx themed night at a queer club with trans headliners. Of course, it would be reductive to deny that the issue of gun control, among others, is relevant here. However, there are many people, from Malcolm Turnbull to an acquaintance on Facebook, who appear unprepared to concede that this was a hate crime, that the roots of the Orlando massacre lay in racism, homophobia and transphobia, as much as they lay in the US’s gun laws.
This sort of straight-washing and white-washing is pretty standard. However the tenacity with which some refuse to admit the role of ethnic, sexual and gendered prejudice in the shootings, barely a day after they occurred, caught me off guard. Why can’t (straight) people just let us have our grief? Why would anyone push their point against someone who was simply trying to make visible the fact that this was a hate crime against queer people of colour?
Yet all over my social media feeds, and those of most people I know were long comment threads in which one or two people responded to a queer person’s expression of grief by reframing the massacre as being about “all of us, as people”. I have seen people deny the significance of the victims and survivors Latinx and queer identities as less important than the fact that “it could have been any of us” and that “none of us are safe” when anyone can access guns.
This sort of ‘me-too-ism’ is typical of privileged groups in the wake of crises that do not primarily affect them. It seems to me that this occurs most often when members of a majority group are somehow implicated in the perpetration of a tragedy. I wonder if the Facebook commenters, media outlets and elected members of parliament who try to erase the specificity of this and other hate crimes do so in an attempt to simultaneously erase the reality that they have something in common with a murderer. Because they do. We do.
My own white and cis privileges and the everyday, unintentional racism and cisnormativity that I perpetuate, even as I learn how not to, are responsible for making groups who are not white and/or cis, targets of violence and discrimination. Everyone who continually expresses – or fails to stand up to – homophobic opinions and transphobic microaggressions, who accepts the disintegration of programs like Safe Schools, who can’t be bothered learning their colleague’s new pronouns, who hands out flyers saying that same-sex couples are bad parents, or who makes a “harmless” f*g or tr*nny “joke” is implicated in making non-heteronormative and non-white minorities accessible and acceptable victims of violence. The more we fail to actively oppose queerphobia and racism, the deeper our complicity with the murder of 49 innocent people grows.
And that is fucking uncomfortable. So much so that some would rather perpetuate the very white-washing and queer erasure that enabled the massacre, rather than bear witness to the grief of those affected. These are difficult, ugly things to confront within ourselves and those we love. It is work that will be neither fast nor straightforward. But it is important that we try.
I think that’s what I’m trying to do here, by writing this piece. Like the many, many think pieces that flooded my social media feeds in the hours and days following the Pulse massacre, I do not have anything particularly original to offer in response to this tragedy. However, when we say these things aloud, that queer communities are brave and hopeful in the face of violence and erasure, that queer Muslims face a double burden of islamophobia and homophobia, and that our inaction in the face of racism, homophobia and transphobia makes us complicit in the murder of 49 people, what we are doing is trying. We are making an effort to actively oppose the Whiteness and heteronormativity of the media, of the political system and within ourselves. We are trying to change the social conditions that enabled queer Latinx people to be murdered, and that is all that we can ask of each other right now.