On June 9, as I pondered what I wanted to have for dinner, my brother called me. “We should talk whenever we can,” he said, “you never know. You could go out and a terrorist could shoot you. For no reason – out of hate.”
I didn’t know how true his words were until I looked at my iPad at 2:25 a.m. on June 12. When I learned of the massacre of LGBT people at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., during LGBT Pride month by Omar Mateen, a hate-filled, “self-radicalized” gunman. (ISIS, the radical Islamic “state,” offered praise for the shooting.)
I’m a wordsmith. But, as is the case for everyone I’ve spoken to, queer or hetero, since this horrific event, words fail. What can be said in the face of unimaginable hatred and horror? Mere language isn’t enough to convey such sorrow. Forty-nine LGBT people (some only in their 20s) were killed and 53 others injured (some critically) in an act of terrorism, a hate crime – or in an unfathomable, twisted combo of terror and hate. What were they doing? Nothing that straight folks haven’t done for eons – dancing, having a few drinks – cutting loose on a Saturday night. They were openly being themselves at the Pulse, a safe space in the LGBT community, until the shooting (the worst mass shooting in United States history) began.
Like many of us who are queer, I’ve become too optimistic, even a bit complacent, since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality on June 26, 2015. I spend my life in the D.C. area, or when I travel, in New York City, New Haven, Conn. or Northeast corridor cities. I’ve attended my queer friends’ weddings, daydreamed about magically finding Ms. Right, cheered rainbow flags flying at the White House, and marveled at my 20-something friends who think that our country having an openly gay Secretary of the Army for the first time is no big deal.
The Orlando massacre burst my bubble of complacency. The unspeakably horrifying event reconnected me with my LGBT roots and queer history. I remember June 28, 1969, the beginning of the modern gay rights movement, when brave LGBT patrons fought back against police raiding the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village. As a teenager in Southern New Jersey at that time, I knew (at some level) that I liked girls, but kept my sexuality hidden from my family, friends – even myself. Because to be openly queer back then meant risking being beaten up or (as happened to a family friend’s son) arrested.
During the height of the AIDS epidemic, many of my gay friends were often scorned. One friend was spat on as he stood on the subway. Another was roughed up on his way home from a bar for looking too much like “a faggot.”
Today, transgender people often face bigotry and violence as they, like the rest of us too frequently take for granted, go to work, to school — or simply dare to go to the bathroom.
This isn’t to say that during this Pride season, there isn’t much to rejoice in. There are openly queer elected officials, clergy, athletes and TV news anchors. LGBT parents are having and adopting kids; straight moms and dads love their queer kids; and grandparents are coming out to supportive families. Most people, hetero or queer, are appalled by violence against LGBT people. I can’t imagine us going back in the closet. To do that would be to opt for a spiritual and emotional death.
Still, the Orlando massacre is a wake-up call. Something as lovely as a kiss could make a crazed shooter kill us.
Yet, we mustn’t give in to hatred or Islamophobia. If we, hetero and queer are to survive, love must carry the day. As gay poet W. H. Auden wrote, “we must love one another or die.”
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.