Like so many of you, I’ve been numb since Sunday.
The 49 people who were killed in the attack in a gay bar in Orlando lived almost three thousand miles away. These mostly Latinx queers likely experienced a very different version of gayness that I have, as they were coming from a different regional community and different cultural backgrounds. But they were family. They were our family. That’s what we call ourselves. Family. Because for so long, so many of us lost our families of origin when we admitted that we were gay. We are one big family and once again, this family is immersed in grief over tragic loss and unwarranted violence.
I have been numb the last few days, but my body has been processing this grief. I left work early today because of my pain. Driving home in the car – body aching, back muscles tightened in pre-spasms – Lady Gaga’s voice erupted from my speakers. The tears came fast; it became hard to see and I pulled over to the side of the road. The grief streamed from my muscles, up my throat, and out in choking, body-wracking sobs as I sat in my car and cried for strangers in a city I’ve never even visited and for the violation of our sacred community space.
It’s hard to explain what our dance spaces mean to us. Throughout our history, the vilification and shunning of the LGBTQ community led to the creation of often hidden but vibrant and nuanced queer subculture(s). There are many ways that we create community and not all gay people identify or immerse themselves in these spaces. With the invention of the internet, there is no longer the urgent and pressing need to meet in designated safe spaces to find one another, but we still gather in these ways. As we achieve marriage rights and become more mainstream, it is easy to lose sight of how our dance clubs and community centers were the very living heart of who we were before it was safer to exist in the light. We have presented ourselves to the straight world as worthy, equal, and just like them. But along the way, some have argued that the “best self” that we’ve presented to the world left behind the parts of our community that are most at home on the sweaty floors of loud and throbbing dance clubs. Our sexual rebellion and counter-cultural transformation developed on those glittered dance floors,.
American gender roles stigmatize not just sexual intimacy between men, but almost any intimacy at all. Emotional vulnerability, soft physical contact, and even dancing with exuberance is identified as feminine and thus, lesser. But queer men have used our dance clubs as spaces to practice what others must not see. The day may be spent in the straight world – restricted like the rest of the men – but at night when queer men gather in dark spaces with pounding music and shining lights, we just dance. We dance in community, surrounded by similar bodies. We dance thick on the floor, together, brushing against each other. It is about sensuality and sexuality. It is playful and flirtatious. Sometimes it’s all about promiscuous non-monogamy and sometimes it’s just non-sexualized male friendships. It is about community. It is about family. It is a place where we can let our bodies scream out, “We are not alone”. It is where we have gone for generations to be ourselves, to be seen and understood, to dance with our hands in the air. And yes, there is plenty of toxic masculinity and flame-shame and other crap that sneaks its way in. We are not immune from internalizing our oppression. But it is one of the freest places we have. It is a place that belongs to us. It is sacred.
This is the place where we were attacked – in our home, our refuge.
The attack on Pulse, the gay nightclub in Orlando, echoed the attack on the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans in 1973. In that fire, 32 people burned to death in a domestic terrorist attack on a gay bar. The attack was largely ignored by the straight world. Jokes were told and families refused to collect the remains of their gay children for fear of public shaming. We’ve come a long way from there in the forty plus years since those victims spent their last moment pressed against the bars of second story windows, holding one another as the fire overwhelmed them. Today the media responds. The public is with us. We are seen and held in our grief. While that offers comfort, it’s a comfort I would have rather we didn’t needed. Because here we sit again, staring at the faces of a whole new generation of LGBTQ martyrs. We hear their stories and the stories of the survivors as they were gunned down. And let us not miss the fact that it is not just our queer people, but our brown and black queers, our Spanish speaking queers, our not-quite-America-enough-for-some-people queers who are once again the target of violence.
Reports are coming out now that say the gunman was a semi-regular. He was one of those men filled with shame who linger in the corners, unable to full step into the community but unable to stay away either. I don’t really care if this is true. Because even if this description is not accurate for this particular man, it has been and still is accurate for far too many queer men in this country. Even if the gunman was not queer, he was still subject to the effects of toxic masculinity, the system that teaches all of us that queer men are less valuable than straight cis men. It teaches that men who are effeminate in any way – ways which are completely constructed and change from one culture to another – are somehow lesser than the men who follow the strict rules of toxic masculinity. These are the rules that teach men to avoid their emotions, not bond with their children, to swallow their fears, and submerge their identity in the name of being a “good father” or “good husband” only to discover that there is no way to be good enough. While all men are subject to these toxic and damaging ideals, I hold a sacred spot in my heart for those men who are living in the closet, those who live two lives and are never at peace in either one. For reasons of shame and fear and family obligation, they are unable to move fully into the queer community, but they are also unable to stay away. So many of them sneak and lurk, engage in often dangerous sexual practices, and continue to fill themselves with self-loathing. The choices they make in their lives as they try to keep their secrets spreads the damage of toxic masculinity and homophobia to the people around them in waves. The pain and suffering extends from them, into their families, their partners, and the world. They become toxic and sometimes even deadly.
These deaths were enacted at the hands of one man, possibly a man who suffered like this. But we can’t make sense of this tragedy by dismissing him as evil or mentally ill. We can’t blame his religion or his ethnicity. This is not the fault of one lone murderer. He was just a man, struggling to make sense of the same oppressive ideas that we all struggle with. He chose poorly again and again, eventually causing a great deal of pain and suffering. We can blame him and be angry. Those are all natural and valid feelings. But if we want to address the root causes of this violence, we need to look to the real killer of these 49 innocent victims and the thousands of other Americans who have died at their own hands and the hands of others for being gay. We need to be talking about the shame that is taught and internalized that all comes from these antiquated and suffocating ideas of masculinity. We need to be redefining what it means to be a man.
The young people in our communities are already on top of this. Classrooms across the country are filled with trans and gender non-conforming children who are living examples of the way they are re-defining gender. The question of what it means to be a man is quickly being replaced with questions about what it means to have personality traits and characteristics that are beyond male and female. They are pushing past the limitations of our constructions and queering the concept of gender completely. We had all better keep up. These conversations are spreading online, as the newest members of the queer community connect globally and demand to be seen as they identify. Gender theories are taking root and coming into our daily lives. Despite all of our work, we older queers are still surrounded by the ghosts of our gender constructed pasts. Many of us are still sitting amidst fear and doubt, living within communities that are still struggling to catch up to the idea that God might love gay people after all. The gap between the world the queer youth are creating and the power structures we live and work in is widening. We need to pay attention, not just to keep up, but to pull our families and friends with us.
There are many of us who sit in the middle, remembering the days of gay ghettos and embracing the increasing number of gender-queer people in our communities. The country is moving forward fast. Less than a week ago, a ruling in Oregon was passed stating that a citizen can be legally identified as non-binary. This is the first ruling of this kind in the nation. But we all have folks in our lives and in our country who are completely unprepared for these changes. They are afraid and misinformed. They are easy prey to those who spew confusion and hate, misinformation and fear about issues like transwomen in bathrooms. They are the ones who are vulnerable to hate-speech. This is where the backlash comes from. This is where the attacks on us are born. So, to keep ourselves safe, these people must become our responsibility. We must reach out and gently nudge, lovingly educate those around us. As the cultural divide in our country widens ad we all are surrounded more and more with only like-minded people, it becomes even more important that we reach across those divides to pull people with us. We cannot leave them behind. Education and familiarity are often the key factors in changing how people relate to the LGBTQ community. We must reach out, be present, and engage. This is the way we protect ourselves from more killings and violence. When we are overwhelmed with that sense of helplessness in the face of this violence, this is the call to action that gives us a way to fight back.
We need to spend our days out in the straight world, gently nudging them into a deeper state of compassion and education. And then, when the long day is over, let us gather at night, raise our voices in revelry, honor our beloved dead, and just dance.