orlando: taking it personally, framing it politically

You probably know this. A few days ago, a shooter killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. That was how it was put when I first heard about it. I was lying in bed next to my partner, waking up in a sunny Sunday bedroom. My eyes weren’t open yet. She saw the headline on her phone and read it aloud. They were the first words I heard that day. They pierced through my morning fog, a shock of emotion that was pure and sharp in its physicality. When I got out of bed, I read that the shooter was Muslim and potentially had ties to ISIS. Later that day, I read elsewhere that the nightclub primarily served Latinx queers and trans people.

The order of that information is meaningful. It was a social hierarchy played out in real time in the news.

I think many people first heard about the tragedy as a nightclub shooting, with no mention of queer. Certainly some news outlets have twisted themselves into pretzels to make the event about everyone, not “just” queer people. In the sense that any mass shooting of course affects a broad spectrum of people, in the sense that living in a violent society shapes everyone’s experience, in the sense that we can all feel shock and rage and grief when people die whether we know them or not – then yes, I agree. This is about everyone. In the sense that we should melt the differences away and see people as all basically the same, in the sense that the specificities of difference make some people less grievable or their deaths less important, in the sense that in order to feel a human connection we have to pretend there is no privilege and oppression gumming up the works – then no, I do not agree at all. This is not about everyone. It is specific. It is so very specific.

So what does specific mean? It’s complicated, and the complication cuts to the heart of so many issues.

At first, I was going to write this post in the order the information about the shooting came to me in real time, as I set out just now. But that order, itself, is part of the problem. So I’m flipping it, to try as best I can to centre the voices most drowned out right now.

3. /on Latin night/

Whose murder was made into a widely toured play: Matthew Shepard or Ramsey Whitefish?

Whose death was commemorated in a major motion picture: Brandon Teena or Penny Proud?

I’m not arguing that fame is a measure of meaning when it comes to a murder victim’s life. I am saying it’s no coincidence that the queer and trans people whose murders have drawn the most intense and enduring attention are white and male. The logic of white supremacy put Matthew Shepard in countless theatres and Ramsey Whitefish in an inch of column space in a Toronto newspaper. This same logic won an Oscar for the person who portrayed Brandon Teena* and earned Penny Proud a short-lived hashtag.

Ramsey Whitefish** was a First Nations man. (Notice that the mainstream news won’t even tell you that.) Penny Proud was a Black trans woman, one of many murdered in the last couple of years (and many more before that). When it comes to queer and trans deaths, the nameless and the famous divide along predictable lines of race and gender.

If we make the Orlando shooting “about everyone,” or even about all queers, we somehow ignore that nearly every person who died was Latinx, particularly Puerto Rican, and/or Black. We leave out how some undocumented survivors don’t know how they’ll pay for medical care after a gunshot wound, and how the families of the deceased may not be able to afford repatriation. We obscure the particular struggles that characterize the shooting’s victims, and how their lives and this (for some, final) violence done to them fit into the legacy of colonialism. We fail to see the meaning of solidarity between oppressed Black and/or Latinx people, and that message of hope and power. We miss out on opportunities to help by raising funds through and for Latinx communities who best know how to direct the money. We fail to grasp the layers of impact this shooting has had for the people it targeted. We don’t know the significance to the community of the two performers scheduled that night, Kenya Michaels and Jasmine International, or whether they’re okay (yes, they got out). And in another direction, we fail to note that Orlando is preceded by other, much bigger massacres on US soil, particularly of Native Americans.

Writing about this as a white Canadian queer, I’m also really aware that I may be missing other nuances, key issues for the victims and their families and communities that I’m just not hearing about because I’m too far away (and I’m not talking geography). All I can say is, we have to listen. We must try. And yes, we white queers can and should speak, because our grief is real and straightwashing is happening. But while speaking (or writing), we need to also steer attention to queer Latinx voices, because otherwise they will be buried. And we have had too many burials already.

2. /by a radical Muslim/

The news media really wanted everyone to know, right away, that the killer was Muslim. It was so important. Why? Because it fit the narrative of Islamophobia. Textbook. We all know it well by now: if a shooter is Muslim, he’s a religious extremist and a terrorist. Therefore, watch out for those dangerous Muslims. If he’s white, he’s a lone wolf with a mental illness. A terrible tragedy, but whiteness cannot be a terrorist marker. So there is nothing to see here. No pattern, no threat.

Perhaps this is my historian mind speaking, but one of the first things that occurred to me when I saw pictures of Mateen was that he really liked wearing NYPD gear. And given the timing (Pride month) and the target (gay club) and his profession (security and wannabe cop), my first thought was that he was following in the footsteps of Stonewall – attacking a gay bar just like the NYPD did, in a really different context and era, of course, but maybe not for very different reasons.

But his reasons aren’t so clear at this point. The developments, as they come out, are complicating the story. Was Mateen gay? He apparently went to the bar often, had profiles on gay dating apps. Undercover research for a suitable target? His own self-hating, closeted queerness at work? We know he beat his ex-wife. Misogyny? Of course, yes, but only that? She says he was unstable, and co-workers agree, it seems. Mental illness? Wait, but it must be religion. Did he actually have ties to ISIS or was he privately radicalized? What was going on? Will we ever figure it out, or will we forever spin, a gyroscope of uncertainty, with competing pat stories orbiting in perfect balance? The radical religious zealot, the violent misogynist homophobe, the mentally ill and therefore dangerous loose cannon. Which one is it? Cliché dictates that it can’t possibly be something else, a combination, a complication. There is no room for complexity here. We need click-throughs.

All this preoccupation with the killer is… troubling. Like everyone else I would like to know, of course I would. But at the same time, it makes very little difference exactly why he did it. We know the various social and personal forces that could have shaped his actions, and no SWAT team could take those out with a controlled detonation. More importantly, we know who died, and new knowledge won’t bring them back.

Also? I don’t trust the people investigating, or most of the people reporting, to be able to make sense of all these nuances and overlapping possibilities.

Especially amid the rise to prominence of a potential US presidential candidate whose appalling racism is both exposing and encouraging a level of Islamophobia in the US that, even from this little perch north of the border, is a horror of massive proportions, even if he never makes it to office. (By the way, we have plenty of Islamophobia up here, too.)

Especially amid the violent paranoia and punitive legislation in the US around trans people’s basic human need to use the goddamn bathroom and the vicious homophobia that (surprise, surprise!) persists even after we won same-sex marriage. (Up here we’ve had it for a decade now and coulda told you it wasn’t a cure-all.)

Especially amid the persistent perception that violence against women is a personal, private, domestic affair and not a public health hazard, a major human rights issue, a colossal failure of both law and justice, a culture of rape, a body-by-body testament to entitled male violence that of course spreads outside the home. Of course. For fuck’s sake. How could it not.

Especially as the public conversation about mental illness is still in its infancy and mostly consists of gross misunderstanding, stigma, fear and pity.

Especially as mass shootings, after the last bullets are fired, are immediately revisited as ideological battlegrounds about gun control, immigration, and various other political questions. (On which note: yes, USA, get your fucking gun problem under control already. No other place in the world has such a passionate and patriotic attachment to its own bullet-riddled self-destruction. But maybe fucking do your soapboxing before the next biggest-mass-shooting-ever, instead of after it.)

In any case, the endless appetite for each new nugget of information about the man who murdered 49 people and injured 53 more makes him a weird kind of celebrity, and gives a lot of people whose politics I don’t trust the opportunity to polish their interpretations of a tragedy to support their particular projects. I try to temper my curiosity by thinking about this as I read, and share, the news.

1. Mass shooting at a gay nightclub/

I got my news through queers on social media, so queer came first. And my emotions followed: holy shit. We were targeted. Again. “We.” Because, yes, for a queer the loss of 49 queers to a mass murder is personal. We don’t have to know them to have lost them. Because this shooting, emotionally, hits many of the same notes – smashes them hard, like a toddler on a piano – as we’ve heard playing all our lives. And not just our own lives, but queer and trans lives throughout human history.

The annihilation of queers and trans people cuts across time, geography and culture. Some cultures, particularly indigenous ones, have historically made space for and valued people whose sexualities or genders differ from the norm. But worldwide, this acceptance is exception, not rule. We’ve been targeted by most governments, by pretty much all oppressive regimes, by the medical establishment, by law enforcement. By any large institutional force that needs a scapegoat. Some of this has been passive – the US government’s refusal to act when queers are dying, such as in the early AIDS epidemic. Some of it has been active, such as the Nazi regime or the current Ugandan government.

Some death has been direct, but individual. One here, one there, weekly, daily. A bashing, a stabbing. The drip, drip, drip of dying queers and trans people. It fills you up over time. Or drains you, depending how you look at it. Maybe you can be a really young queer or trans person and not yet know about queer and trans death. Maybe. But I guarantee you can’t make it much past your teens – if you make it past your teens – without knowing. It is a part of being what we are, to know this.

Some death has been insidious – the slow crush of living in a society that makes basic everyday existence so much harder for queer and trans people, in such a way that it really feels like a polite invitation to self-annihilate, wouldn’t that just be so much easier for everyone? And some do just that, whether by suicide or addictions or stress-induced illness, or other ways of disappearing. We know this, too. For many of us this self-annihilation is a standing invitation – from our religions, our schools, our families of origin, our laws, our media – that we must every day choose to turn down.

I don’t mean to erase all the massive differences between these different contexts and kinds of deaths. They are unique and each rooted in their own time, place, culture, bodies. I only mean that death itself is a great equalizer. Many different lead-ups. Queer and trans death as the result of them all.

This is why my social media feed blew up with love and rage that day and all week since. It’s why I got texts from queer friends near and far. It’s why I sent messages of care to my queer family, too. We are grieving for strangers because to us they are not strange to us. Because, while of course we are appalled, we aren’t surprised. Honestly, it’s more surprising that it has taken this long for the present-day trend (trend?) of lone, hate-filled gunmen (men) shooting up large groups of people they hate to extend to us.

Many of us have noticed the ringing silence of our straight friends and family members. That silence deepens a distance I think many of us hoped had been bridged. It’s painful, but I don’t think it’s malicious. It’s just that if you haven’t lived with the everyday, embodied knowledge that people like you have been a target throughout human history – that you, in your body, today, are a target, right now – if that knowledge has never constricted your chest or quickened your steps or heightened your hearing – if you’ve never experienced kissing your lover or walking into a bookstore or dancing in a nightclub as a triumph over your own terror – if you haven’t ever tried to wedge your body between Death and your friend or your lover, and sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed – then perhaps you just can’t know how much comfort queers might need when 49 queers are murdered. After all their surviving, all the things it meant for them to have made it to that nightclub at all, all the things we ourselves have survived and the nightclubs where we’ve found ourselves and each other – and there, Death walked right in the front door and got them anyway. It is fucking wrenching.

This is why we are grieving. This is why I’m grieving. On the edge of tears for days, sometimes letting them spill. Talking about it in therapy, with my queer therapist who couldn’t quite hide her own grief, and I’m grateful she didn’t. Reading the news and social media until I can’t anymore. Distracting myself with movies and video games. Trying, in my mind, to walk the strange line of allowing my own very real feelings to exist, to emerge, to move, to be at my own centre, while also trying not to de-centre the victims and their communities in how I read and think and write about this specific, particular violence, which was not in fact directed at me, a white Canadian queer.

So with that in mind, let’s get back to discussing that hierarchy, and trying to change it.

*EDIT 06/19: A friend taught me, today, that Brandon Teena was in fact of mixed heritage, and partly of Sioux descent. That he is consistently presented and portrayed as white is yet a further erasure at play, which I think serves to reinforce the point.

**EDIT 06/23: I may need to amend my assertion here. I can’t find confirmation that Ramsey Whitefish identified as queer or Two-Spirit. What I do know is that he lived in and was murdered in the heart of the Church and Wellesley area, Toronto’s gay hub, so whether he was queer or not, he may well have been perceived to be. I also know that news of his murder was first disseminated by word of mouth through the gay community in that area. A murder is tragic regardless of who it targets and why, and the disproportionately high violent deaths of First Nations people rarely get much notice. As such, I stand by my overall point about the erasure of underprivileged people and the elevation of white men, even in death. But this particular murder may not be an appropriate example of how queers and trans people, specifically, are treated. I’m leaving it as part of this post for the moment with this caveat, pending any further information I may find; and I apologize if I have inadvertently misrepresented Mr. Whitefish in so doing. Stay tuned for a possible further correction.

5 thoughts on “orlando: taking it personally, framing it politically

  1. Wow, this is very well worded and very on point. I completely agree that the hierarchy and the way the information was presented was very much propaganda to fulfill a political agenda.
    “No, let’s not talk about queer issues, especially not after the whole debacle about Trans people in bathrooms. This was clearly an attack on Amuricuh and the American way of life!”
    Needless to say, I am appalled by many news outlets for how they have selected to present the facts to the public.

  2. I’m curious about your apparent distinction between queer people and trans people. I – and many people I know – use the word queer to include sexual and gender minorities generally. I suppose it might be a Canada vs US usage, but you strike me as smart and thoughtful enough that you choose words intentionally. Please don’t misunderstand — I’m not criticizing. I don’t think one usage is right and the other wrong; that’s not the point. I just would genuinely enjoy hearing your thoughts about this. (If you reply, I’m equally happy with a comment here, or an email. Thanks.)

    1. Hi Jenny. In most usages I’m familiar with, queer is understood as being primarily about sexual orientation (though it can extend to other things from there in some usages), whereas trans is about gender identity. According to a major study of trans people done in Ontario, TransPULSE, about two thirds of trans people consider themselves something other than heterosexual in orientation – but that still leaves a third of trans people who are straight. And many people do not feel like it’s accurate to lump them in with queers when they are heterosexual and wish to be understood as such. Beyond that, the struggles of queer folks are not the same as those of trans folks. There is overlap for some people (both cis and trans) in the area of non-traditional gender expression, and certainly plenty of queer folks are also trans and vice versa. But plenty of queer people are cisgender, so applying the “trans” label to them would be inaccurate. Mostly I just try to respect the words people in these various communities use for themselves; that does change over time, so my usage might change in future years in keeping with that, but for now this best reflects what I’m reading and hearing in my communities. 🙂

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