When I woke to news of the mass murders in Orlando last month I was devastated. The pain was visceral. I cried for days. Dozens of my queer compatriots were gunned down while celebrating their lives during Pride month. It made me ill.
My partner is a man who hasn’t been steeped in the LGBTQ community. He knows gay folks and he is asks questions to figure out stuff and is kind and open to finding out why the community is so important to me. But, he does not have the history or connection with it that I do.
He asked me a question I have been rolling over in my brain for a while now. “Why are gay people shocked by this?”
Its a legitimate question. He is a Black man in America. He sees men like him executed and murdered by police. He sees Black men vilified and threatened with death and extinction by government forces as well as bigots in society. He lives with the fact that his gender and skin color make him appear “threatening” when he leaves the house.
So, why were so many gay folks shocked by the murders in Orlando?
I have my theories. I think that for many LGBTQ folks, the treat of violence based on our sexual orientation has been theoretical. Yes, we know people hate us. Yes, we have stories about how this or that epithet was thrown, how we were bullied in school, but violence resulting in death is something distant to many of us. Deadly violence happens in the “backward” parts of America. Matthew Shepard was killed in a fly-over western state most of us have never been too. We know a few trans folks have been killed in cities, but they are trans, not gay. We create distance for ourselves.
I have been out for 30 years. The worst harassment I got was in college. I was the target of death threats and I knew a group of Young Republicans (yes, the college group, not just conservative kids) had targeted me for a “fix-it rape” if they got an opportunity. But I chose to be out and be an activist for gay rights. I accepted the potential violence as part of my choice to fight for rights. I wasn’t just living my life as a gay person. I chose to be on the front lines of the fight.
The thing is, most people don’t choose to be in that roll. Most LGBTQ folks want to just live their lives without a threat of being fired, or losing their kids, or losing their housing, or being beaten up in a bathroom because they love someone of the same sex. Most people don’t see going to a bar, in the gay part of town, during Pride and not hitting on heteros or “flaunting” it in the street by holding hands as something that makes them a target.
Being queer today, and for the better part of the past two decades has meant putting up with mean comments and harassment, but we have safer parts of town. We can be out in bigger cities. Some states offer some protections. We can get married now. This means the treat of violence when we just exist is theoretical, something we can forget about and go dance and kiss a pretty girl and have fun.
Being Black is different. The violence isn’t just from some lone individual or some church group. It is systematically engaged in by the police. It is on the news every day. It is in your neighborhood, on your walk home, how you are treated in the bank and the grocery store. The threat of violence is ever-present. Violence, when it is recorded on video or live streamed on Facebook doesn’t stop. People still find ways to justify a police officer shooting an unarmed man in the head while he is pinned to the ground and call it “reasonable action” because Black skin is a threat.
This makes the response of the the community different. This difference is why I think the LGBTQ community has a chance at creating gun law changes. We have a singular traumatic event (Orlando) to point too and rally around. Yes, gay people are killed regularly in the United States (look at the crime stats for this). However, when the numbers are looked at, it happens less often for LGBTQ folks than Black people. Additionally, it is much less common for agents of the state to kill LGBTQ folks than it is for them to kill Black folks.
It is easier to look for solutions to control gun access and mobilize around ending violence from random people and sporadic incidents than it is to mobilize to de-militarize a police force that now knows it can get away with murdering people on film with a shrug and a half-baked excuse for why someone in handcuffs hung themselves in a cell with four other people.
I have hope that the LGBTQ community can take steps to end some of the rampant gun violence in America. I think we can do it. As for ending Black men being murdered by police, I am at a loss. I feel like I have reached a point with police murdering Black men like you do when you get beaten. At some point, an assault can be so bad you leave your body and no longer comprehend what is really happening. I don’t know what to do with that or how to come back and fight.
This is why I think queer folks were shocked when a gunman killed 50 of our brothers and sisters and Black folks are angry and sad about another police shooting, but not shocked. And it sickens me that Black men being murdered is so common that it is not shocking anymore.