At three in the morning today, a friend from the West Coast pinged me online. On Facebook I’d posted that I was too heartbroken to sleep. Although exhausted, I was still trying to process the day's news from Orlando, in which a gunman shot down dozens of people in a gay bar called Pulse, killing 50 and injuring more than 50 others. It is being called the worst mass shooting in the history of the United States.
My friend said he was shaken by this senseless act of violence. I understood how he felt. I attempted to work through my shock, confusion, sadness, and anger on Twitter. Feeling helpless, I tried to remedy it by compiling a list of more than 40 vigils that sprang up across the U.S. and Canada. We all have our own ways of making sense of tragedy. And yet that word my friend used — senseless — gave me pause. To me it was very plain that this act wasn't senseless at all.
What made yesterday’s shooting horrific was not just the magnitude of the violence, but that it was the most deadly intersection yet between a culture fuelled by conservatives and Republicans who constantly signal that LGBTQ people are somehow less worthy as people, with a culture that implicitly condones gun violence.
In news online and elsewhere, we repeatedly see stories of violence against the most vulnerable. Children are shot and killed in their classrooms. Guns were used in 52 per cent of the 1,706 female single-victim murder incidents in 2012, making them the most common weapon used to kill women in the United States. People of colour, and particularly black communities, are regularly threatened with gun violence by both law enforcement and civilians, some of whom have killed people in their own places of worship. LGBTQ folks, in particular from the transgender community, are gunned down with regularity, simply for being who they are. And still nothing changes.
That’s what creates a ripe environment for tragedies such as Orlando. That's what makes it heartbreaking. Events like these are inevitable.
More than 40 vigils were planned yesterday to show solidarity for Orlando. It speaks to how close the violence hits home for many in the LGBTQ community. The shooting could have been almost anywhere. Underlining this was the same-day arrest of a man headed to Los Angeles’ Pride parade with a cache of guns and explosives who reportedly told police he wanted to cause harm at the event. We’re reminded that the price for trying to live freely and openly is to face the persistent threat of violence that hums along in the background.
Sometimes it is more open, such as bigoted bathroom laws and the brutal yet ignored deaths of transgender women of colour. We are reminded of how this violence happens not just in the U.S. but here in Canada, and in too many other countries far too frequently.
Just a bit before my friend messaged me, I saw J.K. Rowling’s tweet about Luis Vielma, an Orlando shooting victim who had worked at a Harry Potter ride at Universal Studios. In the picture, Vielma is in a Hogwarts school uniform, giving the camera a thumbs-up and a shy smile. His face radiates youth and joy, and it’s not hard to envision him at Pulse enjoying himself, dancing to a new favourite song, and checking out some cute guys. I try to stay in this moment for as long as I can: the gay club is and has been an escape from the hurt and cruelty of oppression. It was formed and exists in the very nexus of LGBTQ pride.
One of the more difficult parts of this tragedy has been seeing how quickly the system can work to erase people. Many media outfits have neglected to mention in headlines and leading sentences that the club was LGBTQ, and some have hesitated to call this event what it is: a hate crime. Politicians have offered prayers and thoughts, but those are rendered meaningless when juxtaposed with their voting records on gun control and their history of lobbying donations from the National Rifle Association. Igor Volsky, deputy director at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, has been tracking many of these insincere statements on Twitter since the attack.
When news emerged of the shooter Omar Mateen’s background, the Islamophobia, stoked by the Republicans’ choice for leader of the free world, was nauseating, especially in light of how the reported intentions of the armed white man headed to Los Angeles were not discussed the same way, if he was mentioned at all. I also think about how the Orlando victims were mainly people of colour, and how given that brown and black men and women are underrepresented in the media, ignoring this fact feels like another unnecessary wound.
These details matter. Our lives are so easily reduced to talking points, or brownie points for which both politicians and the white majority can pat themselves on the back.
I finally fell asleep at 4 a.m., still meditating on pictures I saw online of the victims in happier times. At 9:30, I awoke, not feeling an ounce more rested. You cannot recover from heartbreak that easily.
These words pour out of me so easily that it is shocking. In some ways it feels like I am writing something that has already been written before. This is yet another in the series of mass shootings, and yet another story of violence against queer people of colour. Once more, we’ll call for tougher gun control legislation and LGBT civil rights. And, should should history repeat itself, not much more will be done but vaudevillian politics.
The horrific bloodshed feels like a nightmare from which you can’t awaken. We think the day of is horrible, but just wait for the day after. It is much, much worse, because we no longer have the shock to help numb the pain.
Jaime Woo is a Toronto-based writer and the author of the Lambda Literary Award-nominated book Meet Grindr: How One App Changed the Way We Connect.
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