In times of hardships, tragedies and even triumphs, I find myself picking up a notepad, a drafting pencil or a paint brush to allow my creativity to flow. It’s in these moments when I find my motivation, peace and serenity. Often times, I don’t have a difficult time finding the words to say. After many tragedies, I had no shortage of words to write, but in the face of yet another national tragedy, I’ve found myself at a loss for words.
It’s been four weeks, and it is still incomprehensible to think about what happened at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. The worst mass shooting in American history where 49 people died, and 53 others were injured. The spot was chosen because of its popularity, and its LGBTQ clientele.
This is an especially heartbreaking day for all our friends—our fellow Americans—who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The shooter targeted a nightclub where people came together to be with friends, to dance and to sing, and to live. The place where they were attacked is more than a nightclub—it is a place of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds, and to advocate for their civil rights. – President Barack Obama (June 12, 2016).
I’ve been working on what to write in the wake of the massacre, but at times I’ve been overcome with grief, sadness, and unable to conceptualize my feelings into words. I’ve wanted to write something that expresses my own feelings, advocates for awareness, and most importantly honors the victims.
Eight years ago, my friend invited me to her 21st birthday celebration at Martha’s Vineyard, a gay bar in Springfield, Missouri. I had never been to the bar, but I had always been interested in going… as a “straight” guy, of course. While I was eager to go to Martha’s, by the time I got in there, I felt awkward, uncomfortable and out of place. Deep down inside myself, I knew the truth; I was gay, but I wasn’t ready to accept it. As the night progressed, I loosened up, and began enjoying myself. When we were getting ready to leave, my friend’s friend, who is an openly gay man, came up to me. He put his sweaty arms on my shoulders and said “I know you’re straight, but I just want you to know that you’re adorable.” I don’t know what it was in that moment; maybe he whispered a subliminal message to me – it’s OK to be yourself. I found myself at a crossroad in my life. I could wallow in my self-pity and continue lying to myself, but I didn’t want to live a lie anymore. I was sick of the battle, and I wanted to be true to myself, and the world.
Over time, going to Martha’s became somewhat of a weekly ritual for my friends and me. We went to watch drag shows, we went to drink, to dance, to have a good time, and most importantly to be with friends. One of my greatest memories at Martha’s Vineyard was New Years Eve, 2008. The year was being capped off surrounded by friends that just a year ago, I didn’t know. As the clock struck midnight, drag kings and queens got on stage as we all sang “Seasons of Love,” from Rent. In that moment, I was excited for the path my life was headed on. Everything felt right. As I look back upon my experiences at Martha’s Vineyard, I remember how comfortable I felt there. I could be myself without fear of being harassed; I met like minded people and developed a supportive network of friends.
My personal experiences and feelings aren’t unique. In fact, they are on par with the norm. As I asked my own friends about their experiences at gay bars their descriptions were strikingly similar to my own. They expressed that they felt at “home” and like they were among “family.” Gay bars, diners, resorts, and other establishments that cater to the LGBTQ community are seen as safe havens. We don’t have to fear the harassment, discrimination, bigotry or hatred that people in the LGBTQ community are all too often faced with. Martha’s Vineyard was my respite from a world, and more importantly, a town that didn’t understand. British comedian, David Morgan said:
If you’re not gay you might not know how rare it can be to feel welcome and safe in a space. To be gunned down in one of them is horrific.
— David Morgan (@thisisdavid) June 12, 2016
People have been asking why the media and our politicians keep referring to Pulse Nightclub as a gay establishment, rather than just calling it a nightclub. Pulse is not just a nightclub, and to refer to it as such would be both disingenuous and misleading. The nightclub was not targeted simply because it was a popular bar, but because it was a popular gay bar. Whether the gunman targeted that specific location because of his religious ideologies, or his hatred for the LGBTQ community, the location was chosen because the patrons were gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and straight allies.
The sobering facts that LGBTQ youth represent approximately seven percent of the youth population, but account for 40 percent of homelessness among all teenagers, and LGBT teens are four times more likely to attempt suicide, while questioning youth are three times more likely when compared to their straight counterparts are troubling, but the troubling facts do not end there. In circumstances in which LGBTQ youth are physically or verbally harassed or abused, it is reported that they are two and a half times more likely to engage in self-harming behaviors. Additionally, youth that come from unsupportive families are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide when compared to LGBTQ youth that report little to no family rejection.
The raw emotions those of us in the LGBTQ community are feeling understand the struggles the people at Pulse went through in everyday life. We faced the discrimination, the bigotry and the intolerance first hand, just as they did. We know the stories of the “medical experiments,” torture and death those suspected of being gay were subjected to in the concentration camps during the Holocaust that history books tend to forget. We understand the first pride march was a riot – the Stonewall Riots in 1969. We understand the arson of the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans that killed 32 in 1973, and was the largest mass killing of LGBTQ individuals in the US prior to Pulse, was motivated by hatred. We understand that Matthew Shepard was tied to a fence, beaten and left to die, because he was gay. We understand that Lawrence King was murdered because he professed his love to a male classmate, and his educators ignored the warning signs and pointed blame at Lawrence, rather than his perpetrator. We understand that our transgender brothers and sisters are being discriminated against, abused and killed at even greater alarming rates than lesbians, gays and bisexuals, and our politicians seem preoccupied with legislating what restrooms people should use, rather than creating meaningful legislation. We understand that we couldn’t openly serve in the military until 2011, June 30, 2016 if you’re trans, or get married in all 50 states until last year and we understand the “religious freedom” laws for what they truly are. We also hear loud and clear some of the rhetoric being preached in the wake of the Orlando tragedy in the name of “God.”
While this attack has affected anyone that values freedom and human life, regardless of their sexual orientation, it’s important to realize this tragedy impacts all of us in different ways, and we mourn in different ways. We respond differently, and even have different connections to the victims and location of the attack. You might be mourning the loss of innocent lives, broken dreams, and families and friends that have to deal with the emptiness their lives now have. You may be heartbroken over the carnage that was spilled on June 12 because of hatred, intolerance and bigotry. You have every right to feel the way you do, because the people that died and the people that are dealing with the injuries and scars are ultimately a part of all of us.
As I wrote this, I felt it was important to capture voices from the LGBTQ community and beyond. I asked a couple of my straight friends for their thoughts on the attack, and this is what they had to say:
“It bothers me that a heavily armed man went into a nightclub and shot a lot of people. Those people were someone’s son or daughter. An act of hate took them away from their families. As a straight mother, I keep thinking that there are parents mourning the loss of their sons or daughters, brothers and sisters. I have a five-year-old daughter, and it scares me that she could be in the wrong place at the wrong time someday because of a hateful person with a weapon.” – Jodi
“It’s hard to really put into words what I’m feeling. No one deserves what happened in Orlando.I would be considered by many to be very conservative… Perhaps even a “right wing-nut” to some, but that doesn’t mean I lack compassion. I have been praying for the families of the victims, just as I do for any national tragedy. We can all unite and agree that what happened was absolutely terrible. It especially hit me when I heard he had scouted out Disney World. If he had chosen that as his target, it likely would have been the week I was there for my first Disney trip, as I was there during the Disney “Gay Days.” To think I could have been that close to a national tragedy is hard to fathom, and makes things hit a little closer to home. I have friends in the LGBT community, and to think that they could be targeted for their sexual orientation is just as tragic as Christian persecution in the Middle East*.” – Allison
While we understand and still endure the discrimination, hatred, bigotry and tragedies we have faced over the decades in the LGBTQ community, there’s still reasons to be optimistic. There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done for equality, especially for our transgender brother and sisters. We’re still going to face the bigotry and hatred that has plagued us, but we’re in a far better place today than we were even just 10 years ago. The Stonewall Inn was just designated a national historic site by President Obama and just last week, Defense Secretary Ash Carter lifted the transgender ban in the military. We may still be reeling in the pain of Orlando, and that will take time to heal, but I have hope for a better tomorrow.
“The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the us’es, the us’es will give up. […] And you, and you, and you, you have to give people hope.” – Harvey Milk (1978).
In November, I will cap off an epic expedition to Berlin, Barcelona, the Canary Islands, and Puerto Rico in Orlando. I planned to go to Pulse Nightclub prior to June 12, and that plan has not changed. Barbara Poma initially opened Pulse to keep her gay brother, John Poma’s heartbeat alive after he died. She and co-owner Ron Legler vow to reopen Pulse with a stronger heartbeat than ever before; a pulse strong enough to memorialize 50 lives (49 victims that died, and her brother). A good friend of mine that I met through LGBTQ advocacy often calls us a family of choice. While talking about the reopening of Pulse, Poma reiterated that when she said:
“We just welcome those families into our families. and we just have to move forward and find a way to keep our hearts beating and keep our spirit alive; and we’re not going to let somebody take this away from us.” – TODAY Interview (6/14/16)
If Pulse is reopened by November, I will go there and dance the night away. Otherwise, I will pay my respects in another way. As Barbara Poma said:
“It’s important to never let hate win.” – Today Interview (6/14/16)
Love conquers hate, because:
“We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger
We rise and fall and light from dying embers
remembrances that hope and love last longer
And love is love is love is love
is love is love is love is love
Cannot be killed or swept aside” – Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tony Awards (6/12/16)
*- I don’t want to take away from the sentiments of this comment, because it’s important, however I feel it is also important to point out that many groups of people from many different cultural groups are persecuted in unfathomable ways in parts of the Middle East.