I’ve been pretty vocal about my thoughts and feelings in the wake of the massacre at Pulse, but I’ve also held a lot of my observations back. Even though it’s important to discuss
what happened, it’s also not about me. I wasn’t there. I also didn’t grow up experiencing the same type of physical, verbal, mental, and epistemic violence that my friends who have lived proudly out for many years did (andstill do). I’ve tried to balance my desire to show support with the need to let more directly affected voices be heard. In the last couple days, however, I’ve received some messages that I feel the need to dissect because that’s just what I do.
I often find myself in a particular position that lends me a unique perspective when it comes to relations between GLBTQ+ communities and heteronormative society. I’ve been open about the fact that, although I typically date men, I firmly believe that sexuality and gender exist on a spectrum that people might naturally (I.e. Not by conscious choice) move along at any point, and that I’m not sure I have a concretely fixed point there myself. I’ve never come out because I don’t particularly identify with or feel represented by any of the available terms, identities, or constructs of sexuality (including my usual default answer of “straight”, but it’s easy to whip out when my only other answer is “I’m not really sure”, which usually leads to more questions). I’m not a lesbian or even bisexual, but I’m not exactly the poster girl for stereotypical straight chicks either. I guess I’d be considered queer or pansexual, but I don’t use those terms because I don’t always find that I share many experiences with my friends who firmly identify that way. I’m often misgendered (particularly online) or grilled about “what I am” by members of both camps, even though I’m usually considered “passable” enough by each to move (mostly) comfortably between the two. Sometimes,however, this puts me in a sparsely occupied grey area in which I’m considered “too queer” for straight people, spaces, and things, but “not queer enough” for GLBTQ+ people, places, and things.
This is not a complaint per se. I have not been adversely affected by systematic oppression the way openly gay women are. I am, after all, white, cis-gendered, and mostly-straight-ish. Yes, I’ve experienced sexism. I’m also no stranger to having confused homophobic slurs thrown at me in social and online contexts by people who are inexplicably bothered when they can’t immediately place my gender performance or sexual preference in a neat box that lets them make normative assumptions about me. Generally, however, I am safe in public and in my work places and I am not prevented from doing most things based on my identities (or perceived identities).
My existence in the strange intersection between straight and queer communities has been challenging to navigate since the tragedy in Orlando. Is it as challenging as experiencing PTSD like people who were in the club or being afraid to come out at work or hold your partners hand because homophobic strangers are commenting “you’re next” accompanied by gun emojis on your social media repeatedly? Of course not. But I can only speak to my lived experience and writing is how I process things.
If my Facebook feed is any sample, parts of the queer community are begging for the support of wider society, asking that we get involved, speak up, and make our opinions and feelings following Orlando known. Other parts of the community beg that we pipe down, let them take the forefront, and wait quietly until we’re called upon to speak in depth. I see the logic in both sides. On my timeline, I see a blend of pleas for each, with only the occasional outraged voice pointing fingers and placing blame in a way that might be construed as detrimental to the rhetoric of team work and unity that the majority of people seem to be striving for.
On the other side, the straight community (I’m excluding here the irrational homophobes who support violence and hatred) wavers somewhere between second-hand heartbreak and silence that comes off as apathy but is probably based in fear of being snapped at for saying the wrong thing. They don’t know whether they’re saying too much or not saying enough because they’re not used to seeing such a direct uproar from queer voices so near their personal bubble. They reach out to anyone they know who might be at least somewhat non-normative to offer genuine condolence (though for some there is undoubtedly an element of patting themselves on the back for “doing their bit”). Some overcompensate and take up space they shouldn’t while others pull back too drastically and end up showing no support at all for fear of a wounded ego if they say it wrongly. Some take it personally and feel internalized guilt over the fact that “someone like them” would hurt so many innocent people. Others get defensive instead of self-reflexive and try to detract from the real issue of ingrained society-wide homophobia by insisting the central issue is really and solely in gun control or religious extremism, neither of which they could possibly be held responsible for. The clash is parallel (though not directly synonymous with) that between white folks and POC in instances of racist police brutality. We’re all familiar with the delicate balancing act that is trying to simultaneously support each other and show solidarity in hopes of progress while also trying to call out problematic social bullshit where we see it.
Amidst all of this, I’ve been standing in my weird grey area just trying to process it all. The part of me that has benefitted from growing up straight and still benefits from continuing to pass as such is fixated on ideas like “let’s check our privilege. Let’s make sure we speak up without speaking over anyone. Let’s be a good ally. Let’s show support without stepping on toes”. The part of me that transgresses my own gender about three times a week in drag, deliberately sheds certain social norms that are expected of me based on my sex because they don’t represent me, attends (and feels safest at) nearly solely queer events, lives in a queer neighbourhood, gets mistaken for many identities that I’m not but accepts that without negative feelings, and occasionally faces insults and verbal violence based on other peoples’ disdain for or misunderstanding of “what I am”- that part of me is full of rage and sadness. How dare someone endanger people I love and a community I spend my daily life and some of my most important experiences with? How dare people think that we shouldn’t yell and scream about that? How dare someone make it so that parades and clubs and theatres where so many seek safe entertainment and empowerment feel risky or dangerous? How dare someone break so many of my friends hearts and treat people who have faced so much without regard for their lives?
That part of me has cried until my eyes are swollen, lost sleep, rejected food, and worried about those I hold dear, as well as people I didn’t know but who my loved ones are mourning. I’ve also dealt with the strange reality of (not maliciously or intentionally, perhaps) being treated as a human bridge between the two communities. “I just wanted to call and check that you’re okay and also ask a lot of questions about the significance of what happened because I know you have a lot of gay friends”. Ive gotten multiple messages from straight high school friends who haven’t spoken to me in years but who didn’t know how to feel or act regarding Pulse and contacted me for guidance since they feel obligated to address the subject somehow and I appear to be “doing it right”. I’ve also gotten messages from queer friends who are conflicted and confused, lamenting to me “why aren’t more people supporting this like when the whole universe erupted in support for France? Why don’t more straight people care?”
Each message has been well intentioned. It’s nice to know people are thinking about my wellbeing. It’s nice to know some people see me as a safe person to learn from or confide their frustrations in. I didn’t expect, however, that I’d be the queerest point of contact for so many straight people feeling the need to make a connection with a community they’re not a part of but who their hearts are bleeding for. I also didn’t expect to be treated like a delegate for a community that socialized me but only accepts me sometimes by queer people who feel ostracized by that same community and seek understanding. I have no idea how to navigate it. I don’t even know how to navigate my own emotions on a good day. I haven’t slept more than three hours per night since last week. Yesterday I literally cried because my cat looked so cute, and how can something so cute exist in such a scary world where someone will murder innocent people en masse?
I’m all kinds of worked up and then suddenly I think… Do I even have a right to be this upset? I wasn’t there. I didn’t personally know any of the victims, even if it hurts my heart to see people I care about mourning their loss. Depending on who you ask, I am not formally a part of the group these attackers want to hurt, even if that’s who I spend every day of my life with. So between bouts of crying over victim accounts and investigation details because I want to stay educated about what happened and raging over posts about my friends being forced into a state of mourning and feeling unsafe, I wonder why I am so personally upset, sad to what feels like my soul, my mind feeling drained and tired. Then I further wonder whether I even have a right to be quite so distraught when it’s not about me.
I’ve also spoken openly in the past about how doing bio drag has lead me to experience backlash for “appropriating” gay spaces and queer experiences that don’t belong to me as a cisgendered woman. I’ve talked about that at length and responded to it in depth where people of both communities can see, so I wasn’t that surprised when I got two anonymous messages saying that, although I’m right to support my friends in the queer community, I should probably watch myself because I’m perceivably straight and someone will undoubtedly tell me that this is not my place and I should pipe down, even if I’m just trying to help. One said “Watch out. You’ve got a big mouth and even though you’re articulate and usually correct, you’re still cis-straight. Someone is going to bite your head off eventually even if you’re careful”.
But the biting hasn’t come. I haven’t been scolded. The community hasn’t told me they don’t want the support of people like me. No one has told me to take a seat and shut up because I do or do not tick certain identity boxes.
Even in a time of danger and heartbreak, the queer community has looked at all my weirdness and chosen to fold me in their arms despite them being the ones who need a protective embrace. Just like they always have. Just like they did when I felt like an outcast elsewhere even though the severity of my experiences did not compare to their own oppression. I have received messages from my friends in the community asking ME if I’m okay and how I’m coping, telling me how much I mean to them and how loved and appreciated I am. I’ve been offered safety tips, rides places, and invites for support by people whose homophobic mistreatment at the hands of straight people I’ve witnessed with my own eyes. The community and my friends are so bad ass that even though they’re the ones in need of protection, and even though select people within their ranks view me as another pawn in a sector of society that is literally trying to kill them, they’re making sure IM safe and well.
These are the same people who have literally adopted me as second family (I have a drag mother, five sisters, an aunt, and a cousin, all of whom genuinely scold me, tease me, and console me like family and who I don’t often go a day without messaging), frequently put me up in their homes for free even when they barely know me (we’ve had people let us sleep in their own beds the first time they’ve met us based on friendly networking within the community), and actively support my endeavours no matter how weird. As someone whose actual family is scattered across the globe, this means everything to me. These are the people whose community has been defiled. My family has been attacked. They’re angry, hurt, and scared, so they might lash out, but they need allies.
I obviously don’t have any answers for how to solve friction between the communities. Just because I have a unique point of anxiety-inducing, middle ground reference doesn’t mean I’m some expert or that I’m qualified to educate people on their social conduct. All I have are suggestions of what I see working for some people I hold dearly.
Let’s be self reflexive and think about how the things we say affect those around us. Let’s remember that systemic criticism is not synonymous with you. Let’s remember to listen between expressing our condolences rather than talking (often too loudly) just for the sake of weighing in because we feel obligated to by weird online social mores. Let’s try not to get defensive and take things personally when critical analysis is the only way to fix what’s wrong. Let’s remember that, while many people want and appreciate prayers and positive thoughts, it’s literally imperative that we do more and it’s quite condescending when we spout well wishes but fail to actually act in solidarity.
It all sounds grand and conceptual when I put it in big words, but i don’t think it has to be. Speak up when it’s appropriate (and ask someone you trust if you don’t know when that is or how to do so). Listen when it’s necessary but don’t stay silent just because it’s easier than dealing with other people’s powerful emotions or things you don’t fully understand yet. Offer condolences and support genuinely and not so you can pat yourself on the back later. After you pray, donate money or blood, or write to your political representative, or at least share the information that will enable other people to do those things. People are in enough pain without Facebook arguments over which group is failing to behave how they should or who’s lashing out too hard.
I’m not saying don’t call people out. I’m not saying don’t speak your mind. I’m not saying don’t let your feelings show. I’m saying Think. Before. You. Post.
The queer community wants and needs allies and the allies are out there, but they need to think about their position and not practice the very privileged option of bowing out at the first sign of backlash from either side. You WILL survive opposition and a bruised ego. GLBTQ+ people don’t always survive homophobia. Pulse, Orlando is proof of that.