We can all be made queer when it’s useful to someone. Or rather, queers can sometimes be made into Americans. It was just hours after the news broke — across so many phones lying bedside after so many nights out — of the massacre at Pulse, on the club’s Latinx night, the end of forty-nine lives with fifty-three others left injured. Pulse is a gay nightclub, read the New York Times alert lighting up my hand. Only after I checked in on friends and
others did I learn that the first draft of their story omitted this fact, this word.
It did not take long for the dead most of us did not know to be gently straightened up, to be put in service of “all
Americans,” to use President Obama’s phrasing. He did not utter “lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender” until 379 words into an 814-word address; gay clubs are a “place of solidarity,” he added — an observation that is not news to the community grieving, for whom hearing it at this moment was a bit like
a distant relative’s sympathetic hug at a family funeral.
Still, Obama did not set this tone.
Before he ever took the podium, the
social-media gamesmanship began over what the mass killings were really all about, ISIS or gun control or Trump. There was the anticipated Republican litany of “thoughts and prayers” for the lives of those they have been hard at work to make less safe — more than two hundred anti-LGBT bills have been introduced across the United States this year — even as we learned that nearly fifty of those lives had been lost. The attack on the gay nightclub was not really targeting queer people but “the freedom of all people to try to enjoy themselves,” or so said a Sky News television presenter to gay journalist Owen Jones, who had the self-possession to abandon the live set after eight minutes of firmly reminding the presenter, his guest, and those watching that, yes, this was an anti-LGBTQ attack.
Have the lives of so many queer people ever before been enlisted in the cause of “all” Americans? I’m thirty-eight. I only have so many years of queer repression I can personally summon while also making sense of an act of horror, so please
forgive me if my memory is imprecise.
But I do not remember, growing up in the 1980s, the dying of thousands of Americans with HIV being dignified as an entire nation’s loss. I was not educated in American public schools in the 1990s that regarded the widespread harassment and abuse of LGBT youth to be an injury to all young people. In the American cities where I have spent my adulthood, where police profile and arrest queer and trans youth of color, I can’t produce the name of a single elected official who has decried such practices as an attack on “all of our freedoms.”
I might be wrong. I’ve lost touch with much of the “Love Wins” sign-waving that can dominate the modern and
mainstream LG(maybe-B-and-possibly-T) rights movement. Queer life here is, without a doubt, different, and, for some, better than it was when I came out as bisexual 21 years ago.
What I fear I have learned over these decades, though, is that queer and trans lives in America are most likely to be collected under the banner of full
belonging only at the time of death. But it takes little to claim the dead, to grieve when a death aligns with something already familiar. What should grieve us as much is the everyday violence, commonplace and faced by countless LGBTQ people in this country, that will not result in a push alert or a national outcry. As long as that is so, I take no comfort in hearing those lost cast as “all Americans,” even if it is offered only as a wish, a dream of a place where that could be made true.
Whatever role terrorism or religion played in the mind of the man who took dozens of lives in Orlando early Sunday morning, it should not be news that this country still has yet to face anti-LGBTQ hate head-on. Our resistance to doing so creates an environment where such acts of hatred are anything but unthinkable. When a group of people is so systematically made less-than, such violence can be predicted.
“It is easy for some in this country to be vicious and
murderous when they have
the support of rich white men and women in power,” wrote the queer artist and activist David
Wojnarowicz in 1991. (He was talking about the police, and our collective
American history of violence.)
“Those people,” he continued,
“consistently abstract human life and treat minorities as nothing more than clay pigeons at a skeet-shooting range.”
Let death be not one more abstraction.