I am not afraid of getting shot at Edgewater Mall, but the local shopping center is still not a safe place for me and my husband. I made this point as a guest on the WLOX Sunday Morning Show (on June 19) because I wanted the hosts to understand that the Orlando shootings have a special meaning for LGBTQ people. Doug Walker was arguing that terror is terror, whether it happens in a school, a movie theater, or a bar. In response, I explained that a gay bar is one of the few safe spaces for LGBTQ people in the South. I added that safety meant more than not worrying about getting shot at Edgewater Mall, it also meant feeling safe to be yourself. I gave the example of not feeling safe holding my husband’s hand there. Walker appeared genuinely surprised by my comment. He asked me, would you really not hold your husband’s hand at Edgewater Mall? I said, no. This conversation illustrates that many well-intentioned straight people are failing to understand the meaning of the Orlando attack for LGBTQ people. They need some of us to speak up and get the issues out into the public discussion.
Fortunately, I know some really smart LGBTQ people, who I talked to before the WLOX show, and the rest of this post comes from their insights. Much of what they said was about the response from straight people to the Orlando shootings. A generational divide runs through their comments. Middle-aged and older LGBTQ people were vaguely disappointed, but were grateful for the support they received. They thought the public response to the Orlando shooting was different than to other recent shootings like Sandy Hook, perhaps because it involved LGBTQ victims. One person said it was like when a family member dies, and your world stops in its tracks, but the rest of the world keeps going. Her wife said that no one at work mentioned the Orlando shootings. At the same time, they appreciated straight friends who reached out to see if they were doing okay. They thought all LGBTQ people needed support following the attack, whether they appeared to or not.
By contrast, the younger LGBTQ people I chatted with were angrier and more skeptical. They were critical of the media for not focusing more on the victims and survivors. They also objected to the media doing more stories on white survivors even though the majority of people at the club were African American or Latino. They saved their harshest criticism for politicians, especially in Mississippi. One said, “The leaders of the state will discriminate against us like it’s absolutely nothing, but they want to pray for us as victims.” He also said that politicians failed to acknowledge that the victims were LGBTQ people. Interestingly, several people said that younger straight allies were also angrier than older straight allies.
Although disappointment with the straight response to the Orlando shootings was the main subject that came up in my conversations, several people talked about the status of LGBTQ people in Mississippi. A man in his fifties said that the main problem in the Gulf Coast LGBTQ community is its relative silence. Without speaking up and demanding change, he said that the problems LGBTQ people face will not go away. He said the silence of LGBTQ people is caused by intimidation and by the silence of their straight supporters.
Others I talked to were critical of straight people for their lack of understanding, focusing on explaining why an attack on a gay bar is so disturbing to LGBTQ people. One person said that LGBTQ people have to constantly monitor their behavior to avoid discrimination or attack. This means they have to be “on” all the time. They are “on” at work, where they can legally be fired for being LGBTQ. They are “on” with family members, who can reject them for being LGBTQ. They are “on” at church, where they are sinners. By contrast, gay bars are the one place where LGBTQ people can relax and be themselves without worry about harm or retribution. They are safe spaces. At least that was the case until the nightmare at the Pulse nightclub.
Finally, several people said the Orlando shooting cannot be swept into the larger War on Terror because homophobia is the problem that needs to be addressed in this case. One person said, “this madness was homegrown. It was motivated by hate, a self-hate for who he was. I feel that he was trying to show his family and those he admired that he wasn’t gay and that he was willing to do anything to prove it.” She also had a remedy, saying that “instead of spreading hate for each other, we need to talk to each other and work towards a common ground where all people can feel safe and live in peace.” In my opinion, truer words were never said.
How does one get to that magical place? I certainly do not claim to have all of the answers, but I think communication between LGBTQ people, especially between people of difference ages and backgrounds, is crucial. You cannot solve problems until you identify what the problems are. And remember, your problems might be different from those of other LGBTQ people, but we are all in this together.
By Douglas Bristol
Image from http://jwamalls.com/property/edgewater-mall/