As a trans person, the idea of violence is not new to me. Across the country, trans and gender-nonconforming people like me are subjected to it regularly. In 2015 alone, at least 22 transgender women were murdered, and so far we have already lost 10 transgender people in 2016.
I have grown accustomed to the anticipation of violence. I anticipate violence walking alone late at night. Were I ever arrested, I anticipate violence in the prison system. I anticipate violence on the street. I anticipate violence on the internet. I anticipate violence in a single-sex bathroom or on a subway car.
I did not, however, anticipate violence inside of a queer club. In the queer community, nightclubs and bars are sacred places where we escape the dual yokes of heteronormativity and gendered expectations. Historically, they have been some of the only places where we’ve been able to express our intimacy and identity without fear of retribution.
Growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina, there were three bars where queer people like me could gather in safety and celebration. As a closeted teenager, the local gay bars were a critical source of hope. Because I knew that these places were there, I believed that one day, when I was older, I would have somewhere to meet people like me, somewhere to find community, somewhere to call home.
On Sunday, I started the day with my normal morning routine. I pulled out my phone, lazily scrolling through my newsfeed. It took a few moments for me to piece together what had happened: 49 queer people were murdered at a queer nightclub in Orlando, most of them queer people of color.
I read about the blood-spattered dance floor, the club patrons hiding in bathrooms, the stun grenades, the shootout with police, the dozens dead, the dozens hospitalized, the need for blood donations. Head spinning, my shock faded to devastation.
The massacre in Orlando has left the same question unresolved and burning in the hearts of LGBTQ people across the country: Is there anywhere that we can feel safe?
In this time of desperation and fear, we need an answer. We need to make sense of it all. Many have done so by calling this shooting an "act of terrorism" — but that doesn't entirely encompass why this happened.
As a pacifist, an Arab-American, and a member of the queer community, I cannot stand with those who choose to discuss the Orlando shooting in this way. Yes, in a dictionary sense, it may meet the definition (“the use of violent acts ... as a way of trying to achieve a political goal”). But growing up in a post-9/11 world, I know that the word “terrorism” has much deeper political implications.
In post-9/11 America, we have developed an ugly script: If a person who commits an act of violence is Muslim, government officials and the media will often cry terrorism, which leads to the demonization of Muslim-Americans, which encourages further violence against Muslims and Arab people at home and abroad, which leads to greater radicalization and hatred, which leads to more violence. Terrorism is no longer simply a technical term. There is no way to speak about an “act of terrorism” without contributing to greater violence against brown people and Muslims across the globe.
The horror in Orlando was a specific attack on queer people of color and on the queer community — not an attack against all Americans. We can't let fear and the need for a scapegoat shift our focus away from the homophobia, transphobia, and toxic masculinity inherent to this devastating act; we must not let our focus wander outward, toward nationalist retribution and blame, toward finding "our enemies" and snuffing them out. Instead, let's call Orlando what it was: an act of hate specifically targeted at the LGBTQ community. While an "act of terrorism" compels us to react with violence, an act of hate allows for a very different response: We can react with love. We can work to heal and peacefully transform our world rather than continuing the cycle of violence.
As an act of hate, what happened in Orlando is, sadly, not unique. Throughout the past half-century, LGBTQ people have been the targets of community violence and death. From police raids and FBI investigations in the 1950s and 1960s, to the murderous silence of the federal government in the face of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, to the killing of Islan Nettles, Larry King, and Matthew Shepard, the LGBTQ community has been told, time and again, through violence both institutional and interpersonal, that our lives can be abruptly ended simply for having the audacity to express our identities to the world.
As a community, we cannot allow the deaths of our family members to be an excuse for further violence or vindication. Rather, we must do what we have always done in the face of violence and loss: We must support one another more deeply than ever. We must stand with all minority communities that are subjected to political marginalization and hatred. We must band together to create a more inclusive world.
Violence has never stopped us from celebrating who we are and who we love. As queer people, we will honor the lives of those who died in Orlando in the best way we can: by thriving in spite of it all.
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