Last month, in a piece on queerbaiting in popular culture, I had written about the staggering rate at which queer characters are being killed off on TV and film, and how that mirrors the real-world violence that LGBTQ people face. Today, in light of the horrific shooting in Orlando, Florida—which targeted a gay nightclub—I couldn’t help but think about this again and again, as if it were a strange self-fulfilling prophecy.
“I’m scared for my life. Scared of living in this country,” a lesbian friend of mine (who also lives in Florida) messaged me early in the morning. With tears streaming down my face and hands shaking, I typed out a reply: “By now, I’m accustomed to feeling scared”
The Orlando shooting, where at least 50 men were killed, has brought a number of issues into the limelight—from gun violence to religious extremism—but the most important one is that of internalized homophobia, which has been the cause behind multiple hate crimes against LGBTQ people all across the world. Barely a few hours after the Orlando shooting, another gunman was apprehended near the Los Angeles Pride Parade—poised to trigger another mass shooting upon LGBTQ parade-goers—making the threat of violence and death for LGBTQ people seem realer and realer.
I had a very intense personal reaction to the attacks. Perhaps it was triggered by my friend’s frantic message, or by John Oliver’s brief, but emotional segment on Orlando, or by the fact that so many gay men in Florida now sit helpless, unable to donate blood to the victims from their own community, because of Florida’s ridiculous law barring queer men from donating blood unless they have been celibate for a year. Or perhaps, it was because I felt, even while being miles away from Orlando, that I could have been one of the victims too.
June is International Pride Month; in commemoration of the years and years of struggle LGBTQ communities across the world have faced in their fight for equal rights; and symbolic of a celebration of our identity, of our queerness, and of our history. For the Orlando shooter to have picked this month, and picked a gay bar of all places—when the bar in question was hosting a ‘Latino Night’ with a Hispanic drag queen headlining the main act—was designed to deal a brutal blow to the community. For a queer person, there is perhaps no safer or more welcoming a space than a gay bar, where you can not only be unabashedly yourself, but also engage with your community—and so, to have the sanctity of this space put in peril makes the threat scary indeed, and more personal than a queer person can ever imagine. It is enough to make any LGBTQ person, in any part of the world, think long and hard about how the very prospect of being out and proud can have such horrific casualties, and how radical an act it actually is.
“Being openly gay in America continues to be a radical act but I hope kids who see terror like this aren’t scared into staying closeted” tweeted gay comedian Matt Bellasai, and helped me realize why I felt so personally affected by this shooting. If the USA, with its legalization of same-sex marriage and openly queer celebrities, can still have trans people not being let into bathrooms of their choice and gay people getting murdered in the very space they call their own, then I, a queer woman in a country where homosexuality is still illegal, have no means of being or feeling safe. Terror like this is actually scaring me into staying closeted—and I’m sure many other queer people feel the same way.
Homophobic crimes like this can occur because all of us are consuming and taking part in a culture that will not even let fictional queers survive. Why does it take 50 deaths for us to pay attention to a hatred that has long pervaded our TV shows, our confectionery shops, our hospitals, classrooms, bathrooms and so on?
When I think about Orlando, the deaths of countless queer characters on film and TV flash in my head—which have now come to mirror real-life in the most haunting, most terrifying of ways. I think of Denise from The Walking Dead—shot dead by an arrow while in the midst of declaring her love for another woman. And then, I think of the people who were in that nightclub on Sunday. Were they also in the midst of declaring their love for a partner, when they were so brutally gunned down?
While the reality of our situation seems bleak at the moment, the resilience of the queer community proves that we cannot be so easily struck down. LGBTQ parades all over the world are sharing strong messages of solidarity, thousands and thousands are queuing up in Orlando to donate blood despite it’s ridiculous donation laws, and Stonewall Inn—the biggest symbol of America’s LGBT history—has been flooded with queer mourners who are lighting candles in memory of the victims and holding peaceful demonstrations. The fact that the community has refused to back down, gives me some hope. However, the threat, the unbearable sadness, and that feeling of terror—of being scared for my life—continues to remain. I’m still reading about all the victims and their families, and choking up inside. I could have been one of them. I really could have.