Dear Straight People: Thoughts On Orlando And Cultural Differences

Privilege is so lightweight you don’t even know you’re wearing it.

Dear Straight People:

You might not know what to say to your LGBT friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, customers, or patients in light of the shooting of LGBT people in Orlando. Maybe it hasn't been on your radar screen. Maybe you've said nothing, or perhaps asked, "Hey, how was your weekend?"

Allow me to help you out here. First, you're not alone. I've been reading posts this evening, heartbreaking posts from my FB friends who are bewildered, hurt, and confused by the lack of acknowledgement and response from those of our friends and family whom we normally think of as being pretty decent, non-homophobic people. So you've got company.

Second, this is a really easy fix. It's about basic manners, and by manners I mean empathy, engagement and caring about people who are culturally different than you. It helps to employ that old grade-school trick of “‘Imagine if you were in their shoes. How would you feel?” So imagine that your straight community was targeted. Say 100 people at a friend’s wedding were killed because the gunman came to that wedding specifically to kill heterosexuals. How would you feel going to work and not having it acknowledged by the same people who you talk to about their vacations, kids and the minutiae of their lives? Imagine your family not thinking about or caring enough to reach out to you at a time when you might be really shaken and scared for yourself and your community.

Right about now I might be losing some of you straight people who are white, because this probably doesn't really compute. Targeted as an identity community? This doesn't happen to you. Not that you don't suffer violence, because you do. My white, straight brother-in-law was killed with gun violence, but he wasn't targeted for being a straight, white guy. He was just a man in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the African-American community has experience with this. They live in an equally horrifying slow-motion version of Orlando, killed one at a time on the streets of America, because Black. Native Americans, too, with women disappearing from reservations, raped and murdered, because Native and female.

By the way, a little lesson here: this is what privilege is. It’s so lightweight you don’t even know you’re wearing it. Floating like gossamer, it creates a sweet, gauzy haze that comes between us. It allows you to remain at a distance from the realities and horrors of Orlando, Ferguson and so many other hate crimes. It’s played out at work today for many of us. With our gay co-workers the terse and heartbroken conversations went something like this: “How are you?” “Oh, God (with a quivering voice)” “I know.” Yet with many of our straight co-workers the back and forth went more like this: “How was your weekend? (with a cheery smile)” “Pretty bad.” “Why? What happened?” “Orlando.” “Oh. Right.” That’s privilege- being unmindful of another group’s cultural trauma and its effect on the individuals in that group.

But back to manners and empathy. Here’s why it might be good to offer condolences and ask the LGBT people in your life how they’re doing with this.

  1. It is profoundly upsetting to be targeted for death for things over which you have no control. Like being a dyke, or being a gay guy, or being Latinx. That is different than random violence or violence stemming from an altercation. You are hated for daring to exist, for being alive, not because of what you said or did or for being in the wrong place or for crossing the wrong person. Hating someone for their existence can result in the perceived need to exterminate a group of people, as it did in Orlando. Profound hate creates a profound emotional reaction in the targeted group.
  2. It could have been us. Almost all lesbian and gay people have been to a club before. This is where we go to be with our people. As Richard Kim explained in his article in the Nation, Please Don’t Stop the Music, “Gay bars are therapy for people who can’t afford therapy; temples for people who lost their religion, or whose religion lost them; vacations for people who can’t go on vacation; homes for folk without families; sanctuaries against aggression.” Hunting us down where we feel most safe, in those places we’ve historically been relegated to but have made our own, means our sense of safety is compromised. Now, every time we walk into a gay bar…well, I think you can imagine how that is going to feel from this day forward. This is not the first time homophobic violence has happened in our community, and unfortunately it is not the last.
  3. Our community is small. Most of us have some connection with someone who was in that club, or we know someone who knew someone. I’m about as far removed from young Latin gay club culture as you are, but I know one of those young guys was from my home town of Cleveland, and a female bouncer was one of our MichFest sisters and a member of the Drag community, and I know people in both those communities. While I don’t know your gay cousin Alice, in reality there’s still only about three degrees of separation in our communities. And to compound the grief even further, these were primarily young people, our LGBT “kids” who have been murdered.
  4. And finally, we’ve worked hard on you and YOU’VE worked hard on you to not be homophobic. Our nation is changing. But it’s still heterosexist to not understand some cultural differences, one being that “family” for gays and lesbians means something quite different than it does for many heterosexuals. For us, family often means Chosen Family, the people who sustained and carried us when our own families didn’t or wouldn’t show up for us. Our friends and networks are part of a broader LGBT culture(s) with music, literature, films, customs, in-jokes, styles, poetry, clubs, bars, language, festivals and celebrations. Our culture, our Family, our friends came under attack. If it had been my family member who been killed, you would have brought me food and flowers and offered to water my plants at work. So, while my family member was not killed, my ”Family” was. Many of them. They were killed for being Gay and Lesbian and Trans and Latinx, and it means as much to me, and to us, as our own blood family.

So here’s what you can do. Tomorrow, call your LGBT family members, talk to your Lesbian co-worker, or visit your Transgender neighbor. Tell them you’ve been thinking about Orlando and want to know how they’re doing. Tell them you know this must be hard for them. Ask if you can help in any way. That’s it. It’s just basic empathy. We’ve had many, many deaths in our Family and are still going to work and going about our daily business, frightened, shaken, and still functioning. Ask us how we are doing, especially given that it’s Pride month. This month of joy, of celebrating being out of the closet, is now fraught with fear. The news of Orlando overshadowed the arrest on June 12th of a man armed with assault weapons on his way to the L.A. Pride event. Can we even attend Pride? Do we risk marching, will we be safe, and dare we take our kids? Or are we supposed to hide in our houses?

Orlando gave us a haunting new image for our cultural imaginary, one of cell phones lying in slowly spreading pools of blood, pinging with the frantic texts of friends and family trying to get through to the injured and dead. It’s an awful feeling to reach out, only to encounter Emptiness. Please don’t do that to those of us who are still alive.