What happens when it's revealed that the man who killed 49 queer people -- most of them queer people of color -- and wounded 53 others at a queer nightclub might have been a longtime patron of that club and that he was spotted on gay sex apps?
One of the most horrific and heartbreaking moments in modern American history threatens to become even more horrific and heartbreaking.
Suddenly, instead of simply (or not so simply) blaming the mass shooting on a dizzyingly noxious cocktail of hate, extremism, mental illness and offensively lax gun laws, we now must also grapple with the gruesome and all-too-familiar specter of internalized homophobia materializing to haunt this tragedy.
We don't know if the shooter was queer (though, that didn't stop some media outlets from immediately and irresponsibly sensationalizing that claim) and we may never know any of the secrets that may have constantly skittered that long dark hallway between his heart and his head. But, sadly, if he was, it wouldn't be surprising. A study published in the April 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that "participants who reported their heterosexuality despite having hidden same-sex desires were also the most likely to show hostility toward gay individuals, including self-reported anti-gay attitudes, endorsement of anti-gay policies and discrimination such as supporting harsher punishments for homosexuals."
To put it more plainly: the things that we hate the most about others are often the things that we hate the most about ourselves and that hate can bring disastrous consequences. This isn't any kind of brilliantly new or incandescent truth -- it's one of the oldest, saddest stories in the raggedy book that houses our shared human history. But perhaps merely being reminded of it can offer us a way to begin to reimagine ourselves and our culture in what feels like the endless (and endlessly suffocating) dusk of Sunday's massacre.
So what do we do now? How do we mobilize in the face of hate -- from others or from ourselves? No matter what the shooter's sexuality might have been, we should take this opportunity to once again turn our attention to the dangers and devastation of the closet and band together to explode it once and for all. To anyone who can come out, I humbly suggest you do exactly that. To anyone who is out or loves someone who is or comes out, offer your support.
Homophobia -- internalized or otherwise -- is a product of a society that teaches and prizes fear, shame and secrecy in regards to queer identities and coming out instantaneously exorcizes all three of those soul-sucking demons. The sooner we all stand up and say, "this is exactly who I am -- and what?" the sooner we change the way we collectively understand what it means to be -- and who might be -- queer, the sooner we begin to vanquish the bigotry leveled against queer people, especially if that bigotry is inspired by one's own (however clandestine or unrealized) sexuality.
It saddens me that, in 2016, after all of our struggles and all of our sacrifices and all of our stunning, bittersweet victories, too many people still remain barricaded in the closet for fear of what might happen if they venture out. Some of these fears are valid and understandable -- the loss of a roof over their heads, the loss of their jobs, the literal loss of their lives. To those who cannot safely come out, I say: don't. Stay where you are until you can escape your circumstances -- if ever -- and then join us. We'll continue to fight for you as we wait here to welcome you on the other side. But for everyone else, however uncomfortable it might make you, however agonizing that vulnerability -- or even the thought of that vulnerability -- may be, if you can come out, you must. You owe it to yourself and, what's more, you owe it to the rest of us to help reprogram how the rest of the world thinks about us.
As I write this I'm already having premonitions of the comments awaiting me on social media in response to this piece. I know many people will disagree with me and claim that someone else's sexual orientation is none of my business or that it's "private" and -- perhaps most shocking to me -- that coming out doesn't matter. But it does matter. We've seen time and time again that being exactly who we are without explanation or apology is the greatest weapon we have in changing people's minds about who we are and what we're capable of.
And, as I've written before, sexual orientation shouldn't be private. No heterosexual person ever says, "I'm not going to say I'm straight because that's private." That literally never happens. You know why? Because there's no shame in being straight. Just like any other characteristic straight people are born with -- eye color, height, having a photographic memory -- it's just another part of who they are. The only time sexual orientation is suddenly supposed to be private or people say, "We have a right to privacy!" is when we're talking about queer sexuality. And why do people so ferociously cling to that privacy? Because they're ashamed or they're scared of what will happen if people truly know them and that's rooted in our society's claim that our queerness makes us immoral or unnatural or evil. But we're not. And by defending the closet, however well meaning your intentions are, you're cosigning all of those lies and that isn't OK. It's no longer OK.
Enough covering our tracks. Enough covering each other's tracks. Enough of the making excuses and refusing to pick up where our queer forefathers and foremothers and foremother-fathers left off in their efforts to free us from the dread of simply being who we are. How dare we. Exactly who do we think we are to turn our backs on them?
I know it's hard. All of this is hard. Just existing in this country as a queer person is exhausting on any given day of any given week, much less on any day following June 12, 2016. I've spent the last three days in a seemingly never-ending state of nausea from my seemingly never-ending vacillating between rage and grief. I've cried in front of more colleagues and more TV screens and more strangers in the last week than all of the other weeks of my life combined.
Coming out is hard but we still need to do it. Every single fucking day. Even when it hurts. Especially when it hurts. It's how we move forward. It's how we fight to ensure that fewer and fewer people, no matter what their sexual orientation may be, see queerness -- their own or others -- as a danger or a disease. It's how we honor those we've lost -- this week and last week and last year and ten years ago and on and on all the way back to the beginning to when all of us were innocent and unafraid and then, finally, we can begin again.
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