Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Orlando Heavy on My Heart

“Where were you when you heard?” In my life, that question has referred to so many terrible events. The earliest one I remember was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I was in high school and was old enough to have vivid memories of walking down the corridor, not yet knowing what had happened but knowing it was something dreadful, the hushed voices, and most of all, the expression on the face of my favorite teacher as he told us the news. I recalled this while driving my younger daughter to her own high school and turning on the radio to hear, “The second tower is down!” To each generation, I thought. Columbine, Charleston, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, the Oklahoma City bombing, the list goes on.

My older daughter and I were returning from our college reunion when we stopped for lunch and I glanced at the newspaper rack and saw the news about the Orlando shooting. That same sense of surreal horror swept over me. Both of us had the thought that the world, our world anyway, would never be the same. In trying to grapple with events like this one or the others mentioned above, I find myself looking for events in my own life. That’s a thing we primates do, we put things into personal context.

I am intimately familiar with my own journey through the brutal murder of my mother, but that is not a good analogy. Her death, as devastating as it was, was an individual, one-on-one act of violence. Nobody blamed her or in any way implied she was somehow responsible for what happened to her. Closer emotionally are the stories my father used to tell of his boyhood in a small village in the Ukraine just after the Russian Revolution, when Cossacks would ride into town, line up all the Jewish boys, and shoot them. Today we find such acts heinous; nobody says the Jews deserved what they got at Auschwitz.

Yet that is exactly what some public figures have been saying about the young men and women who were having a night of dancing off the stress of their lives at Pulse. That is one of the ways in which this shooting stands apart from the others.

I found that as the days roll past, my distress at the Orlando shooting increased rather than diminishing. I kept having the thought, Except for not knowing many folks who go to night clubs, that could have been someone I love. That same daughter I was traveling with is part of the LGBT community. So are my other daughter and her wife. So is my sister and her partner. So are so many people I love.

That could have been my child or my sister or my brother or my best friend. That could have been me.

During this time I had been reading David Gerrold’s gritty, powerful thirteen fourteen fifteen o’clock.  I take it in nibbles because it’s dense and emotionally intense. The following passage stuck with me, bringing to mind a poignant image of the people enjoying an evening dancing at Pulse:

“-- in that frozen moment, in that separate space, there was room to take my life out, hold it in my hands, hold I up to the light and examine it, look for secret meanings, and try to see the soul inside, I discovered, I’m not gay, I’m not straight either, not bi and not tri, not anything, just human, quietly desperate and alone in my head, not caring about the form or shape or position, not worrying about top or bottom, simply starving for that rare moment of completion, that brief bright flash of connection that tells me that I’m not the only hurting hungry thing in this universe, even if it’s just a splash of illusion in the night”

A friend who identifies as bisexual talked to me with great earnestness and trouble in her voice about how the Orlando shooting isn’t only about homophobia or gun control or Islamophobia or mental illness. I respect her point that what happened is a complex issue with no simple answers. To focus on only one is to engage in the same sort of single-issue black and white simplification that underlies all these issues.

At the same time, I am leery of straight-washing what happened. Of skimming over how hard it is every day for some of our loved ones to get through their lives, struggling to figure out who they are and live their lives with that integrity, without daily risking those lives. As Christina Cauterucci wrote in Slate.com:

“There’s also another set of consequences that are specific to this crime, which targeted Latinos and Latinas in a bar that catered to LGBTQ patrons. When a man with an assault rifle mows down dozens of people in a school or movie theater, there is little reason for public accounts to speculate about the victims’ sexual or gender identities. The victims and survivors at Pulse, whether they identified as queer or not, have been seemingly outed to their families and communities. Many of the people Mateen killed were so, so young—some in their early 20s, barely old enough to drink; one just 18 years old. Maybe they hadn’t had the chance to come out to their families and friends yet. Maybe they hadn’t even processed it for themselves.”

She calls out “…the climate of hate, exclusion, and indifference to queer suffering fomented by political and religious leaders who champion anti-gay language, anti-trans legislation, and rigid gender boundaries...”

Maybe the crime is not just the shooting and the loss of precious, irreplaceable human lives. Maybe it’s bigger than that, the way we allow anyone to target them beforehand or afterward, and how it is in any way permissible to pry into their private lives and then condemn them. Maybe the Orlando tragedy will keep going on until each and every one of us says,

That could have been my child or my sister or my brother or my best friend. That could have been me.

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