This morning, I’m out at my neighborhood cafe, where they are playing club music to wake up the patrons. Or maybe in solidarity and grief and resistance. this cafe is queer-owned/-operated, and has sizable queer clientele. A handful of folks come in who I read as queer; we’re subdued this morning. We don’t smile big. We give each other the side eye, we purse our lips in that sort of sad smile that says, I’m grieving, too, even though I’m out in the world trying to look like I have my shit together. The world feels quieter today, muted, and not just because of the fog dampening the trees and the morning commute.
This morning I am grieving like so many of us are grieving because we’ve had a mass shooting hit us in our back yard. Many others of us are grieving because this is only the latest shooting to target someone or some community we love.
My love and I spent early Sunday morning with the New York Times, out on the back deck in the sun. After more than a week of doing everything I could to avoid hearing or reading about the Stanford Rape fiasco, I finally felt like I was ready to look. To open my eyes and look. To pull my head out of the sand and look, read, take it in. I’d been avoiding the news because I didn’t want to be surprised by details of the violence, I didn’t want to hear any more about how a white man’s future is protected by all the white men in power, even though he raped a drunk woman in the bushes and was witnessed in the act. I didn’t yet want to read her letter. I wasn’t ready. I just didn’t have the room in my body for the details, and for the rage that rises up in me every time I even think about it, and I wanted to wait until I did have some room in me before I tried to take in the story. I avoided Facebook even more studiously that usual, not wanting to run into excerpts of the survivor’s letter, into yet another story about the rapist or, even worse, learning the details from some ironic Facebookable image or satirical story.
Just yesterday, sitting on the back porch with the New York Times review section, I ran into yet another article about the case — I suppose I should be grateful that rape is finally deemed newsworthy in this way — and thought, Ok. All right. Fine. I’ll read it. I took a deep breath, and got about a quarter of the way in, until I reached a line that included details about gravel in the victim’s vagina. And then I shouted, “That’s enough!” and turned the page. My beloved looked at me sympathetically as I was shrieking at newsprint.
Until we got in the car an hour after that to drive the 45 minutes to the little church that I fell in love with when I lived in Tiburon, I didn’t know about the violence in Orlando. We switched on the radio, which was turned down low, and heard the whisper of one of the NPR announcers talking about special coverage of yet another mass shooting — and then I grabbed my phone and looked up the news.” It was a gay bar,” I said. “A gay bar.”
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I still haven’t read anything that explains why it took the police three hours to get into that bar after patrons started calling 911.
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Yesterday, driving down the hill from church and looking out on the San Francisco Bay, I thought about how it could have been us. I thought, Those were kids, the people in that bar — queer youth looking for sanctuary, looking for sweetness and solidarity and, yes, sex.
They were like us, who piled into Anna’s suburban late on a Sunday to head over to the one bar in the Upper Valley that had an “alternative lifestyle” night, who knew that if we timed it just right, the bouncer wouldn’t care that some of us were underage because the bar was going to close in an hour anyway, and we tumbled into the place like a bunch of oversexed puppies and took over (we thought we took over, I thought we took over) the dance floor, and we preened and performed for each other and the “older folks” (who were what, 35?) and spun and bounced and flirted and had one place that we were “normal,” we were the majority, we were right. This place was one of the few sanctuaries I had in the world, one of the places my stepfather would have never thought to try and track me down, one of the places where sometimes I almost even forgot about him and what he had made me into. The club, the dance floor, was my reclamation space, my resistance to incest and rape; it was, for some years, some many years, the only place it felt truly safe to have a body.
I thought about the majority young, majority-Latinx queer folks at Pulse this weekend and what that night, last Saturday night/early Sunday morning, was supposed to be for them. I thought about how hard some of the people in that club had had to work just to walk in the door. I thought about the joy and delight, the sexuality, the history and ache throbbing in that place.
The word we have for the act of violating a place of holiness and worship is desecration. What the shooter did on Saturday night was a desecration.
Where can we go to be safe? Where can we go to let down our guard? As women, as queer folks, and I think even more for my QTPOC beloveds and community, what does ‘safe space’ even mean?
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I listened to the news yesterday, learned that the shooter was of Middle Eastern descent, and thought, Just wait for what Trump is going to say. Just wait for the Republicans to pretend to be friends of the queer community now. Meanwhile, LGBTQ rights are under assault across the country. Meanwhile, the same politicians who called us perverts yesterday are going to try and use us now to further their cause for war. They don’t care about queer people. They care about power and violence.
Meanwhile, queer men still can’t donate blood unless they’ve been celibate for a year. (In protest of this rule, I myself haven’t donated blood since the 90s.)
I’m afraid of what white gay folks and queers will do, are doing, with news like this. We tend to make it all about ourselves, and only about ourselves — all gay and only gay, forgetting about or actively erasing the intersections. This was an attack on queer folks, yes, and primarily on queer people of color. Yesterday I turned on the radio for a minute, just to be with people who were talking about the horror, and I heard a reporter relay the comments of someone at a rally: “This is our Charleston, SC!” I can only imagine this was a white person speaking, though I might be wrong; I make this assumption because white queer folks have a history of laying claim to Black struggle with entitlement. I had to turn off the radio immediately, because I started shouting again. Queer folks have been under attack throughout human history; we don’t have to appropriate an atrocity committed on Black folks (some of whom may certainly have been queer) in a house of worship (who were targeted for their Blackness in a place of sanctuary by a white man whose actions were not called terrorism and initiated no calls to remove all white men or white people from the country, though because historically violence of this nature is committed overwhelmingly by white men, a case could be made that we might be a safer country if we did just that).
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At the end of last week, while having sex with my beloved, I ran my hands up and down her body, over and over, and felt a kind of thick astonishment that I get to be with this woman. With this woman. It was an old feeling, like I imagine dykes in the 50s or 60s felt, this terrified wonder, this sense of transgressing, of holding something I was never supposed to be able to hold, of experiencing a kind of joy and pleasure I was never supposed to be able to experience. Like I was doing something wrong. Maybe that feeling is my legacy, a kind of queer bone memory. I thought, But why should I be feeling this way today, in 2016, when queer folks have so much acceptance, when no one cares anymore if you’re queer?
Then I remembered the number of trans women murdered just so far this year. Then I remembered that I live in a bubble here in the Bay Area — that when I met my sweetheart at the airport in Omaha when I was there visiting a couple of weeks ago, we both hesitated before kissing hello. I put my lips on her forehead instead. Just taking her hand and wrapping her up in my welcoming arms felt wildly visible, potentially dangerous. We laughed about it nervously, but I kept an eye on the people who were keeping their eyes on us. (A few days later, back in the airport on our way out, we passed a man arriving in Omaha wearing a tshirt that read Black Guns Matter – and I was so sad to acknowledge that I was glad to be leaving.)
Then I heard the news about Orlando.
Yes, it’s still transgressive to love and want a woman the way I love and want mine. Yes, there are still plenty of people who want to see queerfolks “cured” or fixed or killed. Yes, there are still plenty of people who “love the sinner and hate the sin. Yes, there are politicians – and plenty of folks in their constituencies – who would happily legislate queerfolks out of existence.
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These are days for grief and rage. We live in a white supremacist patriarchy that privileges access to weaponry over the sanctity of human life, that cares more about the future well-being of a white male rapist than about holding him accountable for his crimes, that over and over deems Black and Brown bodies expendable, that treats gender transgressive bodies as crimes against nature. Change is possible — isn’t it true that change must be possible, that resistance and solidarity and the vision of something different must take precedence over hopelessness and resignation? But today it’s a struggle to pull away from the quicksand of hopelessness.
I have been thinking since yesterday of a poem by Essex Hemphill that I’ve handed out at many of my erotic writing groups – his words speak louder and more clearly than anything else I could say.
by Essex Hemphill
I place my ring
on your cock
where it belongs.
no soldiers of doom
will swoop in
and sweep us apart.
They’re too busy
looting the land
to watch us.
They don’t know
we need each other
They expect us to call in sick,
watch television all night,
die by our own hands.
They don’t know
we are becoming powerful.
Every time we kiss
we confirm the new world coming.
What the rose whispers
I vow to you.
I give you my heart,
a safe house.
I give you promises other than
milk, honey, liberty.
I assume you will always
be a free man with a dream.
place your ring
on my cock
where it belongs.
Long may we live
to free this dream.