Defining safety for all queer people in the wake of Orlando

The shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, FL early Sunday morning left many across the country reeling. Queer communities, in particular, were left questioning the sanctity of their safe spaces, and the constant threat against their lives. But the reality is that this threat isn’t uniform for all queer people: Black and brown members of the LGBTQI community suffered disproportionately from homophobic and racist violence even before Orlando.

Last weekend’s shooting happened on Pulse Nightclub’s Latinx-themed night, advertised with a flyer that featured two Trans Latina women on the front. As a montage of faces began spreading across social media in an effort to uplift and memorialize the deceased, it quickly became clear that the 50 shooting victims were overwhelmingly brown-skinned queer people. This fact isn’t a case of happenstance; the specificity of the violence suggests a specificity in its impact, and that impact calls for intentionality in response. It is crucial that we center marginalized people in conversations around how we can work to make this world safe for queer folks. This wasn’t a coincidence: brown queer and Trans people have experienced years of targeted, lethal violence that contextualizes the massacre in Orlando within decades and centuries of homophobia, transphobia and racism.

The “and racism” is still the mountain that many white queer folks would prefer to simply walk around rather than traverse. To most people, homophobia is readily apparent in the events in Orlando. But the racism? Not so much. White supremacy is still a thing that white-dominated spaces—whether they’re queer or not—struggle to sufficiently address and actively resist. And mainstream queer America is, certainly, overwhelmingly white.

I naively hoped passive-aggressive Facebook comments would be their mainstay until I heard back from friends about the racism they witnessed at various vigils for the victims. I’ll put it this way: more than one friend used the word “homonationalism,” a term meant to describe the way the mainstream gay community tends to position itself comfortably within a nationalist identity. Rather than being at odds with American patriotism and nationalism – which in many ways perpetuates violence against marginalized communities here and abroad – the mainstream gay community too often directly participates in American nationalism in an effort to prove that they deserve access to the rights and freedoms of citizenship.

The vigil in St. Louis included a performance of the national anthem—you know, to commemorate the United States for protecting and prioritizing the lives and freedoms of brown queer folks, of course—and featured a brief chant-off between people who responded to “Black Trans Lives Matter!” with “All Lives Matter!” Let’s be clear, in an ideal world, all lives would matter, but we’ve seen multiple times that this isn’t even close to being true yet. “All Lives Matter” is a reactionary response used to silence marginalized communities who name the specific kind of targeted violence they experience.

What this tells us is nothing new: that white supremacy is just as insidious in the queer community as it is in mainstream cis-straight America, and has been for a long time. This tension has been highlighted countless times—by the race and class critiques of the Human Rights Campaign’s marriage equality efforts and criticisms of the mainstream gay rights movement for ignoring the health and safety concerns of queer Black and brown youth across the country. It’s also the framework used to challenge the idea of celebrating openly queer soldiers in the United States Army with the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which essentially allowed marginalized people entrance into a violent institution that wages war on other marginalized people abroad. The fallout from the Orlando massacre is just the latest landscape in which whiteness has shown its hand, proving again that even within marginalized communities, white supremacy will dominate if left unchallenged by other white people.

And as if that wasn’t enough, St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson (*rubs temples*) reportedly pledged to increase police presence at St. Louis’ annual Pride Fest later this month. Police Chief Dotson is the same police chief who was behind much of the police violence and retaliation against protesters after Michael Brown was shot and killed by then Ferguson Police Officer, Darren Wilson. Protesters and local community organizations have long been calling for his resignation.

Now aside from the obvious: that the relationship between the St. Louis Police Department and the larger Black and Brown St. Louis community still isn’t exactly, well, good—

And aside from the fact that Black queer folks were largely at the forefront of the tensest periods of conflict in St. Louis between protesters and police in the Fall of 2014—

And aside from the fact that police also represent a considerable threat to undocumented Latinx folks and their families—

I think it’s safe to say that a heightened police presence to protect queer and trans people seems like a dramatic departure from the birth of the movement for LGBT rights, the Stonewall riots. These most iconic riots were led by Marsha P. Johnson—a Black trans woman and activist—in which largely Black and brown queer people fought back against the state surveillance and harassment they experienced daily.

The Orlando massacre is highlighting an age-old tension within the queer community: that safety and a world free of oppression don’t look the same for all of us. A heightened police presence likely still represents a kind of safety and security for white queer folks that many Black and brown queer folks don’t experience. Where many white and privileged queer folks are turning to law enforcement and the state for protection this Pride month, Black and brown people still have every reason to fear those very same forces. How do we recognize the threat presented by the recent attack in Orlando while also acknowledging that for queer bodies—and especially for Black and brown queer bodies—the threat never actually fades?

If we don’t deliberately center the Black and Brown people that exist at the margins of the queer community when addressing these questions, their often-ignored concerns will go unacknowledged and their safety will remain in a precarious state. If we want to be effective with our advocacy and resistance work, it’s our responsibility to center the most marginalized and vulnerable members of our already marginalized and vulnerable communities—lest we risk replicating the same silencing and erasure we’re trying to organize against.

The safety of our siblings—of all of our siblings—is our business. It’s our responsibility to fight for and protect each other, to listen to and advocate for each other—and perhaps more importantly—to become better, more effective, more intentionally inclusive people if we’re truly committed to saving each other’s lives.

Jacqui Germain is a published poet and freelance writer based in St. Louis, Missouri. Her work is focused on historical and contemporary iterations of black, brown and indigenous resistance. She is also a Callaloo Fellow, and author of "When the Ghosts Come Ashore," published through Button Poetry/Exploding Pinecone Press.

Jacqui Germain is a published poet and freelance writer based in St. Louis, Missouri.

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