In the Face of Homophobia and Islamophobia, Queer Touch Persists

After the carnage at Pulse nightclub in Orlando I saw a lot of “love is love” messages from well-meaning straight people. Who do you love? It doesn’t matter! They seem to say. It’s all love! 

But to me, it would seem to matter more who you touch. Who you feel, not only whom you feel for. The person you choose to be in the club with at 2am is not always about love but is always about sense. Love is love, full stop, fine, but also sex is sex and touch is touch. And it’s with these latter relations—who sleeps with whom, who touches whom—that we can actually speak to the identities that are erased by “love is love.”

I remember being around six and playing a game with a female friend called “Boyfriend” where we would roll around in each other’s arms and when we did that the name of the game, and the idea of it—that we were each other’s boyfriends—was abstract… but what I felt was this girl in my arms! I then spent much of the rest of my life until now worrying over the secret joy I felt in that game, looking at women for a few seconds too long and then having that moment, six years old rocking in embrace with my girl friend, surge back to the front of my mind. In middle school I wrote in a journal: AM I GAY???

I felt relief when I had big devastating crushes on boys and dreamt about them but then still felt more than just a tenderness towards certain girls in my grade. Did not idolize them in the hierarchical adolescent way but swooned over them as my heart thumped with quiet anxiety. In 9th grade, I wore my dad’s big comfy Calvin Klein sweater to school and so my mom asked my eldest sister if I was a lesbian and my sister and I laughed and laughed and it didn’t occur to me to say, “That’s absurd! but maybe I do like both boys and girls.”

I didn’t manage to come out when my mother asked me one weekend when I visited home from college, “Are you dating any boys…or girls?” or when I told my college roommate that I had something to confess and, before I could speak up, she gushed, “You’re gay?” (Ironically, I was confessing a hetero crush.) I had all of these avenues into being expressly queer or bi or gay and yet I wouldn’t deign to let anyone else see it, and thereby extinguish any imagining of my queerness.

Not only have I courted my own silence, but felt trapped in it. In the days following the mass shooting at Pulse, we’ve been reminded that we live in society that questions if a black and/or Latinx and/or Muslim person can be queer. This is a society that has no imagination for brown and black skin, one that lacks the capacity to map a history of touch that is past, present, and future, one that cannot truly conceive of a black or brown body as sensuous and vulnerable, but only as violent or as a product of violence.

So coming out, then, becomes a perpetual admittance in a fight against erasure. I’ve seen the possibility that I might be queer displaced by the obviousness of my dark skinned, curvy blackness. To refute that displacement, to assert what I am and am not, would be to challenge a history of violence with one of touch, an act that has taken me until now—when homophobic and transphobic violence is as present as ever—to attempt.

But I have also lived more publicly in fear. Have watched men touch each other and women touch each other and be looked upon with scorn and violence and felt those looks on my own body—which is already black, alternately feminine and masculine, too much and too little. That is to say, I also have felt—and do feel—very gay in those moments. I relish in moments of gay people connecting their bodies and in those same moments look over my shoulder. And in those moments, my sense of privacy and my own problems with being openly queer converge, and start to feel expressly like pain.

So I’m saying it: I’m gay, I’m queer, bisexual. I’ll look at certain women in a certain way and then get scared that I’ve been seen, and any layer of normativity that I might claim within my black womanhood, anything that would allow me to say “don’t look at me, don’t think about me” is peeled away. I’m saying it now, because I don’t think, as a writer, I can speak to the fear that the massacre in Orlando has caused without admitting my personal vulnerability, and standing with my queer siblings.

Furthermore, the convergence of homophobia and Islamophobia that has been facilitated not only by major media but also by both presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, not only tries to deny queer Muslim identity but tries to deny solidarity between non-Muslim POC and Muslims who have been working together to fight against homophobia, transphobia, and racism. It positions bodies that would find pleasure, comfort, and power in each other as possible dangers to each other, pits black and brown and queer bodies against each other in the name of some elusive, untrue American solidarity. (As I write this, I’ve just become aware of a wonderful piece by Raillan Brooks at the Village Voice, on being queer and Muslim in America, especially now in the wake of the Orlando attacks.)

In the end, it was touch-based images that were important to me in all these years that I’ve been queer in private, unable to challenge the narrow imaginations of others, or my own. A lot of them are small moments in otherwise flawed films, but are anchors—moments that transmitted the physical sensation of how I’ve almost always known I am. They were images that emphasized touch, that emphasized the instances of contact that make us feel vulnerable but also indelible. I have no faith in a political system nor governmental body that is able to leverage its power over dead black and brown bodies, over the erasure of queer Muslim identity, and over the obfuscation of queer identity in general. I do find some hope in the bodies that found each other at Pulse, and that will continue to find each other there and elsewhere. I find hope in imagination, and where imagination is active on screen, and in life.

To you brave ones, some privately and others publicly proud, who lost the privilege to touch at Pulse Sunday morning, may your bodies rest.

Header image: “Untitled (Down Study with Bullet),” Kehinde Wiley

Cassie da Costa is a writer who focuses on moving image and performance. She's based in Brooklyn and works as a member of The New Yorker's editorial staff while also producing the magazine's video podcast, The Front Row, featuring film critic Richard Brody.

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