Editor’s Note: This article was first featured on AE four days following the Pulse nightclub massacre, which took place on this day in 2016. It is being re-featured today in memory of the attacks as we mourn those we’ve lost, reflect on our collective past, and continue to celebrate Pride.
When I was 20 years old, in college, my then-girlfriend and I went to a Walmart at one in the morning. We lived in the rural Midwest, but I’d always felt perfectly safe being publicly affectionate with her in the uber-liberal college town where we lived. So that night, I thought nothing of it as I reached for her hand in the canned soup aisle, under the harsh fluorescent lights. But as I did, she pulled away from me and said, “Not here.”
Nothing bad happened to us. We were not gay-bashed. No one yelled homophobic slurs at us. But as I look back on it, her decision not to hold my hand may have been the right call. Her caution may have been the thing that kept us safe that night.
And this fear is something that no straight person will ever understand. There are plenty of straight people in the world who sympathize, wish things were different, work to make changes, and feel genuinely awful about the bad things that are done to queer people simply for being queer. But no straight person will ever truly understand the feeling of that particular, visceral fear cutting them to the bone when the person they love tries to take their hand in a public place. Conversely, this is a fear that every single queer person has experienced at some point, to a greater or lesser extent.
images via Getty
And the truth is, while the memory stings, that experience was extremely mild on the scale of “shitty experiences a gay couple could have at a Walmart at one in the morning.” Like I said, nothing bad ultimately happened to us. And even as a queer woman, I have a lot of privileges that keep me comparatively safe. I am white. My family is financially comfortable. I have the love and support of my parents and friends. I present as normatively feminine. If someone was looking for a lesbian to harm on the average street corner, they probably wouldn’t pick me. And that night, I was fine.
But the sad truth is, things do not always turn out fine for LGBT people. We do not always have good fortune. Sometimes small, hateful people take it into their minds to harm us. On the morning of Sunday, June 12, I felt the same fear I felt that night at Walmart, magnified a thousandfold, cleaving me to the heart. I’d imagine that a lot of you did, too. Forty-nine of us, mostly young, mostly queer, mostly people of color, gone. Just like that. I’d heard the phrase “When it happens to one of us it happens to all of us.” I’d even said it. I’d never felt it quite as acutely as I did last Sunday.
And that day, I saw a lot of people saying that love wins. And I want to believe it. But honestly, I don’t think that love always wins. On Sunday, I think that loss and anger and hurt and grief were the things that won. (Please note: if you are or were one of the people saying or feeling or tweeting that love wins, I am not here to shame you or tell you that you are working through your grief in the wrong way. We all have different perspectives. We all have different ways of grieving. And I certainly do not have all the answers.)
There is a part of me that a wants to give in to anger and despair. I’m angry that this happened. I’m angry that this keeps happening. I’m angry that over a thousand of us are victims of hate crimes every year in this country alone. I’m angry that there are people–quite a few people–using the deaths of queer people of color to rationalize racism and xenophobia and Islamophobia. I’m angry that people are talking about Muslims and queers as if there are no queer Muslims in the world. I’m angry that our government has thus far given no indication that they plan to do anything to stop the next hateful bigot who wants to harm us from getting his hands on an automatic weapon.
And the thing is, I really, really fucking hate being angry. It makes me feel helpless. It makes me feel like I’ve got a gaping hole where my heart and soul are supposed to be. As we were tragically reminded last Sunday, we each have a finite number of seconds on this earth, and I’d rather not spend any more of my finite seconds than I absolutely have to feeling helpless and hollow.
But the unfortunate truth is, these feelings of anger and despair are part of the deal for LGBT people in the world we live in. As Rachel Maddow pointed out this week, our community has been forged in fire. In the past century alone, we have survived dictators who wanted to kill us, governments that wanted to silence us, and a general public that turned away from us when we were being hurt and silenced and killed. History is littered with examples of people who thought that they could legislate, or intimidate, or kill us out of existence. And time and time again, we have proved them wrong. We are still here.
And I have never been more proud.
Everywhere I look, I see the love, the compassion, and the strength of our community. I see it in the drag queens who are 1,000,000% stronger and braver than all the hateful, insecure homophobes in the world. I see it in the butch lesbians who have been on the front lines of the fight for our community since before we even knew we had a voice, in spite of living in a world that often treats female masculinity as something to be scorned and ridiculed. I see it in everyone who found it within themselves to leave behind their shame and fear and live their most authentic, truthful lives. I see it in the faces of everyone we lost last Sunday. I see it in the stories of heroism and bravery that came out of the crucible of that night. I see it in the scared, wide-eyed kids who do not yet know just how good life can be.
And I’d like to say this to my LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters, no matter who you are, and no matter where you are: You are strong. You are brave. You are beautiful. And more than anything, you are loved. I love you.
So that’s where I’m at right now. Unfortunately, I cannot promise that you, or I, or any individual one of us is going to be OK. As we were tragically reminded last Sunday, there are no such guarantees in life. But I also know that our pride, and our strength, and our community cannot and will not be killed, or suppressed, or taken away from us. So while I know that no one can guarantee that I will be OK tomorrow, or a year from now, or 10 years from now, our community gives me something that I would not otherwise have: hope. And as Harvey Milk said, we cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living.
So to those of us who cannot be at Pride this year, I want to say we support you, wherever you are. Be good to yourself, and know that whenever you feel safe and ready, there is a community of people waiting to welcome you with open arms.
I am lucky enough to be able to go to Pride. This year, I am honestly scared to go. And I also think it’s really, really important that I do.
I hope to see you there.