Have you reached out to your LGBTQ friends? Are you still asking, How are you doing? Many of us have lived under the threat of homophobia for much of our lives. All of us have had nasty shit thrown at us or our posse over the years by those who love to hate. Orlando dredged up those memories and threatened to catapult us back to the days of fear and secrecy. Have you called your queer peeps who are still weeping?
Those of us who fell in love with someone of the same sex back in the days before the gay liberation movement were identified as mentally ill, perverts, and pariahs. We were busted, banned, and humiliated for our love. And many of us suffered violence that we could not even report to police or family, because to say we were beat up or raped in the area of town where the gay bars were – especially if we were women in ties or men in make-up – then we were asking for even more serious trouble.
After a Friday spent tearing up and laughing through the poignant Muhammed Ali memorial, and a Saturday spent at Boston’s annual Pride, riding in the trolley for LGBT elders as we were cheered the whole route by excited young and old people, I woke up Sunday to a text from a friend abroad. She sent solidarity “over this awful news.” What happened? I rushed to my computer – not knowing if she was referring to something personal or political. Turns out it was both. The homophobia which perpetually hovers – sometimes masked – over our lives descended on an Orlando LGBTQ haven and wiped out 49 human beings and hurt countless others. More people gay-bashed to death than any other attack since the Holocaust, one writer said.
It’s five days later and I can’t stop weeping. I can’t get myself off Facebook, despite the fact that each new testimony and each new photo makes me cry. It’s five days later and I start to realize how many of my straight friends have not checked in, have not asked me how I am doing, who do not notice how profoundly devastating this is to me, their friend. I talk to other lesbians and they say the same thing. One young friend said yesterday, “They just don’t get it.” The same thing folks of color say after yet another person is gunned down by the police and white friends note it with a meme and quickly move on. Articles are appearing that bemoan the hurtful silence or the passing concern of dear straight friends.
We older queers recall the difficult days when the bars were our only sanctuary. There was no movement, no gay center, no straight/gay alliance, no brochures, no place to meet lesbians other than the Mafia bars. There we were forced to buy expensive drinks, but we could dance with another girl and put our arms around each other without the fear of violence. The bars were scuzzy and dank, but we could take off the hated work skirts and frilly blouses and replace them with jeans and Oxford shirts with cigarettes tucked into our rolled up sleeves. We could do the Lesbian two-step, a grinding rub-a-dub of thigh to pussy, or we could rock and roll with a freedom we did not know anywhere else.
I’ve been in those bars in many places, unmarked doors where you had to knock and know what to say in order to gain entrance, but where the butches and their femmes looked as familiar as family. Where for many of us, they were family.
Oh, the macro- and micro-aggressions I’ve experienced – and I’m one of millions. When my first love and I were caught together in the 60s during high school, we were brutishly separated. We escaped incarceration and shock treatments, but suffered other punishments. The lifelong spew of anti-dyke insults and threats on the streets led to confrontations when I didn’t put up with them. Once in a supermarket a burly man rammed me violently with his cart for refusing to “look like a lady”; he screamed that I was a “sick bulldyke.” Friends were raped by cops coming out of an illegal Mafia bar. Other friends were tortured by what their religious leaders were preaching, leading to terrible internal conflicts. Many of us had lousy parents: my mother told me that my dad had heart disease because I was a dyke.
When I was a slender androgynous baby butch, I was often challenged as to my right to be in the women’s bathroom. At work I feared being alone in the office bathroom with another woman, remembering a friend who lost her job because of false accusations by a hetero colleague. And all those years that we all used the opposite pronouns to hide our same-sex partners when gabbing with work mates about what we did over the weekend. In the 80s I lost a friend when I brought a little yellow playsuit as a present for her newborn son. “You’re already trying to turn him gay,” she screamed when she saw it wasn’t blue, and threw me out.
But homophobia is not an historical relic – as Orlando reminded us in the most gut-wrenching way. The day before the rampage in Orlando, I sat on the subway next to a recent high school graduate on our way to Boston’s Pride. It was his first Pride. I told him that I had been at the very first Boston Pride. He told me his story. When he came out to his mother as a sophomore in high school, she instantly threw him out of the house. In some ways he was glad to go because his stepfather had been abusing him.
Even today, 40 years later, dancing is still an issue. When I go partner dancing as a leader to straight venues – as I do several times a week – young women followers ask me “What’s your problem?” and “Why do you act like this?” Not once. Not twice. But every friggin’ time I go dancing.
Like many other mass-murderers, it turns out the Orlando killer hated women most of all. Said one of his co-workers: “He didn’t like women. They have too many rights. They shouldn’t drive. He resented that he had to be nice to women in order to sleep with them. He had anger management problems – all the time. The things that set him off were women, race, and religion. A few times he talked about gay people, but usually it was women.” The killer’s ex-wife talked of his violence against her.
The early women’s liberation movement had it right when we said that heterosexism is derived from sexism – that sexism is an ideology that assigns people roles according to their perceived gender. When peoples’ behavior doesn’t abide by those limitations – a femme on the arm of a butch in a motorcycle jacket, a bearded man in a dress and a boa, two men kissing at a mall – sexists become heterosexists, that is, homophobes. Murderously so.
And whom did he kill? Mostly he killed young gay men of color. It was Latin night at the nightclub Pulse. The killer knew Pulse and knew its schedule. He clearly targeted Latinos/as. Pulse served as a safe space, a community center, a welcoming bubble in the lives of these gays of color and the other people in Pulse. Say its name: racism.
I’ve been involved in social justice activism since the civil rights movement when I was 14; and I first loved a girl at 15. Now I’m 68 and still weeping over racism, over heterosexism, and over my painful sense of loneliness. Has nothing changed?