Orlando Revisited

Written September 17, 2016

I stumbled across the video Rest in Pride on YouTube this morning and was struck by how quickly the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in June has dropped off our radars and news feeds.  Maybe it because there is always some new tragedy for us to process or maybe it is because I no longer live in the heart of the LBGTQ community or maybe it is partially because sitting with something like this is still pretty damn painful and scary.
I was in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania the weekend of the Pulse shooting for my son’s college orientation.  If you have never been to Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, it is about 20 miles from State College, in the middle of nowhere and internet and cell phone reception is iffy at best.  Because of these circumstances, I received almost all my news about what happened in Orlando through Facebook and really couldn’t start to sort out through my thoughts and feelings about it until I got home.  Some of my thoughts below are from a post on my personal Facebook page in June.  At the time I felt like my Facebook news feed had become a tornado of information, emotion and reaction—some become part of the background noise while others still stand out with crystalline clarity.

I honestly don’t remember how old I was the first time I went to a gay club—16? 17? I don’t even remember its name (it was outside of Worcester, Massachusetts and probably more than a little seedy). What I do remember is that my palms were sweaty and I felt like my heart was pounding out of my chest when I opened the door and then stepped over the threshold. It felt like I was leaving behind everything I had ever known and claiming some dark, dangerous other life. I remember how it felt to be able to hold my girlfriend’s hand and dance with her out in public for that VERY first time. The club was mostly full of gay men, many of them quite a bit older than we were, but no one made us feel unwanted or unwelcome. We were part of the larger family.

There would be other cities, other gay and lesbian bars and clubs (Sneakers, Woody’s, the Cartwheel, a great men’s leather bar in Provincetown called The Vault that I went to with friends one October Break) where I could drink with friends or flirt with my lover and not have to worry about someone screaming “fucking dyke” at us, or one memorable occasion, have a woman snatch her young daughter away and actually cross the street to get away from my girlfriend and I as we walked down a Philadelphia street holding hands. I have never been a big drinker but have always loved to dance and 30 years ago my friends and I could easily have been found at a bar just like Pulse on any given Saturday night, in any given city.

I came of age in the 80’s in gay and lesbian bars and the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) of Boston, a non-denominational church with a primary, but not exclusively, LBGTQ church body.  It was early in the AIDS epidemic and HIV was a death sentence. I still don’t know how many of the men I met and cared for in that church community lived to see middle age. MCC was a haven in those early days of AIDS where we all learned- and were reminded daily and graphically- that in America not all lives mattered. If you were gay, if you were of color, if you were an IV drug user or otherwise lived on the margins, you were expendable.

One of the most profound moments of my early 20’s was seeing the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt laid out in the National Mall in Washington, D.C. with a group that traveled down from Mount Holyoke and Smith. Each block had been lovingly made by friends and/or family of the deceased, each representing a lost life. Some were plain, containing just a name, others were elaborate, celebrating someone’s hobbies and passions. Some honored lost children and contained stuffed animals, remnants of baby blankets. The squares covered an area bigger than a football field. It took hours to recite the names. Volunteers offered tissues and comfort. Quilt square after quilt square representing lives lost not simply to an impersonal illness but just as much, if not more so, to indifference, ignorance, hatred, homophobia, racism and politics.

Some of the tweets and Facebook posts that I have saw in days immediately following the Pulse nightclub massacre praising the Orlando shooter felt so frighteningly familiar, so close to what we heard when gay men started to die of AIDS. As I read hateful post after hateful post after the Orlando shooting, I was glad that social media did not exist in the late 80’s.

No one was more surprised than I was that I left Mount Holyoke, married a man and had children.  Somewhere along the road I stopped calling the LGBTQ community my home. I am not, and will never be, straight but somehow attending Pride, claiming LGBTQ status, started to feel wrong.  No one ever made me feel unwelcome but I felt uncomfortable showing up at Pride and then being to hold my husband’s hand with no fear of harassment on the subway ride home. In any case, I am in a different part of my life.  I am no longer that bold 20-something walking down the Philadelphia streets holding my girlfriend’s hand.  I am a 50 year old married bisexual woman trying to figure out what it means to be out at this age and in this lifespace.

My 18 year old left home just about a month ago full of excitement to start at the small, liberal arts college where he thinks he will feel most at home. My child is gender fluid and is not interested in labels to define his sexuality. He is who is and he loves who he loves and I am so proud that he is trying to live his life with honesty and authenticity. He is off on his own now and slowly finding his own tribe and this tribe will discover its own sanctuaries. Maybe they will find a club to dance in on Saturday nights just like Pulse. Sanctuaries I hoped that he would never need in post-gay marriage America. Sanctuaries that will not always offer safety when there is still so much indifference, ignorance, hatred, homophobia, and racism in this country coupled with easy access to weapons of mass destruction. I have read over and over on the internet that we should not make Orlando political. Guess what? It already was and always has been. It is also deeply and terrifyingly personal.

© 2016 Christine Elizabeth Ray – All rights Reserved


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