In the wreckage of the Pulse massacre, there’s a lot being said about LGBTQIA pride, about standing up in the face of violence. About the great value of being oneself, publicly and without shame. And I love that. Nothing nullifies intimidation tactics like the refusal to be intimidated. Many of us have endured years of a quieter violence, being told that we are broken, evil, or crazy, and so our pride is radical act of love. As a bisexual woman married to a man, I could easily pass as straight, opt out of the conversation, and hide the target on my back. But I won’t do it. I’ll make a point to say “I’m with them.”
But for a moment, I want to speak to the silent ones. To those who choose to stay in this week with their loved ones and savor safety, and to those who are closeted indefinitely. If you are hiding your orientation or true gender because you are afraid for your safety, I understand. If you’re hiding because your family would disown you if they knew, I understand. If you’re hiding to protect your family, I understand. If you’re hiding because your religion or culture rewards homophobia, I understand. If you’re hiding because you rely on prejudiced people for help, I understand. I am not ashamed of you. You are in a difficult position and I want you to keep on surviving. You are enough.
For those of us who are fortunate enough to have some measure of safety and influence, let us speak. I don’t mean only LGBTQIA folks–I mean everyone. Instead of speaking for victims, which, let’s be honest, is more like speaking over victims, let us turn instead and speak to the victimizers. Ideally this look like diplomacy. Of course, it’s easier to shout. Yesterday on social media, once the initial outpouring of grief and love subsided, the rage began. It was rooted in a place of deep humanity. People were trying to make sense of the complex cultural climate that could birth this horror. They were circling it, examining it from many sides.Instead of speaking for victims…let us turn instead and speak to the victimizers.
Someone noted that the mass killing at Wounded Knee left 300 bodies behind, meaning the Pulse killing, with 49 bodies, is not the largest in U.S. history. The comparison is crude, but it serves to remind us that erasing Native American tragedy compounds the original violence. An ex-Muslim friend of mine became angry at well-intentioned but in her view uninformed claims that Islam does not encourage homophobia. She herself suffered greatly at the hands of an oppressive Islamic culture, and wants to be seen. Revulsed, she shared a link to an Arabic-language newscast celebrating the attack, to illustrate her point. Another friend expressed disgust at the focus on the shooter’s Islamic heritage, demanding that white American men in general answer for the killings for which they are overwhelmingly responsible, before they point fingers at Islam. I thought back to my Christian upbringing and its profound homophobia, which drove me to the brink of suicide.
In the wake of mass killings, which are likely to recur in the coming years, we become angry. I cannot, in good conscience, tell someone who’s been victimized or who belongs to a victimized group not to be angry or assign blame. But I want to make a request. I ask that each of us consider what we share with the perpetrators, and the enablers. In Orlando’s case, that means, for example, that you might be a man or an American citizen, a Muslim, or a gun owner.You could be a member of a homophobic subculture. I ask that we each consider the ways in which we are privileged: can we speak without fearing for our lives? Are we part of a group with sociopolitical power? Are we part of a group that has perpetrated horrors? Are we part of a group that has stood by and allowed horrors to unfold? I will ask that each of us use that privilege to our advantage. If you are privileged, focus your rage and sadness and love into a sharp tool.Focus your rage and sadness and love into a sharp tool.
My identity is inextricably tied to oppression. My ancestors come from Europe. I’ve lived in Massachusetts, Texas, Tennessee, and now Colorado, all places once belonging to Native Americans. I’m white, cisgender (I identify with my physical gender), educated, raised Christian, from a middle-class background—I belong to a class of people who act as gatekeepers to power. We assert that we know how the language should be spoken, how the body and hair should be dressed, what a family unit should look like, what kinds of work have value. As a member of a family that owns guns, I’m tied to this particular tragedy. I don’t want to completely disarm the American populace, because this increases the power disparity between the citizenry and the government. Regardless of my desire for reform, that means that every time someone is shot with a civilian’s gun in the United States, I am implicated.
These are all tools. Wielded well, they mean I can use my influence with other European-Americans to magnify the voices of Native Americans and help them tell their stories. They mean I can speak to Christians, whose religion and culture I know intimately, and ask them to consider the modern social implications of Scriptures about sex, gender, and love. They mean I can talk to other male-female couples with children and point out the merits of childlessness or singleness, of same-sex marriage, of polyamory. They mean I can talk to other writers and note that when we insist on a single “correct” grammar, we are telling subcultures that the language does not belong to them. I can talk to other cisgender people, ask how their gender was formed, how is it performed, how did they know they were men or women? They mean I can talk to others who wish for a well-protected populace, and point to the ways that our weapons are backfiring, to all the ways we are less safe because of our current gun laws.When other queer people and women speak up, I feel proud and validated. But they shouldn’t shoulder their burden alone in a silent room.
People in victimized groups speak up, and it’s inspiring. When other queer people and women speak up, I feel proud and validated. But they shouldn’t shoulder their burden alone in a silent room. Don’t force the oppressed to speak up to their oppressors. When you have a connection to the oppressor, pull them aside. Say, We have something in common, but look, consider another perspective. Someone, somewhere, is in danger and pain, waiting for you to speak.
Tammy Bendetti is a tiny, loud poet and artist living on Colorado’s Western Slope with her husband and two daughters. She loves coffee, secret passageways, dancing badly, and mermaids. She told her husband narwhals were real, not just imaginary sea unicorns, but he doesn’t believe her, so please send additional proof to @SkylarkLover on Twitter. You can find Tammy’s writing most recently at Pittsburgh Poetry Houses, Bitopia, and Tattoosday.