Who Are “We” After Orlando? By Jack Halberstam

22 Jun

 

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In a recent response to the shootings of Latino gay men and others in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando Florida, on June 12 The Atlantic ran an article claiming that violence against LGBT people in the US was all too common and was even more common than violence directed at other minorities. The main argument of this article was repeated four days later in The New York Times under the heading “L.G.B.T. People Are More Likely to Be Targets
of Hate Crimes Than Any Other Minority Group.” Both articles cited the same source, namely research conducted by Southern Poverty Law Center, and both quote a senior fellow there, Mark Potok. In the article that appeared in The Atlantic, Potok is quoted as saying: “LGBT people are more than twice as likely to be the target of a violent hate-crime than Jews or black people.”

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This is an interesting claim in that it presumes both that LGBT people are neither Jews nor Black people and that killers target people only on the basis of one strand of hatred! It also creates a specious hierarchy of violence within which white LGBT people are cast as more vulnerable than other minority groups. These kinds of widely circulated claims support a generalized expression of LGBT vulnerability that appeared on social media platforms, Facebook and Twitter, in the wake of the murders. But these killings were highly specific and as new material surfaces on Omar Mateen’s tortured relation to his own sexuality, we want to challenge this sense of an amorphous homophobic threat that separates homophobic violence out from the particular, convulsive expressions of racialized hate.

hate-crimes-against-lgbt-1466044414162-articleLarge-v6Both of the articles on hate crime bury contradictory demographic details about hate crimes against LGBT people towards the end of their reports. In The New York Times, for example, a chart representing the distribution of LGBT violence across race and class tells quite a different story than the sensational headline. When sorted by race, the charts reveal that, in the words of the reporter, “the vast majority of those who were killed were Black and transgender people.” And the charts show that even among those who were not killed, the LGBT people who were most often the victims of hate crimes and violence were people of color.

Obviously the shooting of 49 people in a gay club on a night geared towards Latino gay men shakes all LGBT communities to their core and reminds us of other violent and hate-filled attacks on other clubs over the past few decades. In other queer clubs, on other nights, other bodies have fallen victim to the toxic masculinities that imagine violence as the solution to shifts in the status quo that might shake up hierarchies of sex and gender. But on this night, in this club, the target of steroid fueled, militaristic, narcissistic, deeply conflicted masculinity was a group of mostly Latino gay men.

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Victims of an arson attack at the UpStairs Lounge in 1973. 32 died.

Justin Torres conjured the scene in the Pulse that night in a beautiful essay offered as a tribute to the slain and titled “In praise of Latin Night at the Queer Club”:

Maybe your Ma blessed you on the way out the door. Maybe she wrapped a plate for you in the fridge so you don’t come home and mess up her kitchen with your hunger. Maybe your Tia dropped you off, gave you cab money home. Maybe you had to get a sitter. Maybe you’ve yet to come out to your family at all, or maybe your family kicked you out years ago. Forget it, you survived… Maybe your half-Latin-ass doesn’t even speak Spanish; maybe you barely speak English. Maybe you’re undocumented.

Torres carefully and tenderly located the victims of the Orlando massacre not as a unified group of gay victims but as a happily disordered group of Latino queers with varying relations to race, language, class, citizenship, family and kinship. Using a second person form of address – “maybe you’re undocumented” – Torres talks to the dead rather than around them, about them, through them. He talks to the dead, recognizing their differences from one another and from the culture that too often threatens, excludes, exploits or ignores them, and Torres situates the club goers in relation to nightlife, to Orlando, to each other and to larger LGBT communities. In his next paragraph, Torres describes what lies outside the club – Christians, Trump, exclusion, racism – and then draws a magic line around the club that designates it as a safe space for people who are patently not safe elsewhere in the culture. Back in the world, Torres reminds the lost, struggle continues, but here, in the club you thrive, you dance, you live: “You didn’t come here to be a martyr, you came to live, papi. To live, mamacita. To live, hijos. To live, mariposas.”

Torres’ beautiful song for the slain mariposas recognizes the beauty and the fragility of this community and situates that fragility in relation to the multiple vectors of violence that exist outside the club and that always threaten to make their way inside. Some of those violators will arrive in the form of unstable men with weapons, some will come in the form of la migra or homeland security, some will and did arrive in the form of the police and others will arrive in the form of white LGBT people who see this violation as their own and incorporate this crime into a general narrative of anti-gay violence.

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Christina Hanhardt has written at length about the specificity of anti-violence claims in LGBT communities and the ways in which some of those claims lead to increased police presence in LGBT communities and increased jeopardy for communities of color. In a summation of her position in The Scholar and Feminist Online (S&F Online), Hanhardt
identifies the role of gentrifying gay male communities within neoliberal and post-welfare urban landscapes. Gay and lesbian gentrifiers, she explains, have often “been hailed as the remedy for urban problems.” And so, all too often, white urban gay populations replace racialized and poor communities and become sites of investment. She writes:

Central to the history of LGBT activism, in which the themes of violence and safety have been so prominent, is the calculation of risk: the risk of violence associated with a gay vulnerability that calls for anticrime initiatives as well as the risk of lost profit linked to real estate speculation. One outcome has been to redefine normative gay identity as an identity threatened by those deemed “criminal” (in particular, the racialized poor), while finding solutions in risk negotiations, including self-regulation and open financial markets.

In other words, urban development projects often depend upon and encourage an often white, gay creative class while displacing and endangering poor communities of color. In turn, white LGBT communities can imagine themselves as part of the nation and its prosperity while queer communities of color are situated as sites of crime, illegality and protest cultures.

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Given the different histories of white LGBT urban populations and LGBT communities of color in relation to space, property, policing and risk, we might ask who “we” are after Orlando. Does the attack on these brown bodies reflect a more generalized vulnerability experienced by LGBT communities as a whole? Is there, in fact, any connection at all between the vulnerability of white LGBT communities to homophobia and the ongoing violence that LGBT communities of color face within the current climate of anti-immigrant, anti-Black, pro-banks, pro-business, free market mayhem?

In the wake of Orlando, it might be time to break up the fantasy of the LGBT monolith not in favor of ever more precise calibrations of identity but on behalf of the urgent need to confront state violence whether it is expressed through a security regime that works well on behalf of bankers and politicians but not at all on behalf of poor people of color or whether it comes in the form of incorporative strategies aimed at privileged queers or increased policing aimed at queers of color. While gay marriage is quickly being offered up as the motivation for increased homophobic hate crime activity – the NYT proposed “Ironically, part of the reason for violence against L.G.B.T. people might have to do with a more accepting attitude toward gays and lesbians in recent decades, say people who study hate crimes” – a better way to understand gay marriage is as part and parcel of an incorporative logic in which opposition is gobbled up and turned into more of the same.

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As middle class white LGBT people celebrate their access to normative social forms and agree to pay the price for such acceptance by consenting to new forms of violent exclusion, they/we cannot simultaneously claim to be the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, the most victimized of the victims, the most in need of shelter, protection and sanctuary. Orlando showed me at least that the security state we live in with its second amendment values and its shouty, crude formulations of “us” and “them” needs to be countered with complex, intricate, risky conversations about who “we” are and who “we” want to become.

9780814757284_DetailFor Torres, Orlando brings us face to face with the transformative power of Latin night at the queer club: “The only imperative is to be transformed, transfigured in the disco light.” In a similar way, Orlando brings us to José Muñoz’s conjuring of queer utopia as “a type of affective excess that presents the enabling force of a forward-dawning futurity.” Orlando is not a generalized and non-specific “we” it is a clearly situated “you” standing, dancing, living and dying in the wee hours of the morning, in a space at the very furthest edge of community, on the verge of a forward-dawning futurity into which other worlds, could and will come to be.

7 Responses to “Who Are “We” After Orlando? By Jack Halberstam”

  1. sarah m June 24, 2016 at 4:17 am #

    I found the vigils where people read the names of the murdered people or wrote them on buildings and sidewalks confusing. It seemed like such an intimate act, and it made no sense to me that the straight, white mayor of my mid-sized, largely Christian-conservative Canadian city was hosting a vigil for people who wanted to do that. I’m not sure what to make of spectator/mourners’ affective intimacy with the shooting and its victims.

    But I know what to make of it in purely pragmatic terms. What it means to be queer and/or Latinx in this and other parts of Canada is different from what it means in Orlando or other places in the States. When we throw ourselves into that amorphous, homogeneous blob version of “us,” then we sacrifice our own specificity, too. E.g., the layers of colonization in Canada (of Indigenous land, by the US, by the UK), the gendered and racist workings of the Temporary Foreign Worker program and similar schemes for exploiting migrant labour, the havoc gentrification has wreaked in the cores of former rust belt cities (and pushing poor people into rural areas), the devastated job markets in rural and northern communities, the legacy of sexual violence in residential schools—important determinants of how homophobia and racism play out here are erased on a course parallel to the erasure of victims’ specificities.

  2. christopherarreola July 27, 2016 at 4:29 am #

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful words. A lot of this resonates, especially considering that during many of the vigils for the victims there were white LGBT politicians speaking on behalf of the queer community. Scott Weiner, particularly, is pro-police and wants to push forward many neoliberal policies in San Francisco. However, he was asked to speak at the vigil. Eric Stanley, myself, and others tried to reach out to the vigil organizers and they refused to disallow Scott from talking. Some time after, during SF Trans March, Scott was invited to speak again. However, this time he was met with boos from the mostly poc crowd.

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