On the massacre at Club Pulse
By José Quiroga
June 27, 2016
“…in the struggle for mastery, the Negro is the pawn.”
The twenty-three Puerto Ricans that were killed at Club Pulse in Orlando had two things in common: they were Puerto Rican or identified themselves as such, and they were killed at a business that catered to the LGBT community in Orlando, Florida, by a man who had legally acquired his gun. These facts may not clarify the event nor shed light on its cause—they just make the sadness specific to stories I know, to narratives I’ve lived with. This is how my work of mourning begins.
Puerto Ricans have been moving to Orlando at least since the 1980s to escape the alarming criminality of an economically depressed island, where an exhausted political compact with the United States has produced mass unemployment and social insecurity. Talk to any Puerto Rican living in central Florida and she or he will recount a similar tale of options foreclosed, mass layoffs, and diminished expectations. And the story will most certainly include robberies at gunpoint, bullet holes in windows and cars, someone killed. “In the dead in Orlando, Puerto Ricans hear a roll call of their kin” was the title of a June 14 New York Times article written by Lizette Alvarez and Nick Madigan, which noted as a “bitter twist” the fact that a “spectacularly high crime rate” partially accounts for this migration.
At some point in the past, all of those Puerto Ricans killed had pondered the balance between reality and a life unlived, and had opted for the most difficult part of that equation, which is displacement. That we mourn the fact that they were killed because of their sexuality does not exclude the fact that we also mourn them because they had no choice but to restart their lives as lives defined by diaspora, exile, and bureaucracy: one-way plane tickets , a new home, re-localization and moving fees, mail forwarding, new license plates, voting rights lost and gained, taxation. And of course they took with them the traces of all those other migrations Puerto Ricans have collectively endured.
Peoples (and nations) are crafted out of the complexities of nostalgia and regret, homelands occupied, or lost, or re-gained at the end of some journey. But Orlando has not given us an image we can place alongside the great migrations of the past, perhaps because the middle-class flight of an educated workforce lacks the drama of poverty and survival inscribed in those heroic tales of hot rum in a small room with red lampshades, while snow flurries dance outside on uptown winter nights. Orlando doesn’t convey a dream of upward mobility, but an attempt to preserve a certain way of life, an alternative future out of the island and its endless struggle to re-define a political relationship at an impasse. Behind each and every one of Orlando’s well kept lawns there is the horn blasting dysfunctionality of pot-holed streets in the native land, incessant traffic jams, dirty beaches, roach-infested central plazas, and corrupt municipalities. Every Puerto Rican business in Orlando represents a successful middle-class escape from the whole mess of a U.S. colony in the midst of a massive default, and, because of those same colonial laws, without the legal benefit of bankruptcy such as was given to a city like Det Detroit.
What does that all have to do with the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, one that targeted those who were partying and dancing at a disco in Orlando during “Latin night”? In the days following the massacre, the tangled, confusing plotlines that tie central Florida to a broader context were exposed. While Obama once again had to respond to a senseless act of violence abetted by the easy availability of guns, Hillary Clinton showed us how presidential she could be, and Marco Rubio announced that he was seeking a Senate seat. JetBlue offered to fly relatives to and from central Florida, and a local campaign called #SomosOrlando was set up to receive donations. Donald Trump, in the meantime, once again revealed how acrobatic the human brain can be, that it can talk and say nothing at the same time, just blame Muslims for not policing their fellow Muslim neighbors. In Puerto Rico, Governor Alejandro García Padilla extended the period of official mourning on the island, with all flags at half-mast, and the left-wing socialist pro-independence weekly newspaper had not taken note of the event two weeks after it happened. San Juan prepared itself for what turned out to be its biggest LGBT March on June 26.
Hurricane season in the tropics doesn’t care for complicated sets, or issues too complex to rhyme. At each and every invitation to grieve, someone collapsed. Students were given posthumous degrees. Desolate towns where every third person had already packed their bags and left, welcomed the bodies of men and women with the dignified acceptance such complicated crises invoke. Some of the victims, it was said, had not “come out” to their families, or didn’t identify as lesbian or gay. The toxic encounter of money, identity and sexuality ensured that only two Latino men were interviewed by The New York Times, in a massacre where 90% of the victims were Latinxs for a piece which in turn tried to balance race and gender. It was an attempt to give voice to a collective grief by recalling the gay bar as a refuge of the past, precisely the wrong thing to do at this point in time.
The whole messy, complex, unhealthy and toxic atmosphere of a bar, a disco, a speakeasy, or whatever, was never a quasi-religious “safe space.” It wasn’t safe back in the days when John Travolta ran off with the girl in “Saturday Night Fever” and it wasn’t safe back in the days of the Anvil or the Saint. And had it not been for the careful monitoring that every bartender at The Eagle bar in Boston had for this 17 year old Latino coming out of the backroom, who knows what sorts of negotiations would have had to take place when I opted for the Fenway instead of the Combat Zone.
So let’s remain for a while in this mausoleum, this sticky space of the gay bar that the Times seems to want to foreclose. Latin nights seem redundant in a city like Orlando on a Saturday night. Ten or twenty years ago Latin nights meant trying to bring in people on a Tuesday, or a Wednesday—enticing those seeking a midweek escape from the nine-to-five. They would pull in those young enough to stay up all night and up the next morning, perhaps with a hangover, and head to work after a hot shower with the borrowed shirt. That’s the world as it was back then. At this point in time when the finger on the trackpad can just click on a profile onscreen, zooming in on the full frontal, it’s difficult to draw them in even on a weekend. Waiting for a stranger naked in bed, ass up and lubed, sounds safe in comparison, if not more expedient.
Perhaps it is. But as we watch our affective lives fall under the regulatory zeal of the State, the police, the courts and private business; and our eccentric, fabulous and flamboyant social spaces give way to the demands of normativity, perhaps it is time to bring back the conversation to issues that were never resolved by marriage “equality.” Issues that include acceptance and recognition for our forms of kinship with our own set of rules and responsibilities, the right to be free, to have sex as often and as much as we want to, the right to dance in gay bars and straight bars, and the right to include a significant other to receive benefits, medical and otherwise, without having to produce the legal, normatized validation of a marriage certificate.
These days, Puerto Rico has no path other than civil resistance to a hostile Republican-controlled U.S. Congress imposing a fiscal control board—unbelievably known by the acronym PROMESA–that will not craft a sustainable economic base but on the contrary, defend the interests of junk bond investors. In Orlando, self-preservation once again will entail mastering the grammar of avoidance while busing tables, standing at the cash register, getting a perm, or going to the doctor. Last call will be hasty and swift with part of the crowd sobering up while the other tries scouts the room in one last ditch attempt at sex.
It would be a fine thing at this point to offer a message of hope. To believe that things will go back to normal, that our bars will not close down because of gentrification or fear, or more efficient ways of hooking up. But as long as lesbian or gay stands for the exclusionary site of a mode of isolation and not the inclusive site where different classes, ethnicities, pasts presents and futures openly put on display all of their perverse possibilities and their different ways of understanding sex and gender and kinship, we will just be left with some maimed possibility of ourselves, some phantom subject unhinged, with our tacit acceptance and permission.
José Quiroga is our newest Bully Blogger. He is Professor of Comparative Literature, Emory University. He works on contemporary Latinx and Latin American cultures, queer and gender studies, Cuba and the Caribbean. Quiroga’s books include include Mapa Callejero (Buenos Aires: Eterna Cadencia, 2010), Law of Desire: A Queer Film Classic (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, 2009), Cuban Palimpsests (U Minnesota Press, 2005) and Tropics of Desire: Interventions from Queer Latino America (NYU Press, 2001). In collaboration with Licia Fiol-Matta he directs the series New Directions in Latino American Cultures for Palgrave, and is completing an edited collection titled The Havana Reader, and The Book of Flight. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2012, and is always aiming to be a better escape artist.