Taking Our Pulse

by Asam Ahmad

(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

(Originally published June 16, 2016)

“Define loneliness? Yes. It’s what we can’t do for each other.” — Claudia Rankine

*** To all my qtpoc loves, the ones who have kept me alive and the ones who will never know how to claim me.***

Many of us are feeling a particularly devastating kind of loneliness right now, the kind of loneliness that comes from seeing too many of our loved ones gone too soon, the loneliness of knowing it could have been any of us, the loneliness of knowing, deep in our bones, that death is our constant shadow and that the world insists on demanding bravery and courage from us simply in order to breathe and step outside. It is the loneliness of knowing that we are not safe anywhere, even in our holiest of places.

This grief is still so palpable, so numbing, I don’t know if any words can be a balm today. I hope instead, that these thoughts can help us see each other and the place we find ourselves in a little bit more clearly.

  1. There is a rush to metaphoricize gay love to represent queer life that needs to be urgently resisted. Yes, the easiest way for many to understand queerness is through gay sex, but for many of us our queerness does not begin and end with who we choose to lie down with. For many of us, gay romance actually gets in the way of living a vital queer life. Not all of us choose to have gay sex. We need to insist on our ability to choose who we love while simultaneously refusing to prioritize romantic love as somehow above all other kinds of relationships. Many of us are still only here because of our friends and acquaintances. As queers, we need to remember the importance of these other kinds of love that sustain us. We need to romanticize these loves.
  2. We must prioritize the leadership of Queer Latinx, Queer Black and Brown Muslims and listen and learn from them. We cannot make gay white men the face of this tragedy because this tragedy is not about gay white men. Instead of rushing to claim our sexualities in death while erasing our specific narratives around racialization in life, the most important thing white gays can do right now is think about why it is so difficult for them to claim us while we are still alive? Instead of being engulfed in grief and assuming complete and automatic victimhood, white queers can take this opportunity to think about their own complicity in making mainstream gay spaces impossible to navigate for so many racialized queer and trans people.
  3. Let’s stop pretending that queer community, particularly qtpoc community, is not a scarce and fragile thing. We have been throwing the word “community” around since that awful Sunday like we all agree we know what it means, or what community looks like, or that our communities were thriving and showing up for each other before this painful reminder of what is at stake for all of us. Our communities have inherited centuries of anti-Black racism, Islamophobia and trans-antagonism, and these legacies are still alive and sometimes in full effect even in many of our so-called safest qtpoc spaces.
  4. One of the hardest aspects of this grief is being unable to show up for those we love most dearly. We need to resist capitalism’s logic of scarcity but we need to recognize that the monopoly on resources by some in a capitalist society makes other things — like care, space, time — scarce for many of us. There are so many people I couldn’t show up for because I barely had time or space or the energy to show up for myself, and I suspect there are so many others who couldn’t show up for me because they are still figuring out how to show up for themselves. This doesn’t mean we don’t care about each other, but it does mean that in terms of “community” it’s hard not to feel like we are always letting someone else down. This is simply a fact of life under late-capitalism today: it thrives by leaving us scarce of the things that actually nourish us while monopolizing the resources that can make that nourishing possible.
  5. Instead of feeling more isolated because our dearest loves are grieving, how can we shift the narrative around blame and what showing up looks like? In the words of my friend Shana, “how can we reframe our survival strategies as an understandable reaction to stress, one that holds us precariously together until we can build enough scar tissue to reengage and support one another? Can we see ourselves as protected by a web of (invisible/passive) support from other queers rather than feeling isolated and unable to actively engage?” What would we need to feel held by such invisible/passive webs? How can we let people know we’ve got their backs when we don’t even know if we have our own?
  6. Let us actively, explicitly, emphatically make space for rage in our communities. We are told that anger is always already bad, but fuck if there isn’t a hell of a lot to be angry about.The Old Norse origins of the word “anger” also signified grief, and yet our modern usage completely elides the pain underlying rage. Let us remember our own rage in this moment when we are confronted with it by others in our communities. Let us remember that, for some, rage is the modus operandialmost all of the time because of how awfully this world treats some of us every single day.
  7. How can we learn to hear our trans sisters of color, especially when they are not being polite? Another way of asking this might be: how can we learn to show up for trans women of colorbefore they are dead? A good place to start might be by thinking more critically about the kinds of structures and systems that need to be in place for some of us to always ever only be polite even as our politeness continues to facilitate queer and trans death. Politeness is a political affect, and insisting on politeness means insisting on not hearing the voices of the most marginalized and the most precarious.
  8. The first signs of a pattern of violence, a sign that is almost always ignored, is intimate partner violence, usually against women. This fact should lead us to think about one of the most profound definitions of homophobia: men’s fear that they will be treated the way they treat women. Think about how we have internalized the logics of this definition even in our own most radical communities. Think about how deeply we valourize a particular kind of masculinity and continue to leave our femme folks behind (when we’re not actively killing them, of course). All of us need to deeply interrogate the ways in which we have been indoctrinated all our lives in a culture that hates the feminine and prizes the masculine above all else.
  9. Let us resist simple binaries. It is false to say either: he was only motivated by fundamentalist Islamic ideology, or he was only motivated by American hypermasculine militarism. He was motivated by both — and it was both of these logics that made it impossible for this man to accept his sexuality in a way that didn’t destroy him and so many others.
  10. In an incredibly profound way, this tragedy has intimately linked two worlds that we like to think are clearly separate and even opposed to each other: In the figure of Mateen, the fundamentalist Islamic terrorist now stands in the same place as White straight hypermasculine militarism. After all, what was this self-proclaimed Muslim American doing if not emulating the most profoundly foundational logic of White Heterosexual Masculinity in America? Even if Mateen had no idea what Islam was or meant, even if he pledged allegiance to different factions of warring terrorist groups while simultaneously idolizing the NYPD, let’s not pretend this wasn’t an act of terrorism. Instead of insisting this shouldn’t be considered terrorism because White terrorism is never named as such, let us have the moral clarity to call a spade a spade. We do not have the luxury to be liberal about this.

The only way we are going to survive is if we show up for each other even when an American man with an assault rifle isn’t shooting up one of our spaces. This is a lot easier said than done. We have internalized so much of the logic of dominant systems of power that we easily discard each other, hurt each other, wound each other. We go months, years, decades without talking to people because we were hurt by them or we hurt them. We don’t yet know what a community that doesn’t leave its most vulnerable behind actually looks like. The task is to not only envision these spaces and these structures but to make them palpably felt and palpably real in our interactions with each other today and tomorrow — in whatever ways we can.