In Whitewashing The Pulse Shooting, We Dehumanize The Victims

By Kat Tanaka Okopnik

I find out, as I do with nearly everything these days, via Facebook updates. Initial reports say someone has killed 20 people and injured 50 at a gay nightclub in Orlando, in the midst of national Pride month. The numbers rise Sunday morning as the reports gain some clarity, and sometime around when the number stabilizes at 50 dead and 53 in the hospital, it’s also becoming clear that it was Latin night at Pulse, with drag performers headlining.

Not “just” gay, but queer and trans people of color.

Some social media user icons go full-black in mourning. A few others revert to the rainbow overlay that many of us used to celebrate the legalization of “equal” marriage. Far more make no change. I think about the flood of “Je suis Paris!” “Nous sommes tous Charlie!” and the tricolor overlay that was so pervasive after the Charlie Hebdo attack.

Maybe it’s just that now we’re tired of the superficiality of overlays on Facebook profile pictures. Or maybe it’s that Facebook didn’t make it easy for us this time.

And maybe we should think about why.

I see people noting the conjunction between the fact that it’s Pride weekend in Orlando and also Ramadan.

I witness those of who of us who see toxic masculinity pervading all mass shootings and other types of violence share meme images and write impassioned posts about how we all knew the shooter would be “he.”

I hear exasperated pleas for less fanatical approaches to gun availability.

None of these are unimportant discussions to have. But they all leave out an essential part of the dialogue.

***

We must not forget that the victims are primarily Boricua — of Puerto Rican ancestry, Latinx and Afro-Latinx — and black. It was Latin night, with Latinx drag headliners. It was a night of celebration for a community within a community, because so many queer spaces are, like the rest of the U.S., very white.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, as my wall becomes overwhelmed by the outpouring of shock and grief, I see a pattern emblematic of how white mainstream culture has taught us to empathize — by inserting ourselves into the narrative. Can you imagine? What if it had been me? What if it were my child/my brother/my niece/my . . . ?

I am reminded of the conversation around the Mother Emanuel murders, after which white Christians tried to show sympathy by imagining what it would have been like if the killer had come to one of their churches — whitewashing the reality that he was there as the spearpoint of anti-blackness, representing white supremacy, loudly. That no amount of charity and prayer had swayed him. “We are all Charleston,” they said, as if all of Charleston had been targeted, rather than a black church that carries the weight of Black history in the region: site of the organization of a slave riot, burned down in retribution, driven underground and then reorganized, and finally rebuilt in brick and marble and stucco from the simple wood it had been.

Mother Emanuel is a symbol of Black Charleston, and was targeted specifically because of that. Perhaps the outsiders who said “We are all Charleston” were willfully trying to pretend that we live in a post-racial society, where “colorblindness” means we’ve finally achieved Dr. Martin Luther King’s Dream. Maybe they didn’t want to admit that, instead, it’s been 50 years of mostly shallow change.

The cis-straight white people on the periphery of Pulse — the people used to being the central viewpoint from which all major media stories are told — who’ve said, “Look! Marriage equality! Gays in the military! Ellen! Neal Patrick Harris! George Takei! Progress!” are centered in mainstream media. This becomes a moment of shock about the intrusion of homophobic reality on the happy dream of newly minted “it doesn’t matter who you love” America.

During the vigils, they call out the names of the dead. I hear some of them tripping on unfamiliar-to-them Spanish syllables. I want to be glad they’re standing in solidarity, but wonder what all these cis-white people on the periphery of the story have done not only about the transphobic laws being passed everywhere, but also about the fact that trans women of color have such a high rate of death, and that Latinx people are assumed to be job-stealing “illegals.”

This massacre didn’t happen on Fire Island. It wasn’t a gathering of Log Cabin Republicans. It wasn’t the fabled clandestine Grindr match-ups of Republican party insider gatherings. It wasn’t the bland suburban “we’re just like you except we’re not straight” nuclear family units. It was Latin night. A refuge within a refuge, where Latinx beauty is a matter of “us” and not a sexy temporary trophy for the rich white gay man who will go find a white gay lawyer to take home to his parents. Latinx singles and couples and a mother and son, out to dance in celebration of Latinidad, to music by Latinx for Latinx. It matters that this is what was targeted, just as it matters when it’s a Black church, or an engineering department that welcomes women.

We are all human. It is important that we are not dehumanized.

Intersectionality is sometimes misunderstood to mean “[white] LGBT and [white] disabled and black and Latinx and Muslim, standing together,” as if those categories neatly separated out, one per person. Intersectionality is about the way that being Latinx and queer is inseparable and intensifies the marginalization. And the way that these were not just gay deaths. These were people who were living without the shield of whiteness, in a heated political environment that talks about building a wall against Spanish-speaking people even as two of the people pursuing the presidential nomination were children of Spanish speakers.

***

I am not Latina. I am a person of color, not as a euphemism for non-white, but as a declaration of solidarity among and between racially marginalized people. Latinx clubs are a refuge for me for some of the same reasons why straight women go to gay bars — I have hope that I will not be exoticized and targeted, but part of a continuum of experience of Otheredness that is centered just for the short span of the time within the pulsing bubble of the dance club. To have a chance to meet and flirt and maybe fall in love without the strain of societal inequity and imbalance.

The shooting at Pulse on Latin night punched holes in that safe space. It was terrorism, puncturing the fragile lifeboat of a space made sacred by hope and solace.

We mock, wondering who the white Islamophobic racist homophobes will favor in this complicated story. And the evidence is that everyone will cover over the elements they are uncomfortable with. Reducing it to simple narratives of ISIS or homophobia, “granting” a whiteness to the victims by ignoring their Latinidad. But for the dead and the injured and the bereaved, it’s still a factor. There’s a mother in the Dominican Republic trying desperately to gain a visa to come to the funeral of her son. Their Latinidad and their queerness are inseparable parts of their history and future.

When you think, “I am Orlando” — maybe you are, but not in the way you might mean if you said “I am Pulse.” Maybe it’s time to note the difference between white and not-white, instead of whitewashing things for your comfort.

***

Lead image: flickr/Patrick Hoesly

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