*This article was first published on Truthdig.
LGBT Pride Month 2016 will always be remembered for the worst mass shooting in American history to date, one which took 49 lives at an Orlando, Florida, gay club June 12. Yet in the past week, I have spoken with too many queer people whose families did not reach out to them at all, not even to simply ask,”How are you?” or say, “I love you and I’m thinking of you.” Too many. (And of note, some of them hadn’t heard from family during last year’s historic pride month either, when marriage equality became a national reality and there was cause for celebration rather than mourning).
As a psychotherapist and a queer person, I must say that such silences are killing us.
Silence has been the greatest threat to queer lives throughout history. Homosexuality was pathologized and criminalized in the early 20th century, and it would take decades of suffering in the closet and enduring “witch hunts” before the Stonewall riots of 1969 busted open the doors of LGBT identities, leading to the declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness and the pursuit of civil rights across the country. But in the 1980s, the lethal plague of silence struck again, when the Reagan administration’s disavowal of the AIDS crisis led to the deaths of tens of thousands of gay men. In response, founders of the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP introduced the image: SILENCE = DEATH.
And it’s true that the disease of silence surrounding homophobia, transphobia and queerphobia in general may have been in remission long enough for us to be able to choose the spouses we love and the bathrooms in which we feel safe, and for straight allies to put rainbow filters on their social media profiles whenever it fancies them. But as the Orlando massacre and the responses to it have shown—by politicians, journalists and even our own family and friends—silence continues to infect us.
The lack of meaningful acknowledgement that the worst terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11 was directed at queer people has reminded so many of us not only of the numerous times in our lives we’ve been personally threatened with violence, but also of the far more numerous, subtle, yet considerably damaging moments, during which even our most well-meaning relatives whitewash our very real experiences of abjection. Such as when our straight brothers say things like, “We all get called ‘faggot,’ get a grip.”
To call what happened in Orlando an “attack on America,” or the act of a “radicalized Islamist,” or not to call your LGBT family members at this time, sends the message: “Things are just as bad for you as they are for me.” And that is simply not true.
As The New York Times reports, “LGBT people are more likely to be targets of hate crimes than any other minority group”—and that cannot be pinned on radical terrorists from the Middle East. More than anything else, these specific attacks are due to the socially conditioned fear and hatred of women and of gender nonconformity, and of effeminate men, and of men kissing, and of same sex love. And all of this untalked about—and therefore unprocessed—hatred is cultivated and maintained through complacent silence by neighborly, law-abiding citizens like you and me, right here on our homeland. Every time we fail to use words to make explicit links between queerphobia and attacks on queer people, the hatred, fear and danger grow stronger. (For example, a disturbingly ironic post by a straight woman announcing her engagement popped up on my Facebookfeed this week, including a photo of her diamond ring and a shot of the Orlando skyline from the boat on which she and her fiance were celebrating, along with happy, hopeful thoughts about their heteronormative future, yet she wrote nothing about the 49 murder victims whose futures were taken from them by an act of homophobia only days before in that very city, or about the queer individuals still alive whose futures will continue to be plagued by hate, fear and danger).
So, here’s a tip for all those straight, cisgender relatives of queer people: We do not have “victim complexes” and we are not asking to be coddled. We are first and foremost asking for recognition of the very real and obvious fact that, no matter what we do or don’t do, we are specific targets of violence in ways that those who are not L,G,B,T or any other deviation from a heteronormative orientation, are not. To avoid or deny this is to be part of the problem and to allow this murderous hatred to grow, unidentified and therefore unstoppable.
I have to emphasize the “no matter what we do or don’t do” part of that tip. A good number of queer people, including my clients, my friends and myself, often hear from our families that they don’t associate us with the LGBT folks they see on the news who are in danger, either because of our ability to “pass,” or our marital status, our race or any number of privileges they assume protect us from being targets. To these people I say, “Think again.”
The one thing the wide variety of queer people I spoke to this week had in common was the horrifying awareness that no matter our skin color, income level, professional success, education, body type, religion, age or social status, the Orlando tragedy has reminded us that we are all equally in the crosshairs of homegrown hatred. We need our straight, cisgender families to recognize this openly and explicitly.
And perhaps we have been too silent with our straight communities about what our daily lives are actually like, even at the best of times. As one gay man—who sometimes passes as “straight” and makes a very good living—told me:
“We have worked hard for acceptance by the straight world. So hard that we have convinced our allies that we are ‘just like them,’ save for one little difference, like the color of our eyes or hair. But, the differences between us are not at all little. Unlike most of our family members, we live in constant fear that people want to destroy us. And they actually do. I don’t think our straight family members get that.”
To this man’s point, when I post smiley photos of myself and my husband enjoying our “normal” looking lives, say on a beach vacation, I don’t tend to mention the threats that were directed at us off camera, sometimes by “decent,” hard-working, Christian Americans, with picture-perfect families. Like many queer people, I omit in my social self-narratives the daily dark sides of being gay, out of want of acceptance and of respect, and to avoid being dismissed as a “Debbie Downer” or a “perpetual victim.” But perhaps we curate our lives too much. Maybe more of our families and friends need to know that to walk in our shoes means to look over our shoulders at every turn, and to be prepared to defend ourselves against people just like them.
But the insidious disease of silence finds nuanced ways to harm us even when our relatives do recognize that we are targets, and even when they reach out to us out of love and concern. More than a few queer people whose families actually contacted them this week were advised to “not go out”; or to “avoid drawing attention” to themselves; or to keep their “pride inside.” In other words they were told to go back in the closet, which is precisely where and how the very self-hatred that led to the Orlando shooting metastasized in the first place.
The answer is not for queer people to retreat inward, but for our straight allies to join us in coming out. They must claim us openly; they must identify, unpack and challenge the socially conditioned queerphobia that lives within them and in their communities; and they must never stop talking about the danger in which they leave us when they stop talking—to us or on our behalf.
For inspiration, they can look to the band Florence + the Machine, whose lead singer, Florence Welch, took an extraordinary stand in solidarity with the Orlando victims and their families, and the LGBT communities at large, as she waved a rainbow flag while running fearlessly across the Barclay Center stage in Brooklyn, during a live performance of her song, “Say My Name”:
Say my name,
And every color illuminates,
We are shining,
And we will never be afraid again
The words of this chorus remind us that we are all united in our capacity to recognize difference. As humans we have the capacity to empathize with the distinct and various ways each of us must walk through our lives. When we acknowledge how our differences make some of us more vulnerable than others, we can eliminate some of the danger and the fear that destroys us.
So if our families truly want to help keep us safe, they must say the names of the Orlando victims; and the names of the trans people of color who are murdered on a regular basis; and the names of all of the various forms of hatred that contributes to the everyday terrorizing of LGBT people.
They must also say our names, loud and proud. Preferably while we’re still alive.