Silence is violence. The personal is political. Within social justice-oriented circles, these phrases are powerful and catchy calls to arms for bringing (inter)national and public tragedies out from mainstream media and into our lived experiences. From engaging in public discourse to connecting with peers and loved ones, we hear and make ongoing pleas to take an active stance in responding to the ongoing heartbreak that is systemic oppression, prejudice and hate and the complicity of powerful institutions/nations/individuals that perpetuate injustice. In the age of social media, with its opportunities to forge connection and to communicate our righteous anger to broad audiences, where do we fall short in truly making the political personal?
I am a white, queer-identified, Jewish woman. Though several of my social and cultural identities hold histories of systemic violence and oppression, their intersection, together with the impact of being a highly educated millennial in liberal and urban settings, has placed me in a position in which I have not been subjected to the forces of systemic violence. My family and friends responded to my coming out with love and support, and my sexual identity is known within my personal and professional communities. I recognize that much of my privilege and perceived safety in authenticity is due to the tireless resistance and activism put forth by the generations who came before me. With humility and vigor, I have gone to the streets and into the nightclubs to commune, to protest and to celebrate. My queerness has been one of pride and of safety.
On the morning of June 12, 2016, I woke up in my Los Angeles apartment. Our Pride parade was happening later that afternoon. As so many in my generation do, I checked my email before getting out of bed. Scrolling through and deleting most emails that had been sent overnight, I opened a New York Times news alert. A shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, had resulted in “mass casualties.” A second news alert had been sent less than two hours later: at least 20 were dead. A third alert, sent three hours after that: at least 50 had been killed in (then) the deadliest mass shooting in United States history. (It was later revealed that 49 had been murdered, with the final casualty being self-inflicted by the perpetrator.)
A gay space. In a major city. Over Pride weekend. From 3,000 miles away, this felt closer to home than any other mass casualty in my living memory. Willing myself out of bed and into my living room, I was numb. I sat on the couch with my roommate as we watched the news. Footage of terrified clubgoers and first responders played on a loop. I can still recall those images in detail. I began to cry in response to a particular clip: a young Latino man, alive but covered in blood, being carried into an ambulance by two paramedics. The terror on his face – the trauma and betrayal of having a safe haven become a death trap – broke something in me. My roommate, who is straight, immediately moved closer to me and wrapped her arm around me. It was clear that she could see and feel my fear, my sorrow, my internalization of this reminder of vulnerability.
I opened my Facebook app. Among the many postings about the Pulse shooting, a few of my queer friends in Los Angeles were posting additional news. A young man, verbalizing his intention on going to the Los Angeles Pride parade, was arrested, with multiple weapons and explosives stored in his vehicle. Suddenly, the fear really was close to home.
It was then that I remembered it was also my parents’ anniversary. I called them. With flat affect, I wish them a happy anniversary. Hearing the tone of my voice, they ask if I’m okay. I ask if they’ve seen the news. They say yes, with no allusion to understanding to which news I am referring. I tell them. They agree, it was tragic, but it’s clear that they don’t see why this would affect me so deeply. It was in Orlando. I didn’t know anyone there. I remind them of the historical and present-day significance of nightclubs to the community. I say that it could have been me. They extend statements of empathy. We hang up.
Over the next week, this pattern continued. Many of my straight family, friends and colleagues expressed sadness and outrage in response to the shooting – statements of grief toward the victims, demands for stricter gun control legislation. And yet, the silence was deafening. As my LGBTQ+ friends and I sent each other personal messages of love, support and solidarity, it was feeling as though the straight/cisgender people in my life were failing to see how this political tragedy was also deeply personal for me and my community. I noticed a sense of frustration, sadness and distrust growing in me toward some of my most cherished relationships. How could they not see how painful and terrifying this was? How could they not think to ask how I was doing, how they could help?
I thought about how these blind spots can manifest for the most well-intentioned and progressive among us. I thought about my own blind spots and the ways in which I may have been guilty of the same neglect through silence. I thought about the fact that, despite my grief, I could not possibly understand the particular pain of this having happened on Latin night, within a space that provided celebration and safety for members of the LGBTQ+ community that are often dismissed or exploited. I thought about Charleston. Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Mike Brown. I had been outraged. I had gone to protests. I had signed petitions, posted numerous articles on social media and spoken up in class and in group supervision. Not once had I reached out to a black or brown friend, colleague or partner to ask how they were doing or to let them know they were in my thoughts.
I shared an article on Facebook that advocated for this exact response, among others, by aspiring allies: checking in. I added my own comments, expressing my disillusionment while inviting straight/cisgender folks to read, absorb and act. I committed myself to internalizing these lessons and to change my own behavior in response to the tragedies that were sure to follow. And there have been many – from acts of murder to tweets and legislation that specifically target immigrants, people of color, transgender folks, poor/low-income people, Muslim communities and so many others who face structural forces of oppression from which I have been spared. My many privileges have afforded me the space to express righteous anger, attend marches, call my representatives – and feel like I did my part.
The LGBTQ+ community is diverse and dynamic. Acknowledging that we as a collective whole are disproportionately impacted by violence, those of us with institutionalized power and privilege (white, cisgender, urban-dwelling, U.S. citizen, housed and employed) must make particular efforts to recognize opportunities for reflection and for action. Within and outside of our community, there is so much work to be done. For me, the posttraumatic growth following the Pulse shooting led to my realizing the power of reaching out, checking in and reminding myself that what is political to me is deeply, painfully personal to so many whom I love.