Like many people across the world on Sunday, I woke up to horrible news — 49 people had been killed, and another 50-plus had been injured in a mass shooting at Pulse, a LGBT club in Orlando, Florida. I searched online to try and find out more details about the tragedy. When I came across a graphic for Pulse’s “Latin Night,” advertising that reggaeton, bachata, merengue and salsa music would be played that night, my heart sank to my stomach. This could have easily been me in that club dancing to the music that brings me joy and makes me feel alive.
The fact that this happened on a night for Latino/Latina/Latinx people to celebrate is important. There was no doubt in my mind that racism played a role in this tragedy, along with homophobia and transphobia. It was a horrible reminder of the multiple “isms” that queer people of color face and have to navigate to survive. There are not many spaces for queer and trans people to be safe, let alone spaces of safety for queer and trans people of color. It’s so common to see people’s queerness separated from their culture and ethnicity. The people at Pulse were unapologetically celebrating every part of their identities in what should have been a safe space, and it was brutally taken away from them.
Reading through the names of some of the victims — the vast majority of them Latinxs — has been difficult for me. I haven’t been able to read through all of them yet because it is still too painful. It hurts when I pronounce their names in Spanish, the way they are meant to be pronounced. It hurts when I see how young they were and to think that many of them must have had experiences of coming out, survival and being first-generation Americans similar to mine.
When details started coming out about the killer, I was terrified for the Muslim community. I was afraid that many would take this tragedy and use it to add onto the ever-growing Islamophobia in this country. I was afraid that non-Muslims would not be able to see that this was a person raised and taught in the United States, validated by the institutional violence that is in place across the United States. I was afraid many people would not see that marginalized communities are too often victims of these oppressive systems and institutions, and that violence against marginalized people does not simply emerge from individual “terrorists.” I was afraid that people would try and pit queer communities and Muslim communities against each other.
But what I have seen from the LGBTQ community is the opposite. I’m seeing people who recognize that queer and trans liberation is also connected to the liberation of other marginalized people, including Muslims. On Sunday, I found comfort and support in the presence of my best friend, who is Muslim. I assured her that I knew that bigotry and homophobia were at the root of the attack by Omar Mateen, and that I knew not to ascribe his violence to Islam. I held space for her to tell me how she felt about the news, at a moment when Islamophobia is at an all-time high. She was scared, and I hated that. The same people who are making her afraid to be a Muslim are the ones who contributed to the homophobic culture that encouraged Mateen.
You see, the United States made Mateen. Just like the nine Black people in South Carolina who were murdered last June in their place of worship, and the two civilians murdered at a women’s health center in Colorado in November, the people who were at Pulse nightclub thought they were safe. But how do you create safe spaces in a country that was founded on violence and the exploitation of marginalized people? The Pulse shooting is a reminder that safe spaces can only do so much until our country acknowledges that the state itself perpetuates violence toward the most vulnerable in our society every single day.
I see straight, cis people asking what they can do to help to prevent something terrible like this from happening again, and I would suggest that apart from advocating for gun control and challenging toxic masculinity, it is urgent for people throughout our society to deliberately center and amplify the voices and experiences of queer and trans people, especially queer and trans people of color, in every school, workplace and community gathering.
Say something when your queer and trans friends are not around and discrimination is happening right at the dinner table. Genuinely get to know us — our truth and experiences — when we are alive. Hold space for us when we are grieving. Do not wait for our untimely deaths to center our stories.