Note: A version of this essay originally appeared in Qualitative Inquiry. I'm sharing this version here today during the second anniversary week of the Pulse Nightclub shootings. CN: discussions of violence, suicide, racism.
Grieving Toward the Horizon: A Reflection on Orlando, Queerworlds, & Latinx Angels
2015: “So... Things are going to get better someday right?”- text message from J, three months before his death in a jail cell in Nebraska
We know the weapons, past and present: A police baton, a disease, a bedsheet, an assault rifle. (White supremacy, government neglect, stigma, capitalism, patriarchy, imperialism…).
My queer family died in Orlando. And in the back of a truck, and in a police car, and a jail cell. My ancestors died before I arrived, but I believe they are with us as ghosts, they are here with us in every new death. (…This is an essay, (I think), about grief, queerness, whiteness, anger, and my friend’s death; not necessarily in that order.)
What is it to live with ubiquitous grief, with the trauma of probable death? We can ask this of Black Americans. We can ask this of transwomen. We can ask this of many queers. Is it a livable life if circumstances create a banality out of daily risk of death? Is it a livable life, Judith Butler asks, if it is not also grievable?
Depending on which social media one follows, the nation did grieve for Orlando. But which Orlando? Gay victims? American victims? Latinx victims? How did grievers make sense of victims? Which victim construct provided permission for sorrow? Butler (2004) writes,
On the level of discourse, certain lives are not considered lives at all, they cannot be humanized; they fit no dominant frame for the human, and their dehumanization occurs first, at this level. This level then gives rise to a physical violence that in some sense delivers the message of dehumanization which is already at work in the culture. (25)
I am white and queer and working-class (I am femme, I usually clarify), and the victims of Orlando were primarily Latinx. The pain and voices of my Brown brothers and sisters are the voices to which we need to listen, and yet as much as I try to center those voices (in this essay, on my social media, in my classes), I can’t help but try to figure out how to cope with the way this feels to me; in me; on me. Because, also, the victims of Orlando are my extended-family; Chani Nicholas explains of queer people, “That’s what we say. ‘She’s family.’ ‘He’s family.’ ‘They’re family.’ ‘They family?’ So we know. Who’s with us. Who will understand. At least that much.”
So yes, the victims of Orlando were my family, but also, they were not. David Eng (2010) warns against colorblind queer liberalism, and urges us to reject the ways in which privatized iterations of the family-unit, concretized by same-sex marriage amendments, contribute to the colonization of bodies of color (be it through transnational adoption, interracial marriage, etc.), and perpetuates the fiction of a post-racial world. (My Brown family, but not mine. How to reconcile these things amidst grief?)
2004 – I am in a dorm room bed, it is so small, so I am—(by want and circumstance)—so close to her (we’ll call her C), and our breaths are intermingling. She tells me about growing up Mexican and being gay. I love her eyes, they are the color of black coffee (she drinks so much black coffee!). I love that I make her nervous. I want to kiss her. I tell her I am not gay, not even bi, I say, stroking her hair, I’m an ally. I kiss her.
C is a transman today (I have his permission to explain him as my girlfriend, because he was my first, but he will now be referred to with male pronouns). I think of him as soon as I hear about Pulse. I text him, tell him I love him. He wants to be with his Latinx family, and I get that. (I write about him here not to eroticize or exotify my Brown first girlfriend, but to pay homage to him as someone who holds me accountable to my inevitable racism, my whiteness, my fuck ups; he is, to my great fortune, someone who trusts me enough to be patient with me.)
I see white gay friends post on Facebook and fail to mention how nearly all of the victims were Brown. I post all the voices of QPOC and try to keep quiet about the particulars my own grief, at least on social media. The posting feels meaningless. I do not know the right and wrong. I turn to history and theory, I read my ancestors; Brown elders first (Sylvia, may I bear witness to your rage?), then white ones too (Leslie, how can I be an ally, a comrade?).
Sylvia Rivera, a transwoman of color, to white gays in the movement: “I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment for gay liberation, and you all treat me this way? What the fuck’s wrong with you all?”
What the fuck is wrong with my white gay friends who claim to “be Orlando”? What the fuck is wrong with my straight friends who aren’t posting about this tragedy at all? (What the fuck is wrong with this world that I think it matters who posts what on Facebook?)
Leslie Feinberg:"This is what courage is. It's not just living through the nightmare, it's doing something with it afterward. It's being brave enough to talk about it to other people. It's trying to organize to change things."
Leslie was a socialist, and an organizer. A fighter. I want to stop stewing in white guilt and organize against the white supremacist capitalist imperialist patriarchy. “Don’t waste anytime mourning. Organize!” (That in a letter from Bill Haywood to Joe Hill before his death; he is not queer, nor Brown, but maybe he is right?)
2002: “I remember all of that, after he died sort of carrying all of that anger and frustration with me and wanting to do something much more active, or proactive.” –Robert Vazquez-Pacheco on his motivation to get involved with ACT UP after the death of his lover to AIDS
Turning grief into anger (and action) is not isolated to white labor history. It is a common response from any group who is subject to burying their loved ones at unnatural rates. Slave rebellions, worker riots, ACT UP. Of the group that took on the AIDS crisis as activists responding to a political crisis, Deborah Gould (2002) writes:
In beginning with an uncontested and prevalent emotion—grief—and then linking that grief to anger—a more disreputable emotion—ACT UP legitimized anger. ACT UP’s logic both acknowledged, and offered a resolution to, lesbian and gay ambivalence about self and society: given our grief and under these dire circumstances where we and our loved ones are being murdered by our government, anger and confrontational activism targeting state and society and legitimate, justifiable, rational, righteous, and necessary. ACT UP offered an emotional and political sensibility that simultaneously acknowledged, evoked, endorsed, and bolstered lesbians’ and gay men’s anger. (p. 182)
We have to legitimate and validate our anger, because no one else will do it for us. It is not a given that our emotions will be acknowledged as worthy. For so long we have been told we do not behave properly in joy, and this sentiment is no different when we respond to loss.
1973: “Some thieves hung out there, and you know this was a queer bar.” –New Orleans Chief Detective, Major Henry Morris, on the victims of the first mass killing directed at a gay bar in New Orleans, 1973
Of course we are angry. ‘Not gay as in happy, but queer as in fuck you!’, explains a slogan from the radical queer group, Bash Back.
Are our lives livable if they are not also grievable? For whom were we grieving in Orlando? Those who “could have been your son or daughter”? Or the sweaty gay Brown bodies, the ones who fuck in ways you (straight people) could likely never imagine, about whom you still wonder how to explain to your children before a certain age? I imagine it’s the former.
On our way to a vigil for the Pulse victims, my partner tells me about a line from Paul Monette (1994) about “grief being a sword.” I ask to see the passage when we get home. It reads,
We queers of Revelation hill...died of the greed of power, because we were expendable. If you mean to visit any of us, it had better be to make you strong to fight that power. Take your languor and easy tears somewhere else. Above all, don't pretty us up. Tell yourself: None of this ever had to happen. And then go make it stop, with whatever breath you have left. Grief is a sword, or it is nothing. (115)
How to make our grief a sword? Can words be militant, or do we need to heed the call of Monette, and the Black Panthers, and The Young Lords, and the queens at Stonewall, and actually arm ourselves? Not against individual “terrorists,” but against the systems that terrorize queer people (poor people, Brown bodies, Black bodies, Muslim bodies) so routinely?
In a 1972 interview while she was in prison, after being asked what she thought about the use of violence in Black resistance, Angela Davis famously reflected on the following:
Because of the way this society is organized, because of the violence that exists on the surface everywhere, you have to expect that there are going to be such explosions, you have to expect things like that as reactions. If you’re a Black person who lived in the Black community all your life and walk out on the street and see White policeman surrounding you…when you live under a situation like that constantly, and then you ask me whether I approve of violence? I mean that doesn’t make any sense at all. Ask me whether I approve of guns. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama; some very, very good friends of mine were killed by bombs, bombs that were planted by racists. From the time I was very small I remember the sounds of bombs exploding across the street, our house shaking. I remember my father having to have guns at his disposal at all times, because of the fact that at any moment we might expect to be attacked. The man who was in charge of the city at that time, his name was Bull Connor, would often get on the radio and make statements like, ‘Niggers have moved into a white neighborhood tonight, we better expect some bloodshed.’ And sure enough, there would be blood shed. [After the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, in which four young Black girls were killed], after that in my neighborhood, all of the men organized themselves into an armed patrol. They had to take their guns and patrol our community every night because they did not want that to happen again.
I mean that’s why when someone asks me about violence, I just…uh…I just find it incredible. Because what it means is that person who’s asking that question has absolutely no idea what Black people have gone through, what Black people have experienced in this country, since the first Black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.
How do we grieve? We grieve as we live; in self-defense.
I scroll social media. We Are Orlando!, cat video, gun control!, #MyFirstGayBar, Trump, Clinton, bachelorette party, Queers Against Islamophobia!, a pregnancy announcement, another cat video, …
2016: “Se me fue parte de mi vida. Mi hermano que tanto amaba y me amaba Jimmy De Jesus. Nos dejaste a un hueco muy grande en el corazón donde quiera que estés te amo. Hermano siempre te lo decía para que nunca lo dudaras maktub.” –Shiela D De Jesus, on Twitter, in response to news that her brother Franky had died in the Pulse shootings
I bear witness to what I cannot fully comprehend. My grief is partial, incomplete.
2005 – I am back in a dorm room with C. He talks to me about his favorite Catholic saints. He says something in Spanish I don’t understand. I love him, but/and I will always be a white femme, I will never fully understand.
Gloria Anzaldua (1987): “Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate, while I still have to speak English or Spanish when I would rather speak Spanglish, and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate. I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of existing. I will have my voice: Indian, Spanish, white. I will have my serpent’s tongue—my woman’s voices, my sexual voice, my poet’s voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence.” (p. 259)
I try to be a good white person, C’s good white femme. I try to show him his tongue is legitimate with me (speaking Spanish, speaking English, rolling inside me…), but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t curious to know the meanings of all the things that didn’t accommodate me.
2016: “We as queer and trans Latinx people need to see what happened in Orlando as a reminder that our human dignity, our lives, are connected to the liberation of black people, Muslim people, of women, of trans people.” –activist from Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement
Yes, they are making a tragedy political. It is never not political. Terrorism—be it in the form of US drones killing thousands of Brown bodies; be it in the form of daily racist microagressions that wear away at a human beings’ dignity; be it in the form of a mass shooter—is always already political, and so too will be the grieving that follows.
I am grieving, but I am angry. I am grieving and I am angry. I carry grief as trauma, and trauma as grief, in my bones. I hold out two fingers then press them gently to my wrist—( it is a white wrist, it is safer, I know this is an unfair truth)—and I feel my Pulse. It is there.
2014: “You are the horizon” – text message from J, a year before his suicide in a jail, referencing Jose Muñoz
On August 3rd, 2015, J—(queer, Chicano, my family)—died by suicide in a jail cell in Nebraska. His death happened roughly ten months before his queer Brown Latinx siblings’ lives would end in Orlando. But they are connected, I know this, and I know he would—(does? I started to believe in angels only since after he died)—too.
J was an activist. A sassy, charming, handsome Chicano rebel. He hated prisons, and he wound up in one because he was Brown, and was discovered with pot by the police. He told me he smoked to numb himself, (“The world is too much,” he texted me once not long before his death.) Like any encounter with the police and carceral system, his arrest dehumanized him to an even greater degree than the quotidian dehumanization experienced by all marginalized people.
The world is too much.
J and I were part of a friend-group we called “queerworld.” We borrowed the language from José Muñoz and other queer scholars—(and also a Pride-weekend comparison to our friends as a gay MTV’s The Real World)—who wrote about these configurations as queer worldmaking practices, what Munoz (2009) describes as “queerness as collectivity” (11). We, (as grad students are wont to do), debated about Muñoz’s utopia vs. Edleman and Bersani’s antisocial thesis. We never came to consensus, but agreed Munoz was a lot more fun. (In his research about queer Chicano art, J was on Team Muñoz, but I know in his darkest moments, he had trouble buying into the potentiality of anything.)
J’s death, like the deaths of the queers in Orlando, are a result of systems of oppression. Cries of terrorism, ignore the ways in which Western imperialism fuel terrorism. (Cries of terrorism suggest this is distinct from the terror faced by Brown and Black bodies on a daily basis). Cries of gun control ignore the ways in which heterosexism and white supremacy enable humans to think of other humans as objects enough to kill them. J died of these systems of violence more than the bed sheet. His siblings at Pulse died of these systems of violence more than the gun of Omar Mateen.
This is, perhaps, an unpopular opinion, but it is an opinion born of my duty to honor J’s legacy. (Speaking truth to power was his life’s work.) It is unpopular because it is not easy. Bombing the Middle East or banning the sale of guns to Brown people seems a lot more doable. Doable, maybe, but also racist. Doable responses, which are also complicit in the same systems of white supremacy and imperialism.
[“You are the horizon.”
I re-read this text over and over and over again…]
Muñoz (2009): “I respond to Edelman’s assertion that the future is the province of the child and therefore not for the queers by arguing that queerness is primarily about futurity and hope. That is to say that queerness is always in the horizon. I content that if queerness is to have any value whatsoever, it must be viewed as being visible only in the horizon.” (11)
If we are not visible, are we grievable? To whom must we be cogently bereaved? What if we never make sense as anything that can be made sense of? (What if I will never understand the particularities of my Latinx family’s grief, and what if that’s okay? Or at least necessary? Or at least…inevitable?) In what ways can we keep fighting if we are not legible, particularly if legibility is never a goal?
Muñoz again: “It is important not to be content to let failed revolutions be finite moments. Instead we should consider them to be the blueprints to a better world that queer utopian aesthetics supply. Silver clouds, swirls of camouflage, mirrors, a stack of white sheets of paper, and painted flowers are passports allowing us entry to a utopian path, a route that should lead us to heaven, or, better yet, to something just like it.”
[Muñoz dies on December 4, 2013. I text our queerworld group-text thread immediately.]
“…To heaven or something like it.” I imagine Muñoz is suggesting that even better than heaven, is a utopia that doesn’t require death to get there. That queerness can bring heaven (or something better) to the present. (Simpler yet: “Ooo, heaven is a place on earth”-Belinda Carlisle).
The night I hear about Pulse, I post this to J’s Facebook wall:
“I don't have much faith in the story about heaven being a party in the sky where our loved ones are all hanging out waiting for us, but when things are especially hard and sad, I entertain that story because it brings me a lot of comfort. Today was an especially hard and sad day and so I decided to imagine all the beautiful brown boys from orlando joining you today, and how much dancing and music and joy and hotness you could all share together. I want so badly for that story to be true. If we can't have you on Earth, I hope you have each other somewhere better. I love you and miss you and know you would be grieving with us today and reminding us about the violence QPOC have been experiencing for centuries. Your voice is always in my ear. Your convictions are always in my heart. I promise I'll keep fighting. I love you, my queer family.”
If our grief is anger, a sword, incomplete, self-defense, I wonder—with J and the victims in Orlando and all of our queer ancestors whose spirits haunt us into working for better than they got—how might it also bring us closer to the horizon?