Much to my shame, I’ve become so accustomed to stories of mass violence that they barely even register anymore. But, somehow Orlando feels different. Living in a major urban centre in a progressive Western country, the risk of a terrorist attack that I, my work colleagues, my friends, my coreligionists, or Muslim neighbours, could be caught in or targeted in, is simply a given. But, somehow Orlando feels different. I read often about attacks of one kind or another—small scale, large scale, physical, political, or theological—on the “rainbow communities.” But, somehow Orlando feels different.
As I’ve been reflecting over the past day as to why it feels different, my mind has drifted to the last time there was an attack that left me with the same feeling, and it was an attack just under a year ago at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. There’s no doubt that these are very different attacks: a church and a nightclub are certainly not the same, and the struggle of rainbow communities must never be equated with the centuries of systemic oppression, suppression, and dehumanization the African American community has experienced. However, what these two terrorist acts share is that they shattered safe space, places that acted as a refuge of security and hope for a marginalized group.
It’s hard to understand from the outside (and even at times difficult to remember for someone like me who is on the inside but doesn’t resonate with much of the ‘gay subculture’) just how important these nightclubs have been for this community. It’s easy from the outside to simply see them as places where the most hedonistic stereotypes of gay people are played out. But, this is not a fair assessment. They are and have been places where people who feel they have to hide their identities in their day to day lives can be free to be themselves; places where people who don’t feel safe holding their beloved’s hand walking down the street are able to show their basic human affection in public; places where people carrying painful emotional and psychological scars from the past, or deep anxieties about the future can leave those pains at the door and, even if just for a few hours on a Saturday night, just be. And so, because it robbed a community of its safe space—and thereby to some extent, the safe spaces that exist all around the world for all kinds of marginalized peoples, Orlando feels different.
Orlando also feels different simply because it’s Pride, a celebration that originated with a small group of people defiantly saying ‘we exist’ and which has transformed in many parts of the world into simply one of the biggest and best parties of the year. (I remember last year talking to a (middle aged, straight, white male) colleague who expressed—to my surprise—his excitement about going to the Pride parade. As it turns out, many years ago, as a paramedic, he’d been assigned to work the Pride parade; he enjoyed it so much that he volunteered to work it the next few years, then started bringing his children to it annually. Why? Because it was, in his words, ‘the safest, happiest, friendliest, funnest cultural event in the city’. High praise coming from someone with no vested interest!) Yet, Orlando is a reminder that despite how far we have come, our Existing is still an act of defiance; and so, Orlando feels different.
Pride is also simply the time when the rainbow communities are at their best. Even as we advocate for diversity in society, we are by no means perfect in dealing with our own diversity: “bi-erasure,” difficulty in understanding and acceptance between gender-normative and gender-queer people within the community, and outright racism are genuine struggles. But every June, groups that have little in common except for their difference march together and cheer each other on. And just like how attacks against religious groups always cut deeper when they happen around their important celebrations and holy days, because this attack struck at Pride, when our ‘best self’ is on display, Orlando feels different.
But specifically for me, and I’m sure for many other gay Anglicans in Canada, Orlando also feels different because of current debates—wholly unrelated to this horrific terrorist act—going on within our Church, which are leaving us feeling rather exposed and vulnerable. We find ourselves in the awkward position of either not participating in an important conversation that directly impacts us and our community, or having to re-engage (for the thousandth time for many of us) with arguments which have proven to be harmful and poisonous to us and our faith. While conservative advocates often accuse us of simply not dealing with their arguments, they fail to realize that we have been confronted with these arguments all our lives. And many of us have accepted them, taken them to heart and lived them out, only to discover that they are destructive to our hearts, souls, minds, bodies, faith, and relationships. And for many of us, the memories of the destructive power of these poisons are still too vivid, their wounds still too raw and fresh, to want to address them again. We feel like we’re being asked to re-live the darkest nights, and re-fight the most horrific spiritual battles of our lives, and to do so in public, under the false guise of an ‘objective’ theological discussion. And so, because this terrorist act comes at a time of increased vulnerability, Orlando feels different.
It’s far too soon to tell what the impact of the massacre in Orlando will be. But, I know that it feels different, and I believe that I am different accordingly. I may not resonate strongly with gay (or more broadly LGBTQ2S+, what I’ve called ‘the rainbow communities’ above) subculture, but I am more committed than every to creating safe spaces for authentic and integral personhood. I don’t care much about Pride events, but this year I am committed to being loud and proud. And, while the last thing I want to do is wrestle with the poisonous arguments of those who would exclude me from the Table, I am committed to engaging the conversation, to telling my story, and to preaching the Gospel, which is and must be good news for all people.