by Kyle Ashby
With multiple sources reporting that Omar Mateen frequented Pulse nightclub and suffered from mental illness and internalized homophobia leading up to the shooting, I feel obligated to write a concise history of my queer life so you can understand two things: why I didn’t become Omar and why this shooting has affected me so greatly. Keep in mind so many circumstances and events contributed to me being alive and grieving today as an out queer man that the following can only be presented as a glimpse of the truth, a myopic description of self-determination. I present a monochromatic thread so that you can follow the unraveling edge to its black terminus: today, my third night of almost no sleep and emotional unease. I lay awake knowing that I hate Omar Mateen for the choices he made, for the pain he caused, for the lives he ruined, but learning that he may be part of my queer family means that compassion is redirecting my hate to the conglomerate of American culture that made both of our lives so different.
I came out to myself and a select group of friends when I was 11, in 1996, over twenty years ago. I’m 31 now and Sunday morning at 2am was the first day I really accepted that I could die for being Queer. Analytically, I knew this already. My people die all the time due to violence, neglect, poverty, and being unloved. I can speak to these injustices. I can speak power to the injustices transwomen of color are forced to endure by daring to be themselves. 13 transgender people have been murdered in 2016 already. Their blood pools in the cracks of Pride parade streets. I know this. I’ve learned how to step back so their stories could burn acid scars across our already tender hearts and the transpeople who are still alive could say their names. I know this.
I never took care of myself by integrating the terrible knowledge that harm could come to my body like it did to Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, who texted “Mommy I love you” and “He’s coming I’m gonna die” early Sunday morning before being murdered in the bathroom he was hiding in. But Eddie did. Eddie knew that he could die because of the way his brown queer body moved to the music of Pulse nightclub. Every brown queer person in America knows that. First comes the racism, then comes the homophobia, all of it bullshit that you feel assaulted by on the daily. Disagree, but Omar knew that, too, and it contributed to his decision to bring a semi-automatic weapon to Pulse.
I don’t live with that knowledge every day. In 1996, I sashayed down Lakeshore Drive in Riviera Beach, Florida without a care in the world, singing Jewel, Fiona Apple, Tracy Chapman, and Tori Amos at the top of my lungs while my mother, unbeknownst to me, followed me to make sure I was safe as I belted “Who Will Save Your Soul?” in my adolescent soprano. I went to school at John F. Kennedy Middle School, a magnet school full of local black kids and out of town whites. People assumed I was from out of town, too, but I lived down the block. I got teased, sure. It happened all the time. But when I felt my peers had gone too far, I would turn their fear back on them and chase them for kisses, laughing at their over-exaggerated disgust. What the fuck was I thinking? I could have been beaten up or worse. Two years later, in 1998, worse happened to Matthew Shepard. He was a traumatized gay man who felt comfortable flirting at the Fireside Lounge and it cost him his life. It didn’t phase me. I wasn’t Matthew, I told myself. I had it better. I knew better. But I didn’t even know who Sylvia Rivera was and how she made 1996 possible for me. I had no fucking clue what I was doing.
I’m not sure when I became aware that being white made it easier to be in America. Certainly I had picked up on it by high school, because I began challenging racist and homophobic authority figures on the regular without fear for my safety or being denied opportunities to succeed. I knew I had it better than the majority of my black classmates, although I didn’t accept the institutional barriers they encountered as dangerous and insidious. I am and have always been my own bombastic barrier to success, I thought. What a luxury that is! By the virtue of being born, I was able to take advantage of the duty-free armor of whiteness and thrive with power fueled by oppressing others. I was gently introduced to the concept of privilege on my own time and with no fear attached. I was powerful and no one could stop me. I embodied American exceptionalism.
Then came college and now I was armed with the feminist prose of Cherrie Moraga, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks. Finally the world made sense! I knew why I was so angry. I knew I was Queer, not just gay! And I knew that I was a white cismale feminist who would have to tread lightly to not take up too much space. But I did. I ballooned with confidence, conviction, and an acid tongue. I trampled through people’s safety to push my agenda because I cared so much it hurt. I didn’t know how to step back and be thoughtful. I was articulating a radical vision of a better world and people were listening to me as I was silencing others. Such is the inculcation of white privilege. I had an agenda and power and I was going to make it better for others because I had gotten by without any broken bones or blood on the ground. It was my duty to fight for your freedom, to pervert the words of black liberationist Assata Shakur. I had a mission.
How misguided I was.
Now I am 31, barely awake both literally and spiritually, and Omar Mateen’s violence has evaporated my maya of safety. In part, it’s because I’m more open to the pain of losing family I never knew. I’m more open to feeling in general. Now I look around the room and I wonder, “who here will throw the next stone? Who hates me for who I am or what I represent?” Were Omar’s thoughts so different as he reinforced mal-adaptive behaviours and shaped them into violent decisions? Fuck homophobia for making me extend sympathy to Omar Mateen. Fuck white privilege for making me so late to this awful party we live in daily as queer people.
I became enraged early Sunday morning. Enraged at my impotence and foolishness. Enraged at white privilege, toxic masculinity, and the ignorant numbing that comes with restrictive ideologies. Enraged at a nation that loves guns more than people being alive and healthy, at a nation that doesn’t believe that mental health is worth investing in, at a nation that sends prayers to victims while voting bigots and war hawks into office. Most of all, I was angry that I ever took my relative safety for granted, ignored how precious it was in comparison to how inaccessible it was to so many others in my queer family. What am I doing with my life when I know that it’s just another couple of days or weeks before another black man is shot in the back by police or another transwoman is left bleeding in the gutter and I do nothing except share their stories online?
That’s why I raised $1000 Sunday evening with friends, to soothe my guilt and rage, to extend my compassion in a way that would eventually heal the still-living victims of Omar’s madness, (self)hate, and grief. But $1000 is nothing if it means the cycle isn’t broken, if it means I can’t commit this body and soul to making the world safer for myself and my queer brothers and sisters, if it means people of color languish in prison or rot in graves because of a system that builds me up as it pushes them down.
I am sorry it took so long for me to feel, really FEEL, that I wasn’t safe, that none of us are safe as long as one of us is dying for being themselves, dancing the night away at a home away from home, neglecting sleep on the off chance we’ll find love under those flashing lights. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there for you. Happy Pride.
You can still help the victims of the Pulse shooting. If you are in Orlando, check out these options. There are some major GoFundMe pages, for example, here and here. And, you can learn about the victims, honor them, and remember their names.
If you are aware of other ways to help, please share them in the comments, or through our facebook page.