Last night, I attended Feeling Our Pulse, a theatrical tribute honoring the one year anniversary of the Pulse shooting. The evening blended drag, short plays, and salsa music to transport the audience to the Orlando nightclub where 49 people were slaughtered.
Even though I attended this event in a black box theater in Boston, I couldn’t help but feel unnerved seeing the Pulse logo flicker against an empty wall as salsa music played in the background. Being reminded of an unknown place that feels all too familiar shook me in ways I hadn’t anticipated. It made me think of the queer spaces I frequently visit, the sanctuaries I’ve always taken for granted and often belittled, and how it must feel to have that safety entirely stripped from you.
The performance itself was bare bones and relatively disorganized. A group of actors came out for staged readings of short plays with no costumes or props. The plays felt too brief to be incredibly poignant, and a few were too abstract or theatrical to resonate completely. It wasn’t until the end of the evening when the actors read short biographies of each victim as their photos blinked in the background that the weight of Pulse truly set in. And I felt myself unable to breathe.
Being reminded of victims like Brenda, who raised 12 children, beat cancer twice, and died while out dancing with her gay son broke my heart. Seeing the faces of Christopher and his boyfriend Juan, who died together, and Akya, who lost her life only a few weeks after her high school graduation, caused me to sob uncontrollably.
I cried as the actors shared snippets of the victims’ lives. Small, seemingly insignificant ones like the name of a victim’s pet dog or what they did for a living. I cried thinking about how these people were just like me, full of fears and hopes for the future, and I cried as I realized that they died in one of the few places they could feel safe. And I cried as I thought about all the awful things that have transpired since June 12, 2016. I cried as I thought about how our country continues to regress due to the Trump/Pence administration. I cried as I thought about how 12 transgender Americans have already been murdered in 2017. And I cried as I thought about Chechnya and how its government is detaining and murdering its own LGBTQ+ citizens, all while refusing to acknowledge their existence. And for the first time in a long time, I let myself feel the pain, sorrow, and dejection that LGBTQ+ people know all too well. I allowed myself to feel hurt by a world that continues to make it difficult for people like me to even exist.
I’ve often been asked by straight people why some LGBTQ+ individuals make such a big deal about their identity. In the past, I even tried to distance myself from my queer identity by saying it was just a small, insignificant sliver of my identity. But the reality is, being queer is about so much more than who you’re attracted to. Being queer means being part of a community, one that has been historically disenfranchised and discriminated against. Being queer means unpacking the preconceived notions of happiness, gender, and sexuality that have been crammed into our heads from birth. It means being more likely to take your own life and more likely to experience and depression, and other health issues. Being queer is knowing what it feels like to be rejected for just being you—often by the people who are supposed to love you unconditionally. Being queer is knowing what it’s like to be called “fag” or “dyke” and dealing with being misgendered or invalidated on a daily basis. So in all actuality, queer people aren’t the ones making a big deal about their identity—it’s the world around them that’s doing that.
I’ve spent a lot of time feeling conflicted over my queer identity and presentation. In the past, I’ve wondered if I was too gay or not gay enough. I’ve often felt lonely and at odds with society and even my own LGBTQ+ community. But tragedies like Pulse, they remind me of just how important and beautiful it is to be queer. Yes, there is a whole lot of baggage and hardship that comes with being a minority identity, but at the same time it’s comforting to know I share a connection with individuals I have never met. When I make eye contact with a stranger at a gay bar, one who is incredibly comfortable in their own skin, I am reminded of how celebratory being queer can be. I am reminded that it’s okay to be happy with who I am, even if the world would prefer me not to be. And when I see transgender kids be accepted for who they are, or meet an older gay man who lived through the AIDS crisis, I’m reminded of just how courageous and determined we are in our quest to move forward. And in those moments, I’m honored to share something in common with these people. And I’m humbled to know that we’re all connected in some way.
Because being gay is loving yourself when the world can’t bring itself to. It’s being artistic, bold, and courageous. It’s being open and empathetic. It’s embracing differences and standing up for those of us who don’t have the strength to. It’s creating a family that will love and support you for who you are. And it’s taking tragedies-ones like the Pulse shooting- and transforming them into something beautiful and meaningful.