"Orlando" By Joshua M. Watkins

In 10th grade, another student I didn’t know approached my table during lunch, smacked me across the face, and told me to “shut the fuck up, faggot” before running off. My friend chased after him, and learned that his motivation was a bet for a piece of gum. That’s how easy violent acts of homophobia materialize.

As if I didn’t already know. 

On Saturday, I took my best friend to a Pride drag show at a DC gay club. We met contestants from RuPaul’s Drag Race, we tipped queens doing solid lipsyncs to “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” we danced for hours after the show ended, we had a hilariously cringe-worthy encounter with a dude we both thought was hitting on us—all the boxes were checked. On the Uber ride home, I remarked about how perfect an evening it had been, and how grateful I felt I got to share the experience with her. 

Then I woke up Sunday morning and read the news. 

I’ve never been a fan of “it could’ve been me,” because it’s felt a bit too self-indulgent, a bit too out of touch with reality, and a bit too over-reactionary. 

“It could happen to me” is a different story. But “it could happen to her” is worse. The devastating, morbid, violent what-if scenario keeps playing in my head. I can’t escape it, or the guilt that consumes me at just the thought of being responsible if I had endangered someone I loved like that. 

There’s been a lot of conflict, internally, since Sunday morning. I alternate between anger, numbness, and heartbreak, and the only thing I know for sure is that I am grateful that there are people stronger than me who are standing up and leading us through the mourning process while the rest of us don’t know how. Part of me doesn’t want to write anything, because I don’t want it to be about me when it should be about them, their families, their pain. Part of me wants to write something, anything, to try to make sense of it all.

Except that’s impossible, because none of this makes any fucking sense. He gave me confusion. His violence gave me fear. His evil gave me guilt. Why did I take it? 

Audre Lorde said the personal is political. Fine. Have the debate on guns. Call out the legislators who have taken contributions from the NRA and cast votes against bills that might have prevented this. Be angry that social conservatives offer their support while refusing to acknowledge the queer identities of the victims. It’s not invalid, and later I may join in on the anger. For now, I am too exhausted to engage, but I won’t blame you. The only thing I’ll say is this: none of us are experts, and pretending to be only muddles the situation. The steadfast confidence makes the pain that much more unbearable, unescapable.

Your recitation of the 2nd Amendment is not a path to deification. 
Your arsenal is not a bible constructed of springs and metal.
Your grip and a finger on the trigger does not make you a god. 
So quit fucking acting like it. 

Should we do what we can to enact policies that will stop the fucking madness? Yeah, duh. But here’s what policy won’t achieve: the conversation between me and my hip hop instructor on fear, and when we will feel safe to go out in public again, and if we ever felt safe at all, and what is appropriate to feel in this moment, and how do we support the community, and who do we talk to, and why we haven’t talked to our families about it, and if anyone can understand, and is this moment about us, and where’s the line between empathy and co-opting, and if each other is okay. 

If each other is okay. 

If each other is okay. 

It’s as if people are just now realizing that these are things we keep hidden, because for every moment of defiance, of unapology, for every smile and for every day that we successfully navigate and survive living in a world in which our equality is superficial and our true status is strategically removed from the conversation, there is an equal moment of despair, of calculation, for every public display of affection or talking in public or effeminate mannerism.

We don’t have the luxury to not think about our actions, because the decisions we make are used as justification for our execution. 

I keep seeing calls to do something concrete. We don’t need prayers and support, we need action, the masses say. And we do. The point is, if you know someone you think may be affected by all of this tragedy, ask them if they’re okay. If they say they are, make sure you believe them. 

Grieve not for us, but grieve with us, for some of us are weak, and scared, and defeated, and only have a blank screen to try to figure out how to make this any other world.