Looking back to the Pulse shooting through the eyes of a queer black Muslim

We became punching bags, being hit from all sides.

CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman
CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman

I remember the first time I snuck out of the house in high school and went to a gay nightclub in Atlanta. I was 16 years old and I was terrified, thinking it would be like the scenes I’d watched full of white people on Queer as Folk. When I got there and got into the club with my fake I.D., I saw drag queens performing on stage, adored by every eye in the audience, lip syncing to my favorite Lil Kim songs. I saw Black and Brown trans women living in their truth, unafraid and wrapped in love. I looked on as close conversations next to the bar looked like acts of prayer.

My first trip to the gay club wasn’t my last, and I eventually learned the allure that drew me to that place of prayer — it was the only place where people who I was taught didn’t deserve to exist fully and freely did exactly that. In my young mind, standing behind layers of clothes in the closet and resting uneasily in the fear of the unknown, I saw this place as a safe haven. It was dark and late at night; the music was loud. Outside, behind the club, queer people talked about politics, and love, and life. I learned that within this community — one fighting for visibility for years — the nighttime seemed the most comfortable place for many, whether a mechanism of defense or simply preference.

But on June 12, 2016, that prayer, that comfort, and that safe haven carved into the nighttime seemed to have all been ruptured in a matter of hours, when news spread of a mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. One year later, as a Black queer Muslim, the event is still engraved in my mind. I feel like I have no space — as a concept, a location, or a conversational framework — and I know many more who feel the same way.

I got the news of the Pulse shooting last year during Ramadan, the holy month for Muslims when we fast from sunup to sundown. I woke up around 4 a.m. to pray fajr, the morning prayer that starts our day, and I saw several news notifications on my phone with headlines like “Gunman Kills Dozens at Gay Orlando Nightclub” and “Possible Terrorist Attack Occurred at Orlando Nightclub.” Immediately, I went on Twitter. I found the news coverage and what people were saying about the tragedy hard to handle.

As a queer person, I felt the need to mourn the loss of members of my community in Orlando due to senseless violence. With 49 people killed and 58 wounded, the Pulse shooting was not only the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, but it was also the deadliest attack against LGBTQ people in U.S. history. The violent nature of 2016 was already a lot for queer people of color, with nearly two dozen trans people of color being murdered and hate crimes against us rising steadily. When the Pulse shooting happened, it felt like an amalgamation of so many violent factors. Mourning felt like a fatigued action by that point.

If my queerness persuaded me to an instant mournfulness, and justifiably so, then the fact that I am both queer and Muslim gave way to a feeling of being stuck. The hate, weaponization, and politicization of my identities was coming from so many angles — and it made me defensive. I watched as Republicans, who have routinely voted for policies and laws that deny queer people legal protection and safety, suddenly cared enough about the LGBTQ community to weaponize the Pulse tragedy to fuel Islamophobia. Over 100 wounded or murdered people at a nightclub — the place where we go to feel safe and dance in our freedom, however temporary it may be — was the perfect chance to justify Islamophobic legislation and use us as mere props in a political game.

We had already lost our space that turned into temporary mosques for us at night, the gay bars and clubs that worked as sanctuaries for our souls, and now we had to protect and defend our religion as well.

The performative outrage I watched was exploitative, and capitalistic in nature. Trump issued a sensationalist statement focusing mostly on the use of the term “radical Islam,” promoting his now defunct Muslim travel ban, and used the moment to take jabs at his Democratic opponents. Hillary Clinton gave a speech shortly after, but despite offering her sympathy to the queer community and calling for stricter gun laws, she spent most of the time sending shots back at Trump.

Lost in the political circus of the entire event were those of us who are both queer and Muslim, many of whom grieved from the silence of the closet. We became punching bags, being hit from both sides. We had already lost our space that turned into temporary mosques for us at night, the gay bars and clubs that worked as sanctuaries for our souls, and now we had to protect and defend our religion as well.

Queer Muslims are often wedged between being silenced and being scared to speak out, being visible and being fearful to be seen. When we do speak, our words are turned against us, or bottled and stored away, or they simply fade into the wind. When we are seen and visible and proud, our own families turn against us, or we have to take extra precautions for our own safety, especially if we don’t have the privilege that comes with being a white upper-middle class gay man.

A year after the Pulse Shooting, a tragic event in which I saw pieces of my identity battling with rage, I still have a problem with “space.” If 2016 was a year of being constantly reminded that any “space” that has been made for me can be exploited, commodified, or ruptured, then 2017 is just a continuation of that trend. As powerful as I feel on my best days, I still feel that all I can do is sit back and watch in the corner I’ve carved for myself that they call “space.”

But I take faith in Audre Lorde’s words: “We were never meant to survive.” Too often, we mistake survival for existence and existence for living. We become familiar with our oppression from several different angles because it becomes normalized, and for those of us at the intersection of several overlapping identities, the suffering becomes normality.

A year after the Pulse shooting, we rise, time after time stronger than ever, as a community. And as we rise, we stand on a vibrant and powerful history, dominated by pioneers of creativity and change, like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Daayiee Abdullah. A year after the event that made me feel completely powerless, one that took a nightclub sanctuary from so many of us, the spirit of resistance that is the reason we celebrate pride is still looming in the air, and protesters across the country are halting pride celebrations to demand radical change. If this spirit of resistance continues to build, and we can continue to fight for the self-determination of our communities, I am hopeful that there will eventually be a space for those of us who sit on the margins.

Devyn Springer is an artist, writer, and editor-in-chief at Offtharecord who focuses on the African Diaspora. His book Grayish-Black is on Amazon, and you can find him on Twitter @HalfAtlanta.