Orlando, a shattered complacency

I’m a proud gay man.

I came out of the closet publicly three months after my 15th birthday, as a freshman in high school, and was met with overwhelmingly positive support from my friends, family and total strangers. I’ve marched in half a dozen pride parades around the world, from New York to Chicago to Tel Aviv. I’ve been on the steps of the Supreme Court during the most consequential arguments and decisions on LGBT issues in our country’s history. I’ve been to gay bars and clubs hundreds of times, including Pulse. I’ve loved, and been loved.

Tonight was my first time out at a gay club since Orlando. Tonight was the first time I glanced at the emergency exit, just in case, and made note of places to hide in case I couldn’t escape in time. Tonight was the first time I was scared in a gay space. Tonight was the first time, as Carlos Mazza so painfully and eloquently wrote earlier this week, that I was afraid of dying.

To be honest, I thought the strongest emotions from last week’s tragedy had passed. I’d engaged in public therapy by airing my heartbreak on Facebook, and had talked with friends in similar places of shock. I received a heartening number of loving texts from friends and family, and I was ready to jump back into my life, albeit with a little hole in my heart and a newfound dedication to gun reform activism.

Some of the texts I've received in recent days from friends, responding to Orlando.
Some of the texts I’ve received in recent days from friends, responding to Orlando.

Tonight was the first time I realized just how much I’ve taken for granted.

My coming out at fourteen was easy, and despite almost taking my life due to the shame of my sexuality when I was younger, I have never had to deal with unforgiving words from those closest to me since then. I’m just masculine enough to be able to pass as straight on the street, and have never known street harassment for being “fem.” I’m white and grew up in an affluent suburb north of Chicago, so the discrimination that black, Hispanic and mixed race individuals routinely experience in the workplace, housing and so many other walks of life is also foreign to me. I have never feared for the safety or security of my job due to who I am. I have never, with a small number of exceptions while traveling, worried about my safety holding a loved one’s hand while walking down the street late at night.

These are all things I’ve been painfully aware other people faced, but it has never affected the daily hum of my life in any way. I’ve lived a gloriously sheltered and privileged life as a white, gay man in the accepting enclaves of Chicago and Washington, DC.

But looking around this club and being painfully aware of the falseness of a true “safe space” was a jarring feeling. I realized that this was what many of my friends, especially those that are minorities, have dealt with each and every day since realizing they were gay. For the very first time, it felt like I was seeing the true vulnerability of the LGBT community, my community.

All I wanted to do tonight was leave the club and slide back into my bed, despite the likelihood of it being the sixth consecutive night where I’d close my eyes and picture the horror of Pulse yet again. I might not have been in Orlando last Saturday, but my brain continues to seamlessly substitute Pulse for Cobalt or minibar, two of my hometown gay bars, and the 49 victims for my friends. I think about what song was playing when the shots rang out, and how many vodka tonics came crashing to the ground as the bullets began to fly. It’s a sick form of grieving, but I don’t seem to have any control over the narrative replaying in my head.

Whether due to sense of resoluteness, or just plain stubbornness, I refused to allow myself to leave the club from a point of weakness last night. I danced until 3:30am, far beyond when I’d been ready to turn in, because I didn’t want to cow tow to the intimidation of a psychopathic, homophobic gunman. I wasn’t in no mood to hookup, but nonetheless picked up a random cute boy from the dance-floor and kissed him, just to spite Omar Mateen. It felt like taking a small stand, even if it was to no one other than myself.

The bloody aftermath of the Sarona Market shooting in downtown Tel Aviv, which killed four and wounded six on June 8, 2016.
The bloody aftermath of the Sarona Market shooting in downtown Tel Aviv, which killed four and wounded six on June 8, 2016.

It felt fitting that I began my evening by stopping by the Sarona Market, the site of last week’s terrorist attack that killed four Israelis in downtown Tel Aviv. I’d been having dinner there days earlier, and had come bearing flowers for the memorial of the victims. But it was nowhere to be found.

My friend and I asked the host of Max Brenner, the famous Israeli chocolate chain where the shooting had taken place, where the memorial was. She pointed to a patch of grass a few feet away, where a single basket of flowers was laid.

After years of unceasing suicide bombings that tore through pizza restaurants, movie theaters, and dance clubs, my Israeli friends and family have become so desensitized to terrorist attacks by now that they move on at an almost impulsively quick speed, not dissimilar to how Americans have begun to react to mass shootings. Seven days earlier, the floor of this restaurant had been stained with blood and littered with corpses, but tonight you’d be remiss if you’d already forgotten about the tragedy while sitting in the very seat that one of the victims had been eight days earlier. It was a sobering reminder of the political realities of living in this country. But it was just that: a reality.

A reality that despite all of the progress that has been made towards the acceptance of the LGBT community, suicide rates among LGBT youth are still 400% higher than the general public. A reality that despite marriage equality in all fifty states, the majority of LGBT people in this country can still be legally fired for who they are, and as a result, many are still painfully deep in the closet. A reality that hate crimes are still at alarmingly high levels, particularly for people with darker skin than me. Reality that you’re never, truly safe as a gay man or LGBT individual.

The truth is, I’m not ‘ok,’ and I don’t think I will be for quite a while. A bubble that I never knew was surrounding my life has burst, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to restore that complacency, so long as these realities continue to exist in our society.

But if I’m able to translate this newfound awareness into action, and urgency, and vigilance, and advocacy, that will at least be something. There are LGBT people hurting, truly hurting, and we need to stand up for them now louder than ever.