Describe a morning you woke without fear.
– Bhanu Kapil, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers
One morning last June, six days after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, I woke up in the bed I made for myself. I did not wake up afraid, or in the bed another woman made for me. It was not the bed my mother or my grandmother or my father would have wanted for me. But it was mine. It was messy. Pillows and clothes were strewn on the floor of the apartment. There were dirty dishes in the sink. I was, by choice, alone. I stayed up late the night before writing, thinking about life and love and grief, my mind unable to stop circling back to the faces of the people who died at Pulse, the Florida nightclub where a gunman opened fire on a dance floor. That morning, before I remembered that there were forces and people that want me dead or silent, I woke without fear.
On Sunday, June 12, 2016, while those gathered at Pulse danced without knowing how the night would end for them, I was dancing too. My friends and I were out at a mostly straight club in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, having an epic New York City day that began with brunch and ended with the next morning’s sunrise but did not include sleep. Our night went a million ways but never truly toward danger. I was briefly separated from my friends, by myself on the outdoor patio. I smoked three cigarettes back-to-back, tried to tamp down a restlessness that had been whirling inside me for months. For a moment, alone among strangers, I felt unsafe. But when I looked around at the crowd assembled, a gaggle of Brooklyn beauties, I knew I would be all right. I’d come out for air because inside was thick with cologne, perfume, and sweat, the collective release of an entire week of worry. As the first shots were fired at Pulse, I was considering which mix I liked better—the Afrobeat one with Fela and Wunmi or the one where a house beat dropped over the speakers and the dancers slapped shekeres and tambourines along in time. As the folks at Pulse dove for cover and sent their last goodbyes to their beloved, I was texting a lover good night and telling her I loved her. I was celebrating the birthday of a friend visiting from Philly. We were excited to have our arms and legs exposed to the summer heat. I remember it was hot.
Never in my wildest imaginings did I think that a night that began with music could end in death. I’d had so many nights out like this one, but none of them ended tragically. But writers know that our work is to plumb the depths of imagination, to go past what we know already, what we feel comfortable knowing, to find words for that for which we do not yet have names. Because as much as we will try to make sense of what has been done, there is no rightful name for massacre, no balm for grieving the young and the old and the innocent.
The summer of 1999, when I was not yet nineteen years old, was the summer of my first everything—the first time I kissed a girl, my first cigarette, the first time I thought that I could be a writer. I remember reading an article by young-adult author Jacqueline Woodson in Essence magazine in which Woodson compares her experience pledging Alpha Kappa Alpha and coming out as a lesbian: “Neither pledging nor coming out was easy.” A chance meeting with Woodson first on the page and then in person opened up a path that was previously closed to me, one where I could be who I was—a black lesbian from a working-class Brooklyn family—and also write and travel and live as a free black woman, as I wanted to do but so few black women I knew then actually could. That summer, I met Jackie, I visited the Audre Lorde Project (an LGBTSTGNC community-organizing space), and attended my first Black Pride celebration. I came out to some of my friends. But nothing taught me more about desire, sanctuary, intimacy, and violence than the many nights I spent in the gay clubs of New York City.
The first gay bar I danced in during that transformative summer was Rockwell’s. Nestled between a glass-blowing studio and the community-access television station, Rockwell’s was marooned in a no-man’s land of pre-gentrification Brooklyn. With a dance floor the size of a postage stamp and mirrored walls, you could watch yourself as you danced or watch a lover as they danced with you or press your back against cool glass to recover from an extended dance session. Rockwell’s, like the clubs I would frequent after it (Warehouse in the Bronx, Langston’s and Grand 275 in Brooklyn, Bar d’O and LoverGirl in Manhattan) drew a crowd that was black and Latino, gay and lesbian and trans, and, along with the occasional straight friend, working-, middle- and upper-class. Accountants, artists, and professors rubbed shoulders with nurses, waitresses, and UPS drivers. At the club, respect was given not because of money or position, but because of beauty and style—snatched hair and nails, beat faces, crisp clothing, fierce dancing, and gym bodies.
I was femme because my close friend, the only other black lesbian I knew, was femme. I wore the same short black skirt and red top every time I went to the club, came home every Friday and Saturday night with my Poetic Justice braids reeking from cigarettes I smoked to keep my nervous hands quiet. Rockwell’s was incredible, full of brown and black people who looked like me and were gay, and had lived to tell the story of their lives. I was awestruck. We danced, sweated, flirted, made out, and hooked up in the club’s dark corners and bathrooms. I exulted when they played my favorite song by Armand Van Helden, which I loved because it gave voice to my fear and defensiveness about my newfound sexuality and the judgement I expected and sometimes received:
You don’t even know me
You say that I’m not living right
You don’t understand me
So why do you judge my life?
I hid my queerness from my parents until they paid the last of my college tuition. I worried that someone I knew—a family member or a friend or a coworker or a neighbor—would see me at the club, and then my secret would be out. I imagined the drama that might ensue from being found in a gay club. But I never thought I might die there.
Going to Rockwell’s on Friday night was like going to church, in the regularity and the community and communion the space provided. Yet, as in church, where I braced for being damned with tales of how I skirted God’s favor with my unnatural desires, the club was not only a place for joy, but also where violence reared its head. There were parties that ended prematurely, shut down after fist and knife fights between lovers, ex-lovers, friends. The club was complicated, but it was where I grew up and into myself. Now, with our sacred places covered in blood, I wonder where we will go for sanctuary. Is there such a thing now? Was there ever?
We have been here before. The generation that precedes mine lived through the early years of the AIDS crisis, survived endless protests and funerals for young people. The recent past lulled us into believing that we would be all right, that we could breathe a deep sigh of relief as we won first gay marriage in several states and then across the country. It is no small irony that the Stonewall Inn, the first LGBT national monument afforded that honorific, the birthplace of this country’s gay-liberation movement, is the same place where we gathered to grieve our dead. And even as we speak of the AIDS crisis as something behind us, recent research reminds us that the epidemic is still very much a threat to the lives and well-being of black gay and bisexual men.
That Sunday, as news of the massacre broke, I checked on my queer friends. I cried on the phone with my lover as we scrolled through the names and pictures of those who were killed at Pulse. I was particularly haunted by a photograph of one of the departed, Kimberly “KJ” Morris, Pulse’s bouncer, who bore an eerie resemblance to one of my ex-girlfriends. That night, I went to see the same lover I texted from the club on the night of the Pulse shooting, the one I’d shared tears with that morning. I wanted to lay both eyes and hands on her, to know that she was alive and well, to find refuge in making love to someone who loved me.
Almost a year later, former Pulse employee Rob Collazo describes Pulse as a living memorial, its workers dispersed to nightclubs and bars around the city, the club itself a constant state of mourning as people visit the site to pray for the people who lost their lives and livelihood there. Collazo remembers jumping the fence to enter Pulse when he was fourteen; the bartender let him finish his drink before ejecting him for being underage. He visited Pulse for years before he worked there. He says wistfully that it was “the one place where I could be called a freak, and it wasn’t an insult.” Even as gay adults assimilate into and are co-opted by the mainstream, there are queer youth for whom clubs are a refuge from the homophobia, judgment, and violence they face outside. What spaces will serve as refuge for them now? What will coming out look like for a generation of queer youth who know the clubs might be where they are targeted by those who want them silenced, dead?
To be black or brown or poor or all of the above means living with private pain and rage others may find hard to understand. It means being on high alert for dangers that are hard to translate for those who have never known what it’s like to live with fear as a constant companion, who have never known their very bodies to be wanted more dead than alive. The truth is that people of color have never felt safe in America. Even as people with wealth and whiteness built up a gay-wedding industrial complex and celebrated their full citizenship, we who are black and brown and poor and differently abled and disenfranchised and transgender, we who were once three-fifths of a man or a woman or living outside gender binaries, we whose ancestors survived Japanese internment and genocide and American Indian boarding schools and settler colonialism knew better than to believe in the myth of American progress. We were rightfully skeptical of a march toward liberation that did not include us, that was in fact willing to leave behind those who couldn’t or didn’t want to pass or buy their freedom. We were steeped enough in history to know that America was built upon a foundation of our labor and our death. We knew, as Audre Lorde reminds us in “A Litany for Survival,” that “we were never meant to survive.”
What we did not expect is that the man who pulled the trigger would look like us, would maybe be us, a brown person perhaps struggling with the strictures of their religion and the desires of their body and the mind they tried to use to reconcile the contradictions that threatened to tear them apart. We were that young person once. We had a mother who tried to pray our gay away. We had a grandmother who insisted she hated the sin but not the sinner. We wondered how it was possible for her to love us and have so much hate for who we were and what we did and with whom we did it. We had a brother who said he didn’t have a problem with gay people But and we knew that But was the problem and the problem was us. We had family who asked us to be a little bit less of ourselves when we came around.
In the wake of the shooting, as our families called to check on us or, more likely, did not call, we mourned. Some of us were capable of leaps of compassion and found within our families’ distance their deepest fear, that someone would kill us for who we were and how we loved. They did not cry with us, but we saw the fear in their faces or we heard it in their voices, and we knew they wondered how they would live now knowing that what they most feared for us could happen, that in fact, it already had.
Now, we find ourselves vulnerable in the places where we call upon the names of our gods. The June 2015 church shooting in South Carolina when a family of believers died at the hand of a man who hated black people. The June 2016 massacre at Pulse by a man who hated us as much as or more than he hated himself. This violation of places where brown and black people seek sanctuary and communion, prey upon us even as we pray in thought, word, and dance, a most violent reminder that we were never meant to survive. And I question, as Bhanu Kapil so poignantly did, How will you live now?
What I know for sure is that monuments will not save us. And that even as we celebrate gay pride and expanding access to civil rights, visibility, and safety to pursue our lives in peace, we carry our dead with us. I wonder, as lawyer and activist Dean Spade asks, “Can we survive mainstreaming?” For me, the anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting is a stinging reminder of the particular vulnerability of queer people of color, that there are so many of us whose lives reforms will not, and in fact, were never intended to, reach.