More Than Blood
We awoke to news of the carnage in Orlando. I had slept in — the first long, good night’s sleep after a hell of a week: a funeral, my 45th birthday, graduation, another funeral, and a graduation party. I woke up refreshed, but not for long. Several friends had already texted or sent me Facebook messages warning of the pain that was to come, the massacre that had already taken place.
“Breaking news: 50 dead, 53 injured, at gay nightclub in Orlando.”
“Breaking news: Worst mass shooting in U.S. history.”
“Breaking news: Suspect linked to Islamic extremism.”
It was a familiar enough story, a predictable narrative, especially in these mad times — so far, the entire century. The only difference, it seems, is in the details: name, date, place, people.
The historian in me always asks two questions when these tragedies occur: why does it feel like we’ve been here before? And why does it feel like it’s getting worse?
As I stood in my living room — literally, stood, shocked and stoic, for nearly an hour — watching the news pour in, checking my Facebook and Twitter feeds, other questions emerged:
Why did this happen again?
Who did this?
Why did they do this?
What the fuck is wrong with this country?
Do I know anyone who died?
Then I cried for the first time. Not because I knew them, necessarily, but because so many of us are them: every person I have ever danced with or drank with or sang with or mourned with or laughed with or talked with or debated with or marched with or gossiped with or celebrated with or commiserated with or flirted with (one of whom I eventually married) in one of our spaces, in so many places. There is not one of us who hasn’t dreaded the prospect of that night, the thought that this could happen to us — eventually, some day. June 12th is always, potentially, our reality.
Then — with more information and opinion and speculation and analysis — a flood of sharper questions came into focus:
Will people even care that so many queer people were murdered?
Have people noticed that Saturday night is Latinx night at Pulse?
Do people realize that this is the same week as the one-year anniversary of the Mother Emanuel massacre in Charleston?
Did the shooter know it’s Pride Month?
Will anyone connect the dots between the father’s statement that his son was enraged by two men kissing in Miami and the ex-wife’s statement that she divorced him because he beat her?
Was the shooter a closet case?
Who will protect and care for the 3-year old son now?
Does anyone care that President Obama has to deliver yet another speech — the 18th of his Presidency, I think — about mass shootings?
What will Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders say about this?
Why do I still care what they, or any other elected official, has to say on this matter?
Will any of our elected officials — or Presidential candidates — risk or stake their political careers on comprehensive (not just “common sense”) gun control legislation?
Will anyone connect the dots between the transphobia sweeping the nation, the backlash against LGBTQ rights, the assault on black lives, the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric of Donald Trump, and this massacre on Latinx Night at a queer club?
Why hasn’t there been one LGBTQ leader interviewed on any major cable news network so far?
Do the network anchors know anything about queer people or our histories?
Has anyone thought for a second that “notifying their families” might not be what these dead or injured queer people want?
Has anyone thought for a second that “saying their names” might actually be a form of disrespect for those queer dead who were not “out” when they were alive?
Do the folks in the hospital want their “immediate families” or “next of kin” visiting them?
Will their actual loved ones be able to visit them?
Can gay people donate blood?
Why can’t I find consistent information from the FDA or any news report about this?
Why is everyone praying for us?
Why are the same people who have always wanted to “pray away the gay” or “love the sinner not the sin” or “condemn us to Hell” saying prayers for us now?
Why does the media always defer to “law enforcement officials” and “retired FBI agents” and “counter-terrorism experts” whenever people who are regularly the targets and victims of state regulation, surveillance, and violence killed?
Why can’t we ever speak for ourselves, on our own terms?
Why is it so easy to blame everything on “Islamic extremism” (and by ghastly extension, all Muslims) as a convenient divide-and-conquer strategy to avoid holding all Americans accountable for the things we need urgently to confront: homophobia and transphobia, toxic masculinity, racism, violence against women, shitty parenting, gun addiction, cowardly politicians, media ineptitude, mental health, U.S. imperialism, the NRA, public health failures, and all religious bigotry? After all, Omar Mateen was one of us, born and raised.
But I can’t help thinking about blood.
I can’t stop thinking about all the blood at Pulse — on the walls and dance floor, the bar and bathrooms, everywhere — that desecrated that club that night and prevented it from being a sanctuary for all those who need it.
I can’t stop thinking about the blood of John Poma, whose death from AIDS in 1991 inspired his sister Barbara and friend Ron to open and run a gay club in his honor.
I can’t stop thinking about that name — Pulse — which now carries so many more meanings.
I can’t stop thinking about the blood of all those, dead and alive, who are part of the tragic and transcendent story of HIV/AIDS in this country and around the world, including, in all likelihood, some of the people whose blood still marks and haunts that club.
I can’t stop thinking about the fact that I am still afraid of my own blood because the first time I thought I would (and should) die was after I had sex with another man.
I can’t stop thinking about the lines of people waiting to give blood — bless these allies — notwithstanding the fact that our nation’s blood donation policies are unmistakably homophobic, a vestige of the AIDS crisis, and absurd in this moment.
I can’t stop thinking of the blood of those who have been slaughtered and assaulted in this country — not just in the many recent mass shootings, but in the lynchings and whippings, border crossings and deportations, internments and incarcerations, executions and police shootings, domestic abuses and rapes that define us and deaden us to justice.
I can’t stop thinking of the blood of those in other lands — in Asia, Africa, South and Central America, the Middle East, there are too many countries to list — who have been on the murderous underside of American Empire. This, too, has defined us and deadened us to justice.
But what world could we build if we thought of ourselves as more than blood?
I have a unique perspective on this because I have no blood relations. Not my jackpot parents. Not my beloved grandparents. Not my precious brother and sister and niece. Not my awesome cousins or uncle. Not my loving husband. None of these beautiful, amazing people are blood relations. I was given up as a baby. I was lucky enough to be adopted and raised by a remarkable family into adulthood. I have spent the rest of my life creating a family of loyal friends from every possible background who have loved me unconditionally and sustained me through everything, including those moments when I contemplated ending my own life because I was gay. These folks are why I can find strength on days like Sunday.
And Sunday was something. It started in terrible tragedy — one we will and should never forget, one that is just now being felt fully by those in Orlando. We should honor and heed their wishes in the coming days.
But those of us in other places have a responsibility to both mourn their deaths and live our lives. After several hours in front of the TV, crying, and on social media, reacting, I decided to rally my chosen family. I sent a group text inviting them to join me at the block party at Boston Pride. Many of them responded in no time. We joined friends in Back Bay. We found other friends there, some of them former students and their friends. The first song I heard was Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” my favorite song in the world, and I smiled for the first time all day. It was a more diverse crowd this year, more willing to hug and dance and talk and live and love in the moment than I can remember. Everyone I met recognized the tragedy in Orlando and many saw their presence at Pride as an act of loving defiance. After the block party, a group of friends went to Club Café, one of Boston’s most popular gay clubs. There were lines out both doors. No one seemed afraid. There was a vigil to Pulse and Orlando outside the club. It felt normal, as normal as it can ever be for any of of us.
There are several things that happened at Club Café and after that strike me as being especially important in this moment. First, those of us who assembled for dinner were a group of dear, loving friends who are also a mix of gender, sexual, and racial identities. We defy the haters every time we get together, and we don’t care. We are the future. Second, amidst the varying quality of folks singing in the piano bar, we heard an older white man — old enough to have been part of the struggle before Stonewall — powering through a classic torch song. We all clapped and cheered because he is still getting his life after all of it. I hope I’m able to do the same someday. Third, as my husband CJ and I were waiting to go home, the legendary Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, dressed all in black and clearly in mourning, filed by after being part of an earlier vigil for the Orlando victims. They hugged all of us and said, “Happy Pride.” As someone who struggles with religion, I didn’t realize how much I needed that hug from a cross-dressing nun. Fourth, CJ and I took an Uber home, and had an amazing conversation with our driver, a black woman raised in Philly and Boston, who is now raising her kids to be, as she said, “free.” Her 15-year old daughter went to her first Pride this past weekend, and she was “fine with it, because she doesn’t talk about boys or girls. Who knows? I just want her to find love. Isn’t that what we all want?” We high-fived her and gave her a rainbow bracelet as we got out of the car. And then, when we got home, we watched the Tonys. There has never been an awards show — and a historic one — that we needed more that night.
But let us not interpret any of this celebration as callousness in the wake of this historic massacre. We live because they cannot, and queer people have always done that in the face of death. Fifty people were murdered early Sunday morning — around the same time, I must add, that the police raided the Stonewall Inn in late June 1969. We don’t yet know who all was there. But we can be certain that they were people of every color, gender, and sexuality. They were our queer Latinx brothers and sisters. They were patrons and workers. They were allies and chosen family. They were people like us.
They can kill some of us, but the rest of us are still here.
After all, they have always tried to kill us, and that’s why we’re strong.
And we’re here and strong because we’ve always believed in a better world.
And that world, the world I and so many others know and love — the one that is so much more than blood and always has been — is one that beckons a new world even as it threatens this one.
Which world do you want?
Timothy Patrick McCarthy is an award-winning scholar, educator, and activist who teaches at Harvard University, where he directs the Sexuality, Gender, and Human Rights Program at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. A historian of politics and social movements, Dr. McCarthy is the author or editor of five books, including Stonewall’s Children: Living Queer History in the Age of Liberation, Loss, and Love, forthcoming from the New Press. He was also a founding member of Barack Obama’s National LGBT Leadership Council.