Pulse: A Space for Resilience, a Home for the Brave
I originally wrote this for QED: A Journal for GLBT Worldmakers. It appeared in their Fall 2016 special issue. In light on the one year anniversary of these tragic events, I thought I’d share it with you.
Pulse: A Space for Resilience, a Home for the Brave
Katie L. Acosta
How many nights have I spent at Latinx night at the gay bar? I asked myself this question over and over when I heard the news. I spent most of my twenties seeking belonging inside these spaces . . . easing my way in to meet other women . . . acknowledging my desires for them . . . and grappling with the confusion it caused me. Since the shooting at Pulse, many have described Latinx night at the gay bar as a “safe space.” I find this description an oversimplification of what this space has meant to me. Latinx night at the gay bar brought me angst and trepidation, it forced me to acknowledge deeply complicated feelings that I was underprepared to handle. I envied the confidence I believed others possessed in this space—a confidence I thought I would never have. Yes, Latinx night at the gay bar was a safe space for me to confront my angst, but it was even more so a borderland.1 Walking in was an act of resilience. It meant looking my queer self in the face and allowing others to see her, even if only temporarily.
I wonder how many victims in the Pulse nightclub shooting felt this way; how many of them were robbed of the opportunity to live a deeply fulfilling authentic life—the kind of life I am so fortunate to now have, together with my wife and children. I think of the victims who texted their loved ones goodbye, those who died shielding their friends or embracing their partners. They remind me of the centrality of familia. La familia, with all of its complexities and limitations, continues to be where many of us go to be grounded. As those privileged members of the dominant society try to erase that queer latinidad in the interest of making this tragedy more relatable to them, I cannot forget that these victims’ latinidad makes them “other.” Nowhere is their otherness more apparent than when hearing the well-intentioned journalists struggle to pronounce their names and places of origin.
Despite others’ efforts to erase latinidad, those of us who live are compelled to recenter the victims and the many ways that their lives represent that of so many queer Latinx. They were immigrants and migrants, undocumented, English-as-second-language learners, family members committed to maintaining transnational ties with their children, parents and grandparents. All of these aspects of their identities shaped their need and desire to attend Latinx night at the gay bar that night. The loneliness and otherness we experience in white America contributes to Pulse’s appeal. Many of us live and work in spaces where one or both of these identities are regularly erased. This reality makes Latinx night at the gay bar a space for resilience, a borderland.
The Pulse tragedy has also highlighted the wide range of responses from la familia. Through this tragedy we have seen unprecedented loyalty from family, as was the case for Brenda Lee Marquez-McCool, who attended the club with her son that night and later gave her life protecting him.2 On the other hand, we have also seen deep-seated rejection, as was the case with one unnamed victim whose father refused to claim his body.3 We have gotten to know the victims through the stories shared by families and friends—stories of their vibrant personalities, their love of dancing, their goals and passion for life. These narratives further magnify those victims whose lives remain a mystery to us because their families have shared little or nothing with the media. These disparities are indicative of the varied responses that exist in la familia’s reactions to sexual and gender nonconformity—disparities that scholars are seldom given the space to explore in the academy.
The snapshots we gained into the victims’ lives highlight for us much of what is missing in academic discourses on queer Latinx communities. The wide range of responses from the Pulse victims’ familias forces us to look squarely at some of these difficult stories of rejection and homophobia and to resist the urge to erase them, even if only to not disrespect the victims’ realities. This tragedy reminds us that, at their best, la familia is an anchor to ground us from the harsh realities of racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and poverty. But it also exposes la familia’s flaws. The rejection that some of the victims experienced even in death reminds us why Latinx night at the gay bar is necessary. Yes, it is a safe space, but it is also a space for resilience, a home for the brave who do not experience unconditional love and support from la familia of origin, their colleagues or neighbors, and who dare to be present nonetheless. Even in death the Pulse victims speak: We are here, irrespective of your love, acceptance, or lack thereof. We are unapologetically here.
Through loving my wife and kids each day, I am resilient. When I walk the corridors of a white institution for higher learning and reassert my right to exist as queer, black, and Latina, I am resilient. I think of my father, an Orlando resident, who has not spoken to me in years, and who cannot bring himself to reach out, even in the wake of this tragedy, and I am resilient. I could go dancing any number of places, but at Latinx night at the gay bar, I can dance among others who understand my conflicting identities, who live their lives as I do- bridging the contradictions of their opposing worlds.
It is not a coincidence that most of the victims were men. It is indicative of the male domination that is so often the case at Latinx night at the gay bar in most U.S. cities. The Pulse massacre reminds us about lesbianas’ and queer Latinas’ isolation in these spaces. The obligations of the private sphere often interfere with our ability to find comfort in gay bars. Of the relatively small number of women victims that night, we learned surprisingly little, especially when compared to the thoughtful tributes presented for some of the men killed. At the tribute outside Pulse, a banner hangs “North Hampton loves you KJ.” Kimberly (“KJ”) Morris was a bouncer at Pulse, who had recently moved to Orlando to care for her mother and grandmother.4 Deonka Deidra Drayton, another bouncer that night, is reported to have been getting her life on track and reestablishing a relationship with God.5 Of the youngest victim in the club that night, Akyra Monet Murray, we know she had recently graduated high school and was expected to attend college in the fall with a full basketball scholarship.6 When the first shots were fired, Akyra escaped from the club only to return when she realized her cousin was still inside. We know that Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, another victim, leaves behind two children and a husband.7 And, Mercedez Marisol Flores and Amanda Alvear were friends who attended the club together to have fun.8 In their own ways, each of these women were engaged in some form of carework, and in part because of our devaluation of carework, their pain is overshadowed by the media coverage of the male victims.
In thinking about this tragedy, I consistently return to the same place of seeking healing for something from which we cannot truly be healed. What can I learn from this tragedy that I didn’t already know? My marginality, my otherness, the fear and hate that drives others to violence against black and Latinx queer peoples . . . none of that is news to me. But a wound has been reopened, a wound that reminds me that spaces of resilience double as targets for hate. It would be easy to allow this knowledge to deter me from frequenting such spaces, but somewhere deep within, a voice reminds me that others have died and so I must be brave.
1. Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: aunt lute books, 1999).
2. Bethany Rodgers, “Brenda Lee Marquez-McCool: Mom of 11” Orlando Sentinel, June 22, 2016, http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/pulse-orlando-nightclub-shooting/victims/os-orlando-mass-shooting-victim-brenda-lee-marquez-mccool-20160613-story.html.
3. María Padilla, “Father Refused to Claim Pulse Nightclub Shooting Victim’” Orlando Latino, June 22, 2016, http://orlandolatino.org/2016/06/father-refused-claim-pulse-nightclub-shooting-victim/.
4. Christal Hayes, “Kimberly ‘KJ’ Morris: Bouncer at nightclub always wore a smile,” Orlando Sentinel, June 29, 2016, http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/pulse-orlando-nightclub-shooting/victims/orlando-nightclub-shooting-kimberly-morris-20160612-story.html.
5. Iliana Limón Romero, “Deonka Deidra Drayton: Orlando resident in midst of personal renaissance,” Orlando Sentinel, June 20, 2016, http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/pulse-orlando-nightclub-shooting/victims/os-orlando-mass-shooting-victim-deonka-deidra-drayton-20160613-story.html.
6. Leslie Postal, “Akyra Murray: Basketball star was a ‘quiet leader,’” Orlando Sentinel, July 6, 2016, http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/pulse-orlando-nightclub-shooting/victims/os-orlando-mass-shooting-akyra-murray-20160613-story.html.
7. Stephen Ruiz, “Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan: Mom of 2 including 3-month-old,” Orlando Sentinel, June 14, 2016, http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/pulse-orlando-nightclub-shooting/victims/os-orlando-mass-shooting-victim-vilmary-rodriguez-solivan-20160614-story.html.
8. Stephen Hudak, “Amanda Alvear wouldn’t want hate spread in her name,” Orlando Sentinel June 14, 2016, http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/pulse-orlando-nightclub-shooting/victims/os-orlando-nightclub-shooting-victim-amanda-alvear-20160613-story.html.