Learning to live with Orlando

Bernadette Barton
Bernadette Barton

Like many in the nation, I woke up Sunday, June 12, to the news that there had been a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando. June is Pride month, and we are close to the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage June 26, 2015.

Taking in and grieving all the tragic world incidents (Isis sex slaves burned to death publicly, refugees drowning in Mediterranean, untouched rape kits, racial profiling) shuffled as I often encounter them in social media forums like Facebook in between photos of people’s dinners, ads for shoes and the news that someone has lost their beloved pet or grandmother, is simply overwhelming.

Ten minutes on Facebook and I have empathy fatigue.

Wrapping my head and heart around the murder of 49 LGBT people while they were dancing in a gay bar in Orlando, beneath the familiar numb feeling accompanying another story of loss, horror, and violence is survivor’s guilt.

Like most gay people, I fondly remember my first foray into a gay bar (in my case a club outside of Cincinnati when I was 18 on Halloween no less!). My wife described her first visit to the Driftwood, a club in Charleston, W.Va., in the 1980s. Like many baby butches, she got in as an underage 17 year old. She remembers wearing light blue velour pants and a skinny tie in hopes the clothes would make her look older.

When we travel, my spouse and I usually go to a gay club in a new place. We love to chat with the locals, play a game of pool, dance a little, get tips on the best restaurants, and sometimes make new friends. I know that it might have been me and my wife, or any number of us, in Orlando at a conference, or on vacation, gratefully escaping all the Disney to go hang out with peeps at Pulse.

I think a lot of us are feeling survivor’s guilt now, and a heightened awareness that although LGBT rights have advanced rapidly over the past decade in the United States, homophobic violence still threatens us

As details emerge about Omar Mateen, that he had been a regular at Pulse, that he met men on gay male hookup apps, that his father ran for president of Afghanistan and supported the Taliban, I see the evidence of the toxic closet in its most destructive manifestation.

Religious fundamentalism, homophobic ideology, an authoritarian upbringing, internalized oppression and ridiculously lax gun laws united in an unholy alliance to create conditions that facilitated a massacre.

I observe that many of us want to say something about this — from the late night hosts with national audiences to politicians to my Facebook friends — the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. For gay people, it feels personal. I read post after post voicing hurt, distress, disbelief, anger and love.

While I read these, and see footage of rainbow tributes in cities across the globe, I feel an enormous teary affection for all us struggling to digest the consequences of so many lives lost in the very place that is supposed to be our haven by someone who might so easily have been one of us had he allowed it.

Bernadette C. Barton, professor of sociology and gender studies at Morehead State University, is the author of “Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays,” (NYU Press).