The detail that hurt most was that investigators had to “tune out” the sound of ringing cell phones coming from bodies strewn about the sanctuary they’d gathered in, before being gunned down in an attack ISIS then claimed responsibility for. Our brother and sisters, who went to drink and dance away a stressful week of work, studying and family issues, and never went back home. They’d gone out to meet friends old and new, to fit in for a change—to fall in love perhaps. I know this well because I did it for many years myself: from Manhattan to Missoula, Montana.
My coming out as a queer Latino began in 1988 when I moved to the West Coast, to expose my most shameful and sensitive feelings. As a fledgling queer Puerto Rican from the Bronx, I didn’t have the support of my (greater) family and community, and hoped to find it elsewhere. This was what I wanted when I went to live with my mother’s family in Portland, Oregon; where I hoped to live as I was only able to dream back then. My options were limited as a working-class seventeen-year-old Bronx Boricua, so I went to explore, to see what I could find.
A crucial phase of that exploration was the intoxicating parallel universes of gay/queer bars, where I discovered a diverse and civilized people: my second community. I’d never experienced the range of humanity LGBTQ people shared and offered one another, to others who’d been cast out of their families for being abominations and embarrassments. I had my mother’s love and support during those rough times (though I’d yet to tell her) and knowing this kept me from taking wrong turns as others around me did. I kept my head screwed on tight as I grew.
The gay/queer establishments I’ve frequented throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, France, Spain and Puerto Rico all shared the same thing in common: there was never a need for security or metal detectors. (There are exceptions nowadays I’m sure, but this was my experience.) What you were more likely to encounter was harassment on your way in or out by people on the street waiting to give you a hard time, by men acting out their homophobic hatred when there were so many other things they could’ve been doing: from the police even.
This past weekend’s tragedy in Orlando is situated on a devastating fault-line of tense social justice issues, what the presidential front-runners will likely spin to their advantage, as they include immigration, gun control, LGBTQ equality and mental health services. My hard-earned experience has taught me there are two kinds of people in this world: those marching ahead toward a better future and those who wish to drag us all back toward darker ages.
People have the right to practice religion, but we need to push harder against extremist fanaticism of all kinds, from all hate-based organizations wishing to do harm. The United States has a long history of shielding religious institutions, to the point of complicity. But a new age is here. We must unite and say NO to rousing calls of “kill homosexuals;” NO to churches that protect those guilty of sexual abuse toward minors. Add easy access to military-grade weaponry in an age of flaring mental health issues and this is what we get. And if family members suspect one of their own is experiencing mental health troubles, then what? They just walk away?
The timing was the uppercut that did me in, as the very community I’d once fled was honoring LGBTQ heritage at the 59thAnnual Puerto Rican Day Parade. A sea of flags fluttered, the vibe electrified with salsa music. I was overcome with emotion when a contingent led by former councilmember Margarita López (an out lesbian for many years) marched by with Puerto Rican-rainbow flags, rallying against the fiscal control board bill approved by Congress—¡No a la Junta! People cheered her on, knowing that our people face more challenging issues.
As with the Puerto Rican community I now live in as an openly queer man, we can get to a better place as a nation. My people have suffered centuries of church-perpetuated homophobia and misogyny and though we’re creeping beyond this, it’s taken a lot of work. It’s taken the courage of icons such as Antonia Pantoja, Margarita López, Ricky Martin, and Sylvia Rivera—those who weren’t afraid to stand up and say NO. And then again. Again and again until those who refused to listen found themselves with the rest of the community against them.
Author Charlie Vázquez is a founding member of Latino Rebels and the director of the Bronx Writers Center. You can follow him @charlievazquez.