In the wake of the June 12 attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida that killed 49 and injured dozens more, the American public was left heartbroken. Shootings of this magnitude have rarely been seen on American soil. Without any context for understanding the ever-looming threat of violence faced by members of the LGBTQ+ community, the average American was deeply shocked and saddened upon receiving news of the attack the following morning.
Queer and trans people of color, the primary targets of this attack, were far less surprised. It was “Latin Night” at Pulse, and the majority of the victims were Latinx. Roughly half of the victims were Puerto Rican or had ties to the island. There is an epidemic of violence in this country that disproportionately affects LGBTQ+ people and people of color. At the nexus of these identities, the risk of violence is exacerbated.
Consequently, few queer and trans people of color were particularly surprised by what happened in Orlando. Nothing about this attack was surprising: not the fact that it happened, not the fact that queer people of color were the ones most affected, not the fact that another man was arrested on his way to a Pride event in California with explosives and guns later that same day. The scale of this attack may have been unprecedented, but the underlying motivation — dehumanization of queer people of color via racism and homophobia — is all too familiar. We have collectively decided that the status quo of violence is acceptable and that this epidemic warrants no further action. America has a track record of ignoring the queer community’s needs when it is at its most vulnerable. We have deemed it acceptable, if mildly irritating, when brown and black and Native and Asian bodies, especially those inhabited by queer souls, are killed.
The public response to Orlando was predictable. Politicians offered “thoughts and prayers,” with little regard for the fact that many LGBTQ+ individuals have complicated relationships with religion, having suffered at the hands of those with regressive and hateful theologies. Makeshift memorials were erected across the country. Vigils were held, often ignoring the latinidad of the victims. Reactive thinkpieces were written by well-meaning allies who centered themselves and their feelings. City governments called for increased police presence at Pride events across the country, ignoring the often strained relationship between queer people of color and the police. After Orlando, hashtags trended, profile pictures changed, and gun control advocates galvanized.
While introspection, anger, and action are all reasonable responses to any tragedy, our response to this, and every other bias-motivated incident, typically fails to address the core issues. We are taught, by news networks, politicians, religious institutions, and culture that the LGBTQ+ community consists of perverts and predators. People of color are vilified and dehumanized in our public discourse. The problem is, when you don’t view people as human, shooting 102 of them in a nightclub with an AR-15 becomes justifiable.
To be clear, this marginalization is not just at the hands of outsiders. The Latinx community is often stereotyped as homophobic. Bearing in mind that this is an overgeneralization, and that attitudes within the community are changing, it would be irresponsible in the wake of Orlando to ignore the insidious nature of homophobia within the Latinx community. Catholicism is a prominent force throughout Latin America and has resulted in a colonial legacy of social conservatism. A toxic hypermasculinity polices Latinx men’s actions. According to a 2012 article by Erika L. Sanchez, Latinx men are less likely to identify as gay or bisexual, despite having male sexual partners. Of course, we must respect these men’s right to self-identify. However, the hesitation to label male sexuality is the result of a more sinister cultural force that vilifies homosexuality, discourages a full self-exploration, and encourages men to engage in risky behavior. A vibrant, diverse community is thus reduced to the cold and clinical phrase “Latino men who have sex with men.”
In a 2014 article by Nicole Akoukou Thompson, she discussed how Hispanic LGBTQ+ children feel rejected in their communities. In a report issued by the Human Rights Campaign, children at the intersection of Latinx and LGBTQ+ report feeling uncomfortable remaining in their communities, lacking support of older family members, and being more likely to face online harassment. In the aftermath of Orlando, despite calls for unity, homophobia persisted. On June 25, with the Orlando attack still hanging fresh in our collective memory, the hashtag #SerHomosexualEsEnfermedad trended worldwide on Twitter in response to the Pride celebrations being held throughout Latin America. Queerness is viewed as inherently inferior, and respect is not afforded to LGBTQ+ people.
Hierarchies of power also exist within the wider LGBTQ+ community. The timing of the attack was symbolic, as June is Pride month. Across the country and around the world, members of the LGBTQ+ community gathered to celebrate the diversity of identities within the LGBTQ+ community. Unfortunately, the community is, in many cases, far less progressive than it seems. Specifically, the LGBTQ+ community has fallen into a trap of respectability politics. In order to make queer liberation more palatable to the general public, white, middle-class, cisgender gay men have become the representatives of the community. They march, often ignoring the radical political origins of Pride — the 1969 Stonewall Riots. In many cases, queer spaces have by default become white male spaces, actively excluding many members of the community. As explained by Steven W. Thrasher, the erasure of LGBTQ+ people of color from gay media has followed into the Orlando response. Latinx LGBTQ+ people must remain firm in claiming this tragedy as they heal.
The dismissal of people of color from queer spaces is particularly apparent online. The popular gay dating app Grindr can be described as a gallery of headless, shirtless alabaster torsos. It is very common for men, emboldened by the anonymity afforded to them by the world of online dating, to post blurbs outlining their sexual preferences. In a 2015 article, Dennis Fernado explains that these lists of preferences frequently hint at insecurity of identity, displaying internalized homophobia, toxic masculinity, and outright racism. A typical “About Me” section might read: “Masc4Masc only, no fats, no fems, whites only.” As described by Samantha Allen in a 2015 article, some men, unwilling to settle for conventional racism, take it a step farther, reducing ethnic groups to stereotypical dishes. “No rice, no spice, no curry” might be used to creatively reject Asian, Latinx and Indian men, respectively.
Queer men of color must also deal with fetishization based on their ethnicities while navigating the world of online dating. I’ve been called “Papi” and described as “spicy” by men before they so much as ask my name. I’ve received messages in (very, very bad) Spanish from white men, despite having a profile written entirely in English. Gay dating apps are venues for dehumanization. Gay sex for many young men has become entirely transactional, facilitated by apps that treat bodies as take-out to be ordered and delivered to their doors. The “preference” discourse regarding race and aesthetics is a dehumanizing force. Queer Latinx men are not simply a flavor of the day, something spicy to be ordered to satisfy a normally bland palate.
Post-Orlando, many of these problematic community members likely attended the memorials and vigils held across the country. Straight Latinx people gathered and prayed, refusing to acknowledge the role they played in perpetuating anti-LGBTQ+ ideologies. White LGBTQ+ people huddled together holding candles, wrapped in rainbow flags, with tears streaming down their faces as they mourned the deaths of men they never would have messaged back. They grieved while ignoring the Latinidad of the Pulse Nightclub shooting victims. In their pockets, phones lit up with notifications from messages sent to profiles that still read “Whites only.” These people, who are so used to appropriating and fetishizing Black, Latinx, and Afro-Latinx cultures claimed this tragedy as their own. Calls for unity echoed from the mouths of those who seek to keep their communities exclusive.
In the post-Orlando world, it is more prudent and timely than ever to examine our implicit biases and disrupt any oppressive ideologies present within our communities. This can and must take many forms. We must engage with and call out queerphobia in Latinx spaces whenever it presents itself. We must challenge and eliminate racism in LGBTQ+ spaces and aim to make them more inclusive. In both communities, we should strive to promote healthier conceptions of masculinity. These issues are all connected, and they are all solvable. Meaningful, intersectional dialogue can begin to change hearts and attitudes. Above all, we must remember to cherish the humanity of all members of our communities, regardless of whether they look different or love differently than we do.
Nicholas Lawrence is a 22-year-old gay Brazilian-American man originally from New Bedford, Massachusetts. A recent graduate of Boston College, he is currently pursuing an MS at New York University. Follow him on Twitter @N_Lalalawrence.