The very first thing I saw this morning, after my alarm went off, was news that a whole bunch of people were murdered in an Orlando club. And they were calling it an act of domestic terrorism. Because the man who did it was Muslim. Later, I learned it was a gay club and the man was disturbed by seeing two men kissing–so he went in and shot up the place.
Mass shootings are a part of my life that I often would rather not think about. But since most of my time on this planet has been spent in Denver, a very real part of my personal history is steeped in the agony of mass shootings. Columbine High School was where I took my SATs, just years before Dylan & Eric murdered people there. The Aurora theater was a place where I’d sometimes end up on Sundays after my mother’s death. I had friends who planned to be there that night. I trained in the building where the gunman spent a lot of time when he went to CU.
As a Colorado native who has seen so many of these tragedies engulf my state, I rarely go to movie theaters anymore. If I do, I sit in places where a gunman would have a hard time seeing me. I avoid being front and center. Whenever I go to events with many people, I pay close attention to exits and mentally map out an escape plan. If someone makes me uneasy, I leave immediately. Some may say I’m being paranoid. But I can’t help it. I no longer trust that a simple night out will just end peacefully. I never take it for granted.
So, there exists in me that reality and then another one altogether that deals with these conversations on a daily basis–where I am forced to check what I truly believe about these things every day. I find I’m alright with myself, most days, but days like these give me more to chew on. More to wonder about. And even if I’m okay with me, I’m decidedly not okay with our world. That’s the tougher part.
Orlando was a hate crime, but the official version doesn’t read like that–maybe because hate against gays has been sanctioned by our country and states for so long that–well–who can tell the difference? And it’s only bad when it’s fifty people rather than one and when the perpetrator is a Muslim and not some redneck Christian.
This morning, like many people I knew, I was pissed. Talking shit. Ranting about Trump because clearly it’s all this hate rhetoric that is causing this nonsense. But which came first: the bigotry or the Trump?
I think my rage ended and became something else entirely when I heard people sobbing on the street. My street. Cheesman has been my home for over ten years. It is Denver’s gay neighborhood. There are more gay people in this building than straight ones. When my mother died, this neighborhood and its people comforted me and gave me a place to heal.
It’s funny that I ended up in Cheesman, though. It was the one neighborhood my mother warned me about. I never understood why. I’d take buses to different places in the city and would traverse its quiet, tree-lined streets wondering why it was a place my mother would warn me about.
I grew up in a neighborhood that was very Hispanic and Asian, where most differences were tolerated. But being gay wasn’t celebrated. You wouldn’t get beaten up for it. But it was expected you’d keep it on the down low. Many people I grew up with never came out until well into adulthood, after leaving years before.
My family wasn’t exactly inclusive of differences. Of any kind. Being gay was definitely part of that. My Daddy was pretty racist and homophobic–though he wouldn’t really actively advertise that. And he had all kinds of friends. I do remember calling him out on some of the shit he said about Asians. And there were some pretty awful things he almost did when he found out my Mama was dating a closeted gay man when they were separated. My extended family? They were backwards about race and any kind of difference whatsoever. Mama’s sister was different. She married interculturally and left as soon as she could. As for Mama? It was complicated. While my Mama was pretty naive about identity politics, she was a product of her family and upbringing. She would say this unbelievable shit all the time and not even realize what she was saying–what it meant. I would call her on it and get in massive fights with her about it. I don’t actually think she was racist or homophobic. She was just repeating what she’d been taught. It was so ingrained in her, that she couldn’t even see what it was.
That said, growing up with all this diversity around me, I was always the liberal, open-minded activist in my family. I was the odd sheep, schooling everyone. And I embraced these things–heart and soul. But that said, I’d never really spent time with openly gay people. I had nothing against it at all. In college, I had my worldview challenged a bit when I finally started hanging out with gay people and started expanding my friends to include all kinds of lifestyles. I was shocked as Hell that I was uncomfortable being around gay friends when they were doing what any other person would do. I got over that quickly, but it reminded me of something: If your beliefs don’t match your real life, you’re going to experience cognitive dissonance…and it can be truly unsettling.
I’m still about as liberal as they come when it comes to people politics and human rights. I’m still an activist. And yet, earlier this year, I was horrified to be told by one of my exes that I had basically questioned his sexuality during a very upsetting incident toward the end of our relationship. I remembered the whole thing very differently, but believed him. And was disgusted by myself because it went against everything I believe and was something that was particularly hurtful to him.
It was another one of those moments where I was reminded that–even good people who truly don’t want to hurt anyone–are capable of massively horrific things and can help support these abominable institutions that ruin lives.
And today, while I was railing against Trump–I realized I was engaging hate–just as he was–and enforcing it. I’ve tried not to talk about Trump in all the time he’s been in conversations because he makes me mad and I know that speaking about him is what he wants. But hate begets hate. And when you’re around it constantly–as we all are–eventually we engage it. Eventually it creeps into our consciousness and eventually it comes tumbling out of our mouths.
In the midst of all of this, I learned that an acquaintance of mine finally succumbed to his demons. He had been in recovery for years, and for some reason, this weekend, he decided to give it one more hit. And it was his last one.
He was a beautiful, brilliant person who taught me a little about being Buddhist. Not nearly enough. He came to Buddhism to find his way and relied on the community therein to keep him on the straight and narrow. More than anything, he believed in vulnerability and turning inward while exposing yourself to the world and being in it.
I remembered him when I heard people crying on the street. And suddenly, my filter changed from rage and violent hate to sadness and subtlety. I stopped fixating on me and my discomfort with the ugliness in the world. And instead, I started seeing the fear in my gay friends. I started finding compassion for how unsafe they must feel today. And I reached out. I put out my Rainbow pride flag on my balcony–to indicate I’m with you today–and always. I’m your ally. I asked neighbors I saw in the elevator how they were doing and I listened without injecting my feelings into it. I allowed myself to hold them in my own vulnerability and let the sadness work its way through my body.
I’m done arguing about politics. I’m done shouting with people to be more this or that while engaging the exact same energy for my own violent ends. I’m done with the right and wrong endless stream of bullshit we all engage in. Day after day, after day.
Instead, I’m going to let my life lead my beliefs and vice versa. I’m going to hold people in my heart and be vulnerable with them–ask for that from them and only engage those who meet me there in that space. I’m done saying his name. Because his name to me represents everything I am not, and I don’t need to soak it up anymore. I need to soak up the community my friend talked about because–like him and like so many others–I often feel alone in my pain. And I’m choosing that–just as much as I chose my rage this morning.