I had so much to write about this week. Between my book, having my university degree corrected, and doing the Mikveh ritual to change my Hebrew name… well, there was a ton that I wanted to discuss. I’ll speak about each of those events at a later date, however. I wish this weren’t the case, but a horrible hate crime was perpetrated just a few short days ago in Orlando, claiming the lives of many in our community. And it’s something that, although it pains me greatly, needs to be spoken about.
50 people killed, 53 more wounded. It’s been called the worst mass shooting in American history.
And the targets?
The attack took place during Pride month, on a Latinx night at the Pulse club. Trans performers were headlining at the venue.
I don’t think there can be much doubt as to the motive behind such an attack.
Do you know how Pride began? Born at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, when riots broke out in protest against the violent abuse of queer people by the police.
Pride Month, typically the month of June in most places, commemorates Stonewall, and the hard-won freedoms that eventually emerged from its aftermath.
Pride is not about parties or floats or alcohol. Pride is about safety. Pride is about survival, dignity, and respect. Pride is about our human right to be who we are, and to love whomever we love. Pride is about not having to live in fear.
Or, it should be. Because what happened in Orlando on Sunday the 12th of June is a harrowing reminder that our safety, our survival, our dignity and respect, and our human rights are still under threat.
We are not safe.
I am not safe.
If you’re reading this, and you’re queer, you are not safe.
If you’re reading this and you’re not queer, but you have friends or family or loved ones who are, know that they are not safe.
We fall victim to senseless crimes day in and day out. Most of them, you will never even hear about. The countless trans people (mostly women, and mostly of colour) who are murdered with regularity – of which, only a fraction are even reported. Never mind the misgendering and deadnaming that not only disrespects these people in death, but which results in underestimation of the frequencies of these hate crimes. Corrective rape is very much a reality. especially in South Africa.
And this is the tip of the iceberg. Because the prejudice runs deep. We lose our jobs, we are denied opportunities, we struggle to form families or to raise children, we are cast out from our homes and our communities. Sometimes the abuse becomes so pervasive that we lose our lives to suicide.
Homophobia, transphobia, queerphobia is real, and it is alive and well. The world we live in isn’t a safe space, not for people like me. Not for people who aren’t cis and straight.
And it’s not just lone wolf gunmen who are out to get us, either. Whole political systems, parties, governments, lawmakers across the world continue to create or defend legislation that oppresses us. And they vehemently oppose any laws that might protect us.
Laws that try to make trans people unsafe in bathrooms. Laws that prevent gay couples from marrying. In many African countries, homosexual relations are still illegal. Russia, Iran, Poland and a group of Gulf states took an active stand against a UN resolution that calls for decriminalisation of homosexuality. North Carolina passed legislation that prohibits non-discrimination policies. Yeah, a law the purpose of which is to prevent the defence of human rights.
This is the sad truth. That it’s still regarded as acceptable to persecute us because of our sexuality or our gender identity.
There has been public outcry in response to the Orlando shooting, of course. But much of that response and the discussion around it has sought to use the attack as a vehicle for perpetuating Islamophobic rhetoric. And much of it ignores the identity of the victims and the implications thereof.
This attack did not happen because of Islam, or ISIL, or Daesh. Do you remember the Charleston shooting, nearly one year ago? Also, an unmitigated hate crime. But the perspectives put forward were so different. Religious fundamentalism wasn’t held to blame. Au contraire, because the shooter was white, the press looked for exonerating circumstances, like mental illness (I won’t even discuss the inherent ableism there).
This attack was not about the perpetrator. It was about the victims. They lost their lives because they were queer, and that remains the fundamental truth of this tragedy, whichever way you look at it.
I often say that prejudice is prejudice, however you try to couch it. You can cover it in religious pageantry, cite passages from scripture, quote any or all of your deities… but at the end of the day, it remains an attempt to disguise or excuse one’s own hatred. Or to shirk the responsibility for it. Because the truth is, no-one has a problem with who I am because god told them to; they have a problem with who I am because of their own hatred and bigotry.
This tragedy has hit our community exceedingly hard. Many of us, the world over, are reeling. Shocked and stunned and tearful.
And I am no exception.
I live a very openly queer life. It’s no secret that I am trans, that I am lesbian, that I am legiterally “all-kinds-of-freaking-gay”. I’m all over social media. I’ve been on the TV and the radio and the interwebs. I’ve written a book. I get recognised now in the street. There is no going back into the closet for me.
Am I fearful? Of course I am.
Not for myself, especially, mind you. Because this is what I have to do. This is who I have to be. I cannot conceive of allowing myself to be silenced, whatever the cost of my refusal might be. And whatever will happen to me, will happen. Either way, it’s better than the fate that awaited me if I refused to acknowledge and embrace my truth,
But I am fearful for the people I know and love. For my queer family. For my trans siblings. For my gay-and-lesbian-and-whatever-else friends and acquaintances. For the baby trans people out there who looked to me for guidance and support and inspiration.
And of course, for those who care about me, if something does happen.
If you didn’t know, I’m headed to the US in less than a week. And I’ll be there for three months. The first thing I did when I heard I’d been accepted for this fellowship? I sent an email to the organisers, to ask if they were sending me somewhere where it’s “safe” to be trans. The second thing I did? Track down the local queer community and get in touch.
Why were those my priorities? This is difficult for me to say out loud, but here goes:
Because I’m afraid.
And I mean this in all sincerity. People who are straight and cis scare me. Or rather, the hatred that some straight cis people hold towards people like me scares me.
I’m afraid of being singled out, of being alone, of being isolated. Of being othered. I’m afraid of the trouble that simply being who I am might get me into.
So I sought out my tribe. So that I know, when I step off that plane, that I will have family, and a safe space.
A safe space. If such a thing exists for us, really?
Because that’s what Pulse nightclub was. A safe space. A space filled with queer family. A space where people like me didn’t have to be on-guard, or defensive, or afraid.
But that safety was cruelly shattered.
Not just the safety of that particular club on that particular night for those particular people. But all of our spaces.
The day after I land in the US, I’m going to participate in one of the country’s largest Pride events. Not for the experience – though I am sure it will be a tremendous one, since the scale of this event dwarfs any South African parade by comparison. But rather, for what it represents. Because Pride is a statement. A statement of defiance, to a world that tells us not to be who we are. A statement of dissatisfaction, with a system that perpetuates discrimination against us. A statement of perseverance, in the face of every adversity thrown before us.
If you know me personally, you may remember back to a time when I used to say “I am not an activist”. When I used to say that I just wanted to live my life in peace. It didn’t take me long to realise that I was wrong, and that once I had found my voice, I felt an imperative to use it.
But it’s not just me. We are all activists, each one of us. Each of us who lives in this world, who exists in this system, who identifies outside of the norms of what is considered “acceptable”. In the closet or out, every queer one of us is an activist.
Because getting out of bed in the morning is activism. Living our lives, day-to-day. Facing our struggles and refusing to give in. Through all the lapses and the hardships and the pain – that is activism. Every breath we take is a radical act.
It shouldn’t be. I wish it weren’t. I dream of a time when it won’t be. But here, now, in this time and in this place, it is.
I cry for those whose lives were lost in Orlando. I cry for the loved ones they have left behind, for the loss that they must endure. I cry for those, around the world, who watched this unfold, and who must now live with the fear of wondering, “will I be next?”. I cry for those, wherever they may be, who cannot live in their truths, because they know they will be unsafe if they do.
I am with you. I am one of you. I grieve with you in this time of hardship. Your fear, in the face of hatred, is my own. I stand, not with you, but among you.
We are all Orlando.
My book, Always Anastacia, is available at booksellers across South Africa. If you don’t see it on shelves, ask your local bookstore. Also available worldwide through Amazon. And catch up on all the latest #AlwaysAnastacia news, including interviews, media appearances and extracts here.