Written by Ayrn Warren
It’s June in Chicago. I’m finally free of all academia-related responsibilities; the yoke of the oppressively grey chill is thrown from my shoulders, liberating me to frolic to my queer little heart’s content.
It’s also LGBTQIA+ Pride Month.
It’s a time meant to celebrate advances in the rights and liberties hard-fought for by the LGBTQIA+ community— a time to gird ourselves with solidarity and community for the freedoms we still are so desperately deprived of. I never intend to participate, simply because I’ve an aversion to crowds in hot weather. I sweat too much, I flush. It’s a sight. However, I always find myself there, year after year. It’s a magnetic sort of energy, euphoric, and undeniably visible.
Until now, that magnetism and visibility were things that I reveled in. Now, I’m scared.
The fear has always been there, something impressed upon me by a well-intentioned serial worrier of a mother. When I find myself pressed into the swell of packed bodies, sticky with sweat and liberal swaths of sunscreen and glitter, I hear her voice.
“Be smart, make good choices,” she tells me, never doubting but always patiently reminding.
And I listen to her. I keep my head on a swivel, I stay hydrated. It was a fear that comforted; never overwhelming, but enough to keep close and use as armor, a balm against those who might have infiltrated the uproarious crowd to wound our delight.
It shames me to feel that fear grow into a scream— a wail which I don’t recognize. It’s grief-stricken and baleful, entirely antithetical to what I know I’m supposed to be feeling: unanimity, defiance, a refusal to slink quietly into the night in defeat. I suppose that one day, these might be feelings that come to bear after I process the gut-wrenching sorrow of it all.
Maybe I’m still winded.
Maybe I’m not as brave as those whose first instincts are to lift their chins and bristle with pride and their unbreakable spirits.
My first instinct tells me to never go out in my neighborhood again.
As a rather obviously queer individual, I’m no stranger to the odd slur hurled from passersby. I notice when people stare at me, trying to figure out what exactly this Peter Pan-looking creature is. I have a girlfriend that I adore, but I still think twice about reaching for her hand in public. It all seems trite now. It shouldn’t, because things like that are meant to make me feel a curiosity at best, and endangered at worst.
But still, I can keep going.
I take their comments, their judgments, and fold them up into little wads of scrap paper and hurl them into a waste bin. I could survive that way, and I did. I have. I do.
It’s one thing to spend the off-day unpacking and disposing of microscopic comments and sneers. It’s another beast entirely to be confronted with gunfire and a body count.
It’s one of those comforting lies you tell yourself when your existence draws ire.
“It could happen to me, but what are the odds?”
It’s the voice of your mother, your father, your siblings, your friends, all the people who love you, telling you to be safe. Be smart. That should be enough, and it usually is.
In the small hours of Sunday morning, the patrons of Pulse in Orlando were doing the exact same thing that I was. Probably dancing better, to be fair. Perhaps of the 49 slain and 53 injured, that voice echoed in their heads as well. Be safe, and be smart. And they were, but it was not enough.
Being safe and being smart only get us so far in a nation that has habitually lied to itself about the status of its marginalized communities. Black Lives Matter, but not when Blue Lives Also Matter. How about All Lives Matter? It’s a convenient utterance for those who want to rest on their laurels for not having actively participated in individual prejudice or violence, ignoring institutionalized machinations of oppression. Because that’s hard to think about, isn’t it? Gay marriage is allowed, so the LGBTQIA+ community is equal, right? Marriage equality was all any of us wanted, wasn’t it?
Never mind the horrific statistics regarding individual attacks, verbal assault faced regularly; the bodies of gay and trans individuals cast onto the street to live without a roof, disproportionately high in comparison to straight and cis homeless individuals; the lives taken by their own hand, after all alternatives have been made to feel insurmountably lofty.
We have grown complacent, and it simply isn’t enough to be safe and smart. We can be those things, yet if we are not made of Kevlar it won’t be enough. Not always. It wasn’t on the morning of June 12th.
The LGBTQIA+ community mourns these individual people, along with their loved ones. Our grief cannot come within miles of touching what these people endure, what all the survivors currently do and will endure throughout their lives. It is unthinkable. And to even begin to fathom what that might feel like sends me reeling.
All I can talk about is what I feel.
I live on the outskirts of Chicago’s gay neighborhood, Boystown. Year round, rainbow accoutrement festoons the sidewalks— banners on street lights proclaiming it to be “Chicago’s Proudest Neighborhood”.
When I was a teenager, fumbling sweaty-palmed through my queerness, it served as a beacon of hope. Somewhere I would go to simply be. When I moved here, a year ago now, it simply became my neighborhood. I was proud and happy to be there but nonetheless grumbled the typical residential complaints.
I became comfortable, the rainbow-everything blurred around the edges and lost its mythos. It was home.
When I left my apartment to go to work this afternoon, all the colors seemed so bright I could nearly hear them. The flags, the banners, the weird phallic-looking rainbow spires have shifted yet again in my eyes. Once beacons of hope for a proud life, to innocuous things I pass on the bus, and now, to targets.
To outsiders who may wish us harm, agony, death, they force the gaze nowhere else.
I am torn between daring them to try, or cowering. I want to be proud, I want to be safe. I don’t want to die. I want to defend and honor those who have throughout all of history, fought for the idea that I have the right to exist safely, but I want to wake up to my roommate’s meowing cat, piles of texts from my mom and girlfriend, chastising me for sleeping too late. I want to fight for what I know is right, but I am scared. I do not want to have to choose.
I simply want to be a person.
Perhaps I will have more articulate things to say about this after the shock has passed, once my heart rate slows, once the tears stop prickling at the corners of my eyes.
But for now, I’m here, I’m queer, and I want to get used to it.
Contact Ayrn by email at email@example.com.