by Frants Attorp, originally appeared July 16, 2015, Island Tides
The horrific shooting at a gay bar in Orlando last month which left 49 dead and more than 50 wounded has sent the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer (LGBTQ) community reeling. But it has also given rise to a new resolve to overcome hate and transform society.
Robert Birch, a UVIC academic who lives in a same-sex marriage on Salt Spring Island and focuses on issues of oppression, believes the massacre has triggered a post-traumatic-stress-like response in the queer and transgender community, ‘We’re being called out of our isolation, challenged in our assimilation of mainstream ideals’.
According to Birch, traumas vary from individual to individual and range from bullying at school to rejection by family members and witnessing weekly images of global LGBTQ violence. ‘It’s a wakeup call bringing the trans-queer community together to recognize a multitude of traumas, both past and present.’ Trans and gender non-conforming people may be hardest hit as they are often the most at risk. ‘Statistically, the violence against transgender people is astounding,’ Birch says. ‘For them, the murders must be particularly horrifying.’
It has now been revealed that the shooter in Orlando frequented gay bars and had gay dating apps on his computer. ‘This is likely a man who had internalized homophobia,’ explains Birch. ‘His violent feelings appear to have developed within religious and political systems that actively promote violence toward queer people.’
The fact that the massacre happened in a gay nightclub adds to the sense of vulnerability and violation. ‘There are very few places where LGBTQ people can meet and claim as their own. The bars have become places of safety, experimentation and connection. For many that sense of security has been shattered.’
Birch believes the meeting places are immensely important, not just for the LGBTQ community, but also for society in general as that is where people gather to have fun, exchange ideas and influence cultural processes. ‘This meeting of minds is intrinsically important to everyone’s health and cultural well-being. One profound example is the extraordinary work done by queer people and their allies during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and ’90s. Our hard-fought battle resulted in improved health care systems for all.’
He says groups that feel marginalized by oppressive systems often initiate social change. ‘People who do not operate within hegemonic, mainstream assumptions are remarkably resilient and skilled in strategies of social adaptation—despite the personal and structural violence they experience. In their struggle for survival they often operate in decentralized environments and act as peer navigators of change. It is well known that those who have the least are often the ones who are prepared to help others the most.’
As part of his research, Birch explores the intersection of oppression. He points to two back-to-back events on Salt Spring last month, one a rally protesting violence against women, the other a vigil acknowledging the victims of Orlando. ‘All oppression intersects,’ he says. ‘For example, at its root, homophobia is connected to misogyny or fear of the feminine.’
‘Queer people are (often perecived -I add this in now) as a threat to mainstream’s self-identity and how it perceives itself. When people feel threatened, they attack. This phenomenon is clearly evident in North America where the indigenous and people of colour suffer many different kinds of abuse and discrimination.’
Asked about tolerance versus acceptance, he replies: ‘There is a great need for society to move beyond tolerance and even acceptance to something much greater: valuing the contributions of LGBTQ communities and other minority groups to society. We’re not here to be tolerated, we’re here to share our values.’
As for Pride events, Birch says they’re all about standing up for rights and freedoms. ‘They celebrate diversity and the principle of personal freedom of expression. They make a significant contribution to the evolution of human consciousness.’
Despite the tragedy in Orlando, Birch points out that the incident is an opportunity for queer people to reach out to their straight friends and neighbours and work towards ‘mutual liberation’.
‘Thank you straight allies for standing up with us,’ he says. ‘We desperately need each other, now as much as ever.’