Never Forget

Never Forget

One year ago today, forty nine queer lives were lost in the Orlando Pulse night club shooting. Many of them were young. Most of them were Latinx. All of them just wanted to go out and have a good time.

Being queer has always been dangerous. Whether you’re out or not. In many places it’s still a crime. Sometimes punishable by death. Even in America we’re seeing backlash against our fight for equal rights. The new administration has and still plans to reverse what little progress we’ve made, and has encouraged an increase in hate crimes against the queer community.

Since Marsha Johnson threw the first high heel through the window of the Stonewall Inn, June has been a time of pride and action for the LGBTQ community. Even so, the month is marked with the anniversary of the tragedy in Orlando, Florida.

Thanks to America’s anti-Islam agenda, many innocent people were blamed and targeted after the attack. Because of course one American man isn’t capable of committing a hate crime.

He wasn’t alone. His accomplices were hate, bigotry, stereotyping, and queerphobia.

It was not because he was mentally ill. It was not because he was Muslim. It was not because he himself was gay. Even if any of these are true, they are not what caused him to take his gun into a gay night club on Latin Night.

It was a hate crime. That’s it.

I can’t even comprehend why people would then want to counter hate with more hate. Why use this massive tragedy against one group to fuel your own hatred of another group?

There’s a lot of hate in this world right now. Across the earth lives are being lost in unimaginable numbers. It seems every day brings on a new tragedy. It’s heartbreaking knowing that while some of us eat and work and sleep, others are dying and being killed.

Love is not a cliche but it’s treated like one. Existence is not mundane but it’s taken for granted.

Take care of each day as it comes. And take care of each other. Be aware. Learn. Love.

Be an active part of the solution.

Today we remember the 49 lives lost to an act of hate. We gather to remember. We light candles to remember. We walk to remember. But don’t walk away and forget. It’s painful, but we need to keep the memories as long as we can. So we can continue the fight.

Never stop fighting.

Shame

Shame

Earlier this February I visited Chicago for the Midwestern Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Asexual/Ally College Conference (MBGLTACC). During the weekend we were there, the Alphawood Gallery housed an exhibit—Art-AIDS-America. The travelling exhibit displayed pieces of art created primarily by HIV+ gay men in the 1960s-80s.

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Peter Staley, an active member in the fight against AIDS and a leader of the organization ACT UP New York, was a keynote speaker at the conference. Myself and a small group took the bus to the exhibit after witnessing Staley speak. Seeing the man I’d learned about in person was shocking for me. The exhibit was even more visceral.

We walked through the museum with a grim sense of kindred. Everyone in my group was queer; we all felt a strong connection with the history behind the AIDS epidemic. Each of us is an advocate. We have all worked with a variety of queer students, as well as others; we have heard stories and seen things that others outside of the community rarely have to witness. With this in mind, we felt we might have a small idea of what it was like during this time. And when we walked out, we walked out with stark images in our minds of the suffering experienced by those with AIDS and their loved ones.

There were many pieces that drew my attention. A bloody band aid taped to a piece of paper. Words and silhouettes projected on a wall moving through each other and sharing almost indecipherable poetry expressing the pain of the unknown. A newspaper printed with the words if he were alive today, if she were alive today, if they were alive today…

The one that struck me most: a metal fence with thousands of ribbons tied to its posts.

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It’s cliché to say, but this piece stopped me in my tracks. It was so stark and accessible. I stared at it, tilting my head back and forth, taking it in.

I noticed a basket off to the side. It was full of ribbons and strips of fabric. All in faded, dusty colors that were once vibrant. I stepped closer and read the sign next to it—if you have lost a loved one to AIDS, please take a ribbon and tie it to the gate in their memory.

I looked back at the fence and its many posts completely covered in ribbons. I thought of this piece of art travelling from city to city, each time gaining hundreds of ribbons from shaking fingers.

I walked around the fence and took in the rows upon rows of ribbons, tied tightly and loosely, overlapping, crushing into each other, gently intertwined, long, short, fraying, stiff. I wondered what it must feel like—so many years ago, or today—to lose someone you love to the terrifying, stigmatized virus.

And for the first time in years, I remembered Chris.

Chris was my dad’s gay best friend. His story was about as cliché as it got, and either despite or because of this, it rang true with a passion. Though not the way my dad told it. He cited his memories in mocking tones the day he forced me to come out, sitting forward in my desk chair, eyes fixed on me. It was March of 2013. He used the story to prove how gross and yet insignificant it was to be gay. He used the story of someone close to him to disrespect my community and my identity.

Listening in the moment, I was struck with fear and shame. I was terrified of being mocked, being spoken of the way my father now spoke of his friend. I was ashamed of being part of a culture so clearly ridiculed. I was ashamed to be the person that I was and always had been. I was ashamed to have discovered myself.

Staring at ribbons upon ribbons on the second floor of the gallery in Chicago, Illinois, on February 18th, 2017, I conjured up an image of the man I’d never met.

I now stood unashamed of who I am. I pieced together what I knew of the queer experience combined with what I knew about my father’s lifespan.

It would have been in the 80’s. Kansas City, Missouri. “Small-town,” southern-Midwest queer life.

Chris. Isolated. Maybe thinking there was no one like him. Did he have any gay friends? A partner?

I imagined a young man, maybe in college, whose friends knew he was gay. In the 80s—no small feat. My dad described the job they both had in a fast food place. How Chris loved the ice cream machine and wanted to make all the shakes. How that was considered the girl’s job. I imagined the young man with an apron and a silly server hat, grinning at the cold metal spinning and pouring. I imagined his “gay hands,” with the signature quirk of the wrist, as he handed over the frosted class.

“And then Chris got AIDS. And Chris died.”

My dad didn’t even know the weight of the history behind those words, but tossed them out with a flippancy that should have shamed him, if only because he was talking about someone who used to be his friend, who had died.

Chris. Did he know anyone else who had died? Was he the first of his community to go? Or was he trapped watching his friends dying around him, knowing that he would join them—slowly, agonizingly, disgustingly. I thought of the pictures around me. There was no hiding the blood and pus and mucus and skin lesions and the wasting and drooling and haunted eyes and pain.

I imagined him lying in bed shaking and sweating. I imagined him in the doctor’s office naked with black spots on his skin. I imagined his bones sticking out at the joints and his face drawing longer and longer lines below his eyes. I imagined him alone or with friends despairing at his side. I imagined him crying with pain and anguish as he watched himself and others around him succumbing to what would have been an unavoidable fate.

How long was Chris dying? Who took him to the doctor? Who cleaned his sheets? Who brought him food? Who stood by his bed? Or was he alone?

Did my dad ever visit Chris? Did he talk to him? Did they write? At what point did they part ways? My father spoke of the death and the funeral as if it came up unexpectedly, as if he’d had no idea his friend was sick and dying until it was over.

“His mom called me, and invited me to the funeral. And I went, not because he was gay, but because he was Chris.”

Because Chris was something worth appreciating but his queer identity was not.

My father was loving half a person. He was appreciating the pretty parts. The funny images of him at the ice cream machine. His apron. His hat. His gay smile. But my dad didn’t want anything to do with the rest of it. The needles. The sex. The blood and pus and band aids and sweat and night terrors. What about the pride and fear and isolation of being gay?

My father told the story of his friend’s death as some kind of cautionary tale. Almost like the sex ed teacher in the movie Mean Girls—“If you are gay, you will get AIDS, and you will die.”

Using his dead friend’s suffering to convince me that being gay was as gross as a disease.

As if being Chris was somehow separate from being gay, as if dying from AIDS was the inevitable outcome, and no one would mourn the half of you they didn’t want to see.

In Chicago that night, I picked a ribbon from the basket and found a place, low on the fence, in one of the few small spaces left over, and tied my tiny piece among the many others, one sad story among many, one aching cry among the millions of half-mourned lives.

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Why did my dad tell me the story of his dead gay friend the night he piled words together to gut the integrity of the community I’d just gotten a hold on?

Why did he use the story of his friend’s suffering to throw spite in my face, as if the suffering itself didn’t matter, but the aftermath was some kind of triumph on his end, the noble straight friend ignoring the deceased’s identity and avoiding the stories of the pain?

My fingers left the ribbon on the metal pole and I walked to stand inside the circle the fence was making, turning and staring again and again at the faded colors, the faded lives around me, gone but not forgotten.

I thought of Chris’s death and who took him to the mortuary, who collected his ashes or who threw him in a black trash bag and left him with the other bodies of the other dead gay men?

And my mind turned to ashes and the images of a crowd of people singing and screaming outside the White House, throwing the ashes of their loved ones through the gate and chanting, shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame

My father made me feel ashamed for something five years later I was proud of. I wanted him to feel the shame he should have felt when all he felt was pride in what he saw as altruistic pity for his dead gay friend.

I keep the pictures in my head and the voices I’ve never heard, say his name. And a shame that should be felt by those who permit the suffering when they turn the other cheek.

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Voting Privilege

I don’t have the privilege to say I don’t care who you vote for. I do. If you vote for Trump, you’re voting for an ideology that says I don’t exist. If you vote for Trump, you are voting for an ideology that says my community should not be treated like humans. If you vote for Trump, you are voting for an ideology that would rather have us dead. 

If you vote for Trump, you are voting against me and my community and so many other marginalized groups. You are voting against our worth as humans and citizens of the United States.

“Candles for Orlando” By Tonie Bear — Burnt Pine

Candles for Orlando, June 15, 2016 Five hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes. What happens in the span of a year is a blur of motion: feelings smeared across a moving train, purple sorrow, red hurt, green anger, and yellow fear. It’s a whirlwind of emotion, pain twisting around regret and spiraling into depression. But […]

via “Candles for Orlando” By Tonie Bear — Burnt Pine

This Summer

This Summer

This time last year I was celebrating the end of a huge milestone in my life. I’d gotten through the most difficult summer of my life so far. I still felt like crap most of the time because I was dealing with fresh wounds from my ex, an unsupportive bio family, and the emotional aftermath of saying goodbye to my summer camp family. But even with all of that I was able to look back and feel a twinge of pride that I had made it through—despite enormous lows, recurring bouts of self-hatred, chronic self-harm and a suicide attempt. Despite struggling to make connections with my kids and utilize my support system. Despite the huge changes that were coming my way. I’d made it through and could feel myself growing stronger.

Now this year the summer is once again coming to a close and once again I find myself looking back at what I’ve accomplished. I thought nothing could be worse than last summer, but this one was—somehow it found a way. Once again I was getting over a breakup, both easier because I knew I would be okay and harder because I was saying goodbye to a beautiful healthy partnership instead of an abusive one. Once again, I had recurring bouts of self-hatred and self-harm, intense lows, and difficulties connecting with my kids. But this time I had more experience with all of that and was able to work through it in a healthier way. Even so, the tangles were harder to unwind and the emotions harder to unpack. And on top of all of this, I was going through identity crises related to my gender (or lack thereof), my name, my role in life, my ultimate goals, and my relationships with the people in my life.

And this time when I tried to kill myself it was a much more serious attempt, one that would have landed me in the hospital if the bottle had had more pills in it.

This summer I was forced to distance myself from the kids that meant the world to me. I spent as much time with them as I could, but it never seemed like enough, and the pain I felt was physical when I saw my friends acting the role that should have been mine as well.

This summer I was given a new group of kids to work with, and struggled to work with volunteers who didn’t care as much and kids so needy they cried over the slightest things when I knew something much bigger was the cause.

This summer I witnessed internalized racism when working with my students of color, and heard real-life stories from all of my minority students about what it’s like to be in high school as part of a marginalized population.

This summer my heart broke when 49 of my queer siblings died at the hands of hate.

This summer my reality was changed when I saw more and more people of color brutalized by the systems that have oppressed them for centuries.

This summer I felt keenly what it’s like to be a queer person in America, from feeling thrills of pride at my local celebration to being mocked on the Internet to questioning my very existence as a non-binary human.

This summer I connected on a deep level with another animal, my soul mate, my emotional support animal, my love.

This summer I experienced crisis counseling and prevention plans when I felt the keen and terrifying option resurfacing.

This summer I became even closer to the most important person in my life as we began our journey as roommates.

This summer I helped organize programs for my school to raise awareness for the struggles faced by queer students.

This summer I spent days alone in my apartment without even a job to look forward to, cast out in a limb by the summer camp I had depended on not only for employment but as motivation for life itself.

This summer I put myself out there as I searched desperately for a job to be rewarded with a $60 check every two weeks.

This summer I was unable to earn $12 an hour for my internship because my dad messed up my financial aid.

This summer I nailed the best interview I’d ever gotten and received word that I had been hired for an amazing job working once again with underrepresented youth.

This summer I visited my sister’s family and experienced for a week what true familial bonds should feel like.

This summer I avoided contact with my family as much as possible when the only interactions we had were upsetting and toxic.

This summer I said goodbye to my brother as he left the state for the first time on his own.

This summer I panicked when I thought I saw my ex, broke down when I saw her one social media, and finally, miraculously, was able to calmly tell her off when she attempted to contact me one last time.

This summer I celebrated her announcement that she would not be returning to my school.

This summer I showed my blog to people for the first time and made the difficult decision to put myself out there as a writer under the name I wanted.

This summer, I told people what my real name is.

It’s terrifying and it’s not over yet. In many ways I’m just getting started. I have a lot to work on from here. But I’m stronger now and I realize that. I’m going to make it through.

The Joy in Their Eyes

The Joy in Their Eyes

​Seeing the excitement and joy in the faces of young queer kids when they see rainbows and get to pick out gay buttons is seriously one of the best things ever. 

Last night I was with TRIO, and the gay high schoolers screamed with excitment when we saw the double rainbow, and took so many pictures to commemorate the gayness of the moment. They said it was a sign, and I hoped they knew it was a sign for them to stay, and to be their wonderful selves.

Today, I was at the Pride Center booth for preview day, and three camp kids who couldn’t have been more than ten years old kept peeking into the room. When I asked them if they needed anything they said they wanted to get some buttons because they saw the Pride Center earlier but hadn’t been able to go inside. I let them come to the booth and they squealed with delight when I let them pick out buttons and beads for themselves. They were so excited to meet an older queer person and get gay stuff they could keep. They were so adorable and so happy.

It’s momemts like this that keep me going.

My First Bar Crawl

Friday night I went out with some friends to celebrate my 21st birthday. We stopped in a few bars, where I brandished my ID with pride only to get funny looks from the bouncers who I guessed thought I was an 18 year old with a fake ID. Apparently, I look a lot younger than I am.

But I was let in without trouble and got to celebrate and get tipsy with some of my favorite people. They had to do a bit of babysitting as I got paranoid about getting blackout drunk. Since I’m so small for my age, I figured one Sex on the Beach was enough to knock me out.

My roommate, who was planning the night for me, had asked if I wanted to go into the gay club at the end of the street. A few weeks ago I would have been beyond excited to finally walk in there, but after the mass shooting in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, I was afraid.

By virtue of having lived in America for 21 years, I understand that when something like that happens once, it’s going to happen again.

I went back and forth about it and finally agreed that we could at least walk in.

It’s hard to even describe the feeling emanating from that space. The music was loud enough to feel in my chest as we walked in. The dim and colored lights flashed and spun as a myriad of people crammed onto the dance floor. Rad and brightly colored hair styles caught my eye. Bodies letting it all out. Limbs and hands and heads and hair flailing and swinging in the scattered light. Smiles from people feeling free, grimaces of concentration in the heat of the moment. Couples stealing aside to kiss in corners and doorways. Friends gathered around tables and the bar laughing and singing along. And the air so queer I could feel it. There’s a certain taste to it that I just can’t place. A feeling of finally being able to be your true self and knowing everyone else is feeling that too. A long-awaited lack of judgement for how we dress, who we kiss, how we wear our hair and decorate our faces.

When we walked upstairs and I looked down at the dance floor, at all the colors and smears of movement, I got really excited. I’ve never been a fan of parties and public dancing, but this place made me want to jump in and join everyone else. I felt as if I could swing in and start dancing without any self consciousness. Maybe it was the two drinks, but at the very least there was something about the place that made me feel welcome. I’m pretty sure it was the queerness.

But at the same time, looking down at the mass of colorful bodies, I started to wonder.

If someone walked through the door with an assault rifle, who would be the first ones to fall to the ground bleeding?

Who would be the first to run screaming to the back?

Who would be the first to die, and who the last, and how many of us would be taken to the hospital in ambulances, and how many of our names would be written on stars in dark nights of tears?

I couldn’t stay any longer. As soon as we left I felt an ache in my chest–I wanted so much to go back and drink the air that was part of my world.

But I’m never going to forget about Pulse and wonder how long it will be before my friends and family and I can feel safe.