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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Shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tonie

I thought I might start with a bit about myself.

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I have “done gender” in a variety of ways.

I never really liked dresses; even when I was pretty little, I preferred jeans and overalls. The older I got, the more pronounced my preferences became.

My mother continued to buy me “girly” clothes–I was so feminized that, when I finally realized I was non-binary, I swung dramatically to the masculine side. Which was ironic, because up until that point I had been dressing happily androgynous for several months. Loose t-shirts, my iconic denim jacket, jeans, and laced shoes.

When I finally realized that my presentation had nothing to do with my gender, that everything I wore was NB because I was NB–it all seemed to fall into place, and I began to present much more naturally and casually.

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I started feeling truly happy about myself and what people saw when they looked at me.

There was a lot of experimenting along the way. To be fair, there still is.

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And I don’t think I’ll ever stop experimenting–for me, that’s part of what gender is. Being flexible and fluid.Dynamic.

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That’s one of the reasons I love the word queer so much. More than any other term I’ve tried on, it encompasses the variability and nuance of gender and sexuality. It’s personal. It’s a way to use a label without being labelled. To define yourself without being able to put that definition into words.

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Sometimes when I post pictures to the queer social media groups I’m a part of, the others in the group comment that they wouldn’t be able to tell what my assigned gender was. I think that’s amazing, because I’m not even trying.

I love being nonbinary. I love being queer.

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I love being me.

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