Words are elusive, but still I grasp at them. Like my pain, they will be neither clear nor coherent.
Tears continue to leak from my eyes for Orlando. Anguish has been washed all over my face. I’m convinced that numb is a feeling, for I’ve felt it far too often. The singular queer and trans deaths we have known over the years have been like daggers, but this was an explosion and my heart weeps for you and for myself. I long for souls that I never knew personally.
This tragedy has been a great reminder. As someone who’s had the privilege to be out as queer since 14, this senseless act has reminded me of those days of fear. Days when the suffocation of silence outweighed the risk of being bold. Days when I second guessed saying who I really was. When I worried about being abandoned and alone. Before I knew that all you existed.
I’ve found myself in the middle of dance floors many nights. I still do. I’ve lost myself in the bass as I sweated out the insecurities I carry throughout the week. I’ve replaced the lies I’ve told for survival with platitudes and power anthems. These were the first places I felt valued, desired, powerful, beautiful…
These were the places where identities clung to me like glitter on paraded streets. I cry for all of the versions of me I’ve found in those spaces. When I was the young queer boy standing against the wall, beaming with insecurity, but eager to learn. When I was the drag queen on stage with all eyes on her, shimmying away her inhibitions, trying to find grace in her confidence. When I was conflicted over gender and pronouns and how I would get the world to understand. And now as a self-assured trans woman who can relish in her journey and where it’s led her.
We are born fighting. This world tells us we aren’t enough as soon as we emerge and most of us don’t get childhoods or our innocence. Many of us don’t really start our lives until decades after our first breaths, if we’re lucky. Like many at Pulse on Sunday morning, I don’t need to know the specifics to know they fought for the courage to be in that space.
Queer clubs are our refuge. In many places, clubs and bars are the only spaces for miles to let your guard down, drop all of the ways in which we comport ourselves to survive, to be human without the accoutrements of homophobia, transphobia and toxic masculinity. It’s as if the rest of the world is its own club that requires an ID from a foreign land and hiding our identities is the cover charge.
It hurts even more for this to happen during Pride Month. It’s one of the only times each year where we can push through these lifelong struggles and tempered silence. It’s when we come together to love ourselves and each other in the light.
The lives taken from our community only underscore a war that has been going on long before any of our feet touched earth. A war against our truths. What non-queer people take for granted is that they often have families that affirm their value and truths just by existing. We aren’t so lucky. We are constantly in a David and Goliath battle with society, and our self-doubt. I know one day we will defeat Goliath. One day we will be loved so immensely without having to dress up our existence in articulate explanations.
Beyond pain and sorrow, I want this to be a reminder. You have to continue to tell yourself that you are not a mistake, your life is not a mistake and your voice is not a mistake. Never let people who are not YOU tell your story. We must YELL our truths despite the tears. YELL our truths despite the pain. YELL our truths despite the constant doubt that the world will ever be able to fully handle it.
They will say it could have been any person, but it wasn’t.
Don’t let them tell you this isn’t about homophobia. Don’t let them tell you this isn’t about transphobia. Don’t let them tell you this isn’t about biphobia. Don’t let them tell you this isn’t about toxic masculinity. Don’t let them tell you this isn’t about women, men and non-binary folks. Don’t let them tell you this isn’t about racism, anti-Latinx sentiment, anti-immigrant sentiment, Islamophobia…
And most of all don’t let them tell you isn’t their fault. We are the bloodied and maimed bodies on the cross of their cisheteropatriarchal agenda. For every politician and leader that has ever insisted we don’t need protection, blood is on their hands. For every religious leader who says we’re unnatural, blood is on their hands. For every bully that never changed their ways, blood is on their hands. For every parent that ever abandoned us, blood is on their hands.
All of these -isms and -phobias ARE American values. A year of marriage equality doesn’t erase a flawed legacy. A sprinkling of cities with non-discrimination ordinances doesn’t erase a flawed legacy. Nearly 50 years of visibility doesn’t erase a flawed legacy.
These are our lives. This is our world. We don’t have to wait for anyone to hand it to us. We were born with our spot on this soil. We won’t relinquish it to fear or ignorance.
If we caused the Fall of Rome,
It’s because the Empire was built on our backs,
And we knocked their ivory pillars off while standing up.
Let’s stand them up and paint them with authenticity and vulnerability.
We are the quintessential phoenix.
We never disappeared.
We may have went underground, out of preservation,
But we always emerge stronger than ever.
Let your pain motivate you.
Let your tears dispel the fear.
Let your anger incite a riot.
Let your voice speak love.
Let your truth be your liberation.
Raquel Willis is a writer, activist, public speaker and media maven based in Atlanta, Ga. She uses her voice and talents to inspire and uplift marginalized folks, particularly trans women of color.