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Silence Is Killing Your LGBT Relatives

Posted on Jun 19, 2016

By Mark O'Connell

  Ernesto Vergne prays Friday at a cross honoring his friend and other victims killed in an attack last week at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. (David Goldman / AP)

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LGBT Pride Month 2016 will always be remembered for the worst mass shooting in American history to date, one which took 49 lives at an Orlando, Fla., gay club June 12. Yet in the past week, I have spoken with too many queer people whose families did not reach out to them at all, not even to simply ask,”How are you?” or say, “I love you and I’m thinking of you.” Too many. (And of note, some of them hadn’t heard from family during last year’s historic pride month either, when marriage equality became a national reality and there was cause for celebration rather than mourning).

As a psychotherapist and a queer person, I must say that such silences are killing us.

Silence has been the greatest threat to queer lives throughout history. Homosexuality was pathologized and criminalized in the early 20th century, and it would take decades of suffering in the closet and enduring “witch hunts” before the Stonewall riots of 1969 busted open the doors of LGBT identities, leading to the declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness and the pursuit of civil rights across the country. But in the 1980s, the lethal plague of silence struck again, when the Reagan administration’s disavowal of the AIDS crisis led to the deaths of tens of thousands of gay men. In response, founders of the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP introduced the image: SILENCE = DEATH.

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And it’s true that the disease of silence surrounding homophobia, transphobia and queerphobia in general may have been in remission long enough for us to be able to choose the spouses we love and the bathrooms in which we feel safe, and for straight allies to put rainbow filters on their social media profiles whenever it fancies them. But as the Orlando massacre and the responses to it have shown—by politicians, journalists and even our own family and friends—silence continues to infect us.

The lack of meaningful acknowledgement that the worst terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11 was directed at queer people has reminded so many of us not only of the numerous times in our lives we’ve been personally threatened with violence, but also of the far more numerous, subtle, yet considerably damaging moments, during which even our most well-meaning relatives whitewash our very real experiences of abjection. Such as when our straight brothers say things like, “We all get called ‘faggot,’ get a grip.”

To call what happened in Orlando an “attack on America,” or the act of a “radicalized Islamist,” or not to call your LGBT family members at this time, sends the message: “Things are just as bad for you as they are for me.” And that is simply not true.

As The New York Times reports, “LGBT people are more likely to be targets of hate crimes than any other minority group”—and that cannot be pinned on radical terrorists from the Middle East. More than anything else, these specific attacks are due to the socially conditioned fear and hatred of women and of gender nonconformity, and of effeminate men, and of men kissing, and of same sex love. And all of this untalked about—and therefore unprocessed—hatred is cultivated and maintained through complacent silence by neighborly, law-abiding citizens like you and me, right here on our homeland. Every time we fail to use words to make explicit links between queerphobia and attacks on queer people, the hatred, fear and danger grow stronger. (For example, a disturbingly ironic post by a straight woman announcing her engagement popped up on my Facebook feed this week, including a photo of her diamond ring and a shot of the Orlando skyline from the boat on which she and her fiance were celebrating, along with happy, hopeful thoughts about their heteronormative future, yet she wrote nothing about the 49 murder victims whose futures were taken from them by an act of homophobia only days before in that very city, or about the queer individuals still alive whose futures will continue to be plagued by hate, fear and danger).

So, here’s a tip for all those straight, cisgender relatives of queer people: We do not have “victim complexes” and we are not asking to be coddled. We are first and foremost asking for recognition of the very real and obvious fact that, no matter what we do or don’t do, we are specific targets of violence in ways that those who are not L,G,B,T or any other deviation from a heteronormative orientation, are not. To avoid or deny this is to be part of the problem and to allow this murderous hatred to grow, unidentified and therefore unstoppable.

I have to emphasize the “no matter what we do or don’t do” part of that tip. A good number of queer people, including my clients, my friends and myself, often hear from our families that they don’t associate us with the LGBT folks they see on the news who are in danger, either because of our ability to “pass,” or our marital status, our race or any number of privileges they assume protect us from being targets. To these people I say, “Think again.”

The one thing the wide variety of queer people I spoke to this week had in common was the horrifying awareness that no matter our skin color, income level, professional success, education, body type, religion, age or social status, the Orlando tragedy has reminded us that we are all equally in the crosshairs of homegrown hatred. We need our straight, cisgender families to recognize this openly and explicitly.


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