Wednesday, June 15, 2016
Which is why the past week has been so confusing to me. I am used to being sad by public events for a moment, recalling an actor that I will miss or trying to grasp an unspeakable tragedy, but I can generally compartmentalize. I can understand that the people at the other side of that internet article are strangers, people that feel like ones that I have lived with for years either because of movies or music that have become part of my identity or because they are a blank slate, something that we can write our own fears and insecurities onto as we realize how precious and fleeting life is. I can rationalize that there should be a way to fix the tragedy, whether it's gun control or improving tolerance education or helping the mentally ill or a dozen other things that feel more in my comfort zone of sorting out what I'm feeling into an actionable to do list-perhaps for myself, perhaps for other people, but overall something that feels like a list of solutions that can be reached and slow events like this from happening again. That's usually how I cope with such situations, not by being unfeeling, but as a person with a very small support system I try to find active, actionable answers and try to relate to what had happened. It is my introverted defense mechanism.
But with Orlando, I just can't seem to do that, and for the first time in a long time, I can't quite understand why. Even when I'm alone in my apartment, I am somehow a mystery to myself. I just keep seeing the face of Luis Vielma, giving a thumbs up as he wears his Gryffindor tie. It's so hard to grasp, thinking about the situation, and I can be rational. I can spout out the same political lines I do so frequently after tragedies like this, I can say exactly the things I'm supposed to say. I can understand that in all reality I didn't know any of these people, I'd never met any of these people, and I likely never would. Our paths would never intersect, and we would share little other than being fellow members of the LGBTA community, fellow Americans, fellow citizens of the world. I can tell myself it's callous to focus so much on my own anguish when people closer to the tragedy are feeling tangible loss, I can point out that I'm being self-serving by focusing so much more on a tragedy that affected gay people like me rather than on the equal tragedies of other horrible shootings that have littered the country over the past few years with blistering regularity. And yet, all I can think about is Luis Vielma wearing a Gryffindor tie, and how I just feel hollow.
I can understand, from a psychological level, why this hits closer to home for me. I remember being 22 like Vielma, also going to gay bars and reveling in Harry Potter. If I looked hard enough through my Facebook photos I could find a picture of myself in a similarly-colored scarf, one I borrowed from a friend for a dorm party. I can realize what going to my first gay bar meant to me. My straight friends whom I had recently told I was gay were unwilling to go with me because they weren't comfortable, and so two guys I befriended online volunteered to show me the ropes. I remember being more petrified than I had been in my entire life up until that point, identifying publicly, not in a closed secret with a classmate sort-of-way but in a wide, you are part of this community commitment as I walked up to the bouncer who took my ID, winked at me after one of my new friends pointed out that it was my first time, and walked into a world I couldn't have even imagined. I remember, after a couple of hours of being in a state-of-shock, gawking at how bold the men in the room were, having genuine fun and flirting and even kissing on a pool table, tepidly walking away from my friends to get a drink and the quick jump in my stomach when three guys came up and started to talk to me. I'd never been so terrified and so joyous in my entire life. I think back on it and realize that it was the first time in my life I saw gay not as a detriment or a duty or something liberal society mandated I be proud of, but as something else-I saw it as being really fun. I would go back to that gay bar several times over the years, not as frequently as others but every time was a gentle reminder of that first moment, one that I will treasure always. As gay people, especially when we are forced to assimilate into straight culture, we rarely get a chance to revel in being gay and not have to deal with everything from a religious debate to a well-meaning but patronizing chorus of "I support you's" to carefully deducing whether or not the guy you've been attempting eye contact with at a Starbucks is actually a viable flirting prospect. Gay bars have meant to me drama and loudness and occasionally wondering how it is everyone else has so much more time for the gym and not for Hamburger Helper, but they also always meant safety, being that version of myself I don't even let out when I'm alone.
I can understand how much better my life would have been had I never had to put up the guards I only let down in places like that gay bar. I wonder what the world would be like if I had never been taught to be ashamed of myself, to tone down being gay out of self-preservation or the potential for abuse. I think of how often in my life I don't do something because I don't want to call attention to myself and to my sexual orientation, trying to make myself more accommodating to straight people. How I will say in a toned whisper only to a close friend if I think a guy is cute or want to make a gay sex reference but have to wonder where a straight person's "gay line" lies. How I will allow well-meaning straight women to say "we're just like Will and Grace" and want to put me into a box of something they've seen on a TV sitcom rather than being my own authentic self...or the opposite of acting straighter to older relatives whom I don't want to write me off as a stereotype, instead letting them self-congratulate on being accepting even if their words don't really cross that threshold. I think of what I wear and say and act and do to make sure that I don't get attacked getting off a public bus or have a mother cover her child's eyes while I walk by with a guy clutching my hand in affection at a mall. These are all things that I carry with me as I walk through life, and I try not to think about how they affected things I do every day, but it's hard not to when you see hate pressed up against your worst fears, attacking one of the few places you ever felt genuinely relaxed.
I can think about what I was like when I was 22 and dancing in a gay bar. I can think of the hopes I had for myself back then, the things I thought I would do. The fervent political beliefs I had and hoped to help carry out, the way I would march on sidewalks or to doorstops telling people how important their voice was to our collective future. I think of what it felt like to go on dates with guys, getting picked up or meeting them for the first time and how they all felt like an adventure, perhaps one that would someday lead to words like boyfriend, husband, co-parent. I think of the words I wanted to write and the experiences I wanted to share with someone else and with the world. I wonder if that 22-year-old would have maintained that ambition if he could look forward and know that his present self had fallen short in all of those ambitions. I wonder if he would be as proud of me today as I am of him, brave and emboldened and defiant. I mourn that he almost certainly wouldn't be, and weep that some of those dreams I'll never be able to give him.
I can realize that all of these feelings are coursing through my veins, I can try to rationalize as much as I hope to do, but I still can't shake that image of Luis Vielma in a Gryffindor tie. I wonder what his dreams were, I wonder if he would have met them. I think about how much smaller the world is that we'll never find out because of not just one man's blistering hatred of something he couldn't grasp, but also that of a society that encouraged that hatred through complacency.
I will eventually, I know, move on from this moment of overwhelming sadness. I want to hope that my reaction will be one of enlivened passion, fighting for the rights of all through deeds and words, feeling a little more confident in being that relaxed self I found eleven years ago in a bar surrounded by knowing strangers. I want to believe that I will keep trying to do that 22-year-old self of mine proud, being as strong as he was when he stepped out of a closet and into a world of possibility. But I know that, no matter if I come away from these feelings a better person or someone who lives in more self-checking, self-safety, time forces us to fill even the most hollow of holes in our hearts. I will eventually not be angry at the world for their indifference for a moment, and will be able to compartmentalize myself enough to be able to sort through my emotions without having them overwhelm me. That day will soon come, and come far sooner than it probably should.
But I also know myself well enough to know that I will never forget the face of Luis Vielma. I will always picture him, smiling, thumbs up, sporting his Gryffindor tie. And I will try and do him proud as well. I owe him that. We all do.