I wrote this before Brexit happened. Now, more than ever, white LGBT people need to shape up and see how much we exclude people of colour from our communities. I’m done being patient with people who would rather devote their time to explaining why they aren’t racist than spend it showing up for PoC. I’m frustrated with my white friends who don’t challenge racism in their own communities. I’m impatient with the white LGBT organisations I work with who don’t even notice the unconscious biases that keep PoC excluded, and I’m tired of white people derailing every conversation and every action to focus on themselves or other white people.
It’s time we all took a stand and recognised we are either united in our differences or doomed to let the bigots win.
Responding to Orlando
I am writing this as a clueless white person. I have worked very hard to be a less clueless white person. I think I have moved from a position of unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence – i.e. unlike many of my peers, it seems, I know I am clueless.
I am learning to listen, but it turns out white people really aren’t great at listening to people of colour. I keep working on it. I accept I’ll never fully overcome the racist culture in which I was raised but that I should never stop trying. The point is not to become complacent, nor waste time on shame and defensiveness that does nobody any good. Just keep working.
So, Orlando happened, and I haven’t even begun to sort out the emotional tidal wave that’s washed over me from that. But I know one of my early thoughts:
My queer brown friends are going to be hurting.
Because the first thing we learned was the shooter was Muslim. And so suddenly it was given a political context – not a hate crime against LGBT people by a fellow American in what is still a very homophobic, biphobic and transphobic society, but an “act of terror against America”.
“It could have been anyone” someone said on my timeline. “Apparently the shooter was casing out Disneyland but the security was too high”. “Don’t make this about gay people or push your gay agenda”, I hear elsewhere.
For those who are unaware, despite the fact that Muslim people are in the billions, when one Muslim does a bad thing the entire, diverse, religion is implicated. People I know who are Muslim suffer unjust prejudice and violence as a result. The word for this is Islamophobia.
Meanwhile, more queer lines of communication were letting us know that the victims were mostly PoC too – something that seemed to be getting missed/erased by a lot of people.
Which erasures matter?
Gay people started to get cross at the erasure of the homophobic element of the crime (we know the shooter was homophobic, as well as domestically violent and racist against other minorities). Owen Jones even walked off Sky News because of this erasure. My fellow white LGBT people cheered his anger and his political stance. It started to feel like this was being prematurely and inappropriately co-opted as terrorism against the US “way of life” and not viewed as LGBT hate. But of course, white gay people were just as guilty of their own erasures – they said “gay” instead of “LGBT”, as well as forgetting to think about the specific issues that may affect communities of colour dealing with such a tragedy in a majority white, racist culture.
We are so very aware of how it is to be LGBT in a majority straight, heterosexist culture, why so hard to understand the impact of a majority white culture on PoC?
So I was relieved when I heard that our local QTIPoC group were the first to organise a vigil for the whole community. For once, the right people were centred – queers of colour honouring queers of colour, what could be more appropriate? I planned to attend, but had no involvement in the organising.
A few hours before the vigil, I got a message from a friend saying she’d heard of another vigil – I thought this was a shame, another group organising a separate vigil one hour earlier in the same place, instead of supporting the QTIPoC one. It seemed to me to lack awareness of something really fundamental in all this; that queers of colour were the majority victims in this tragedy, and it would be respectful to consider the QTIPoC-organised vigil as the one to get behind.
I wondered what this other group might be thinking, but concluded that like many LGBT people, and perhaps myself once upon a time, they probably didn’t think much about how things are for PoC in our community, or perhaps don’t really even see PoC as part of our community, or feel the ethnicity of the victims was important. Our LGBT spaces are so very white, and people rarely ask themselves why. In Nottingham, a city with 33% BAME population, local LGBT leaders remain incredulous that that means around 33% of Nottingham LGBTs are BAME people too.
Then I saw this message on the QTIPoC vigil event page from the organiser of the other event:
Curious, I thought – advertising their (so far unadvertised) vigil on the other vigil’s event page and also saying that it will be a joint event? Seemed a little bit like they were taking over. Not unheard of for white people to take over the enterprise of PoC. But nothing was said by QTIPoC group members, so I let it go.
I didn’t plan to attend both vigils, but I’d bussed into town early so I went along to the earlier vigil. The vigil was mostly harmless – there were candles, which were lovely, and a fair few people came.
Unfortunately, someone had brought an American flag and hung it centrally, with the Pride flag to one side. I doubt they had considered what a strong, or inappropriate, political message this was. With so much erasure of this as an LGBT hate crime against people who have a marginalised status within America (on three counts – race, LGBT status, and undocumented status), pandering to the highly political notion that this was an attack on America was just not on. But I’m sure the person who did it did not think this through, so I said nothing. I know they didn’t mean to hurt anyone, but they did. This was not a time for American nationalism, it was a time to focus on the victims of this tragedy. But so often that ultra-right wing nationalistic politics is seen as neutral and apolitical and the harm it does is ignored.
We observed a minute’s silence, and then a few people – all white, spoke. Lots of mention of homophobia and the hate all of us face every day – passionate, angry, emotional, political speeches, demanding an end to homophobia. One person even talked about how all LGBT people face “terrorism” every day due to hate. I wasn’t sure about them co-opting that terminology, but people have a right to be passionate and angry when stirred up by something like this, surely?
By 6.30, just 15 minutes later, it was winding up. At the end, I asked them to remind the crowd about the other vigil, as they had not even mentioned it. People milled around – quite a few went, but a lot more came. Heading up to 7 there was a much bigger crowd, a different, more diverse crowd that had mainly come for the QTIPoC vigil.
I became increasingly anxious about the presence of the American flag. As 7.00 came, I felt it was now becoming a space set aside for the QTIPoC group to lead their planned vigil in their own way. It was nice that the Pride group had brought candles for both vigils, but I and others felt the flag, whoever brought it, was problematic. I spoke to some people about it, and resolved to respectfully remove it. I took it down, folded it carefully. In its place we put a beautiful art quilt that housed a myriad of identity flags to reflect a diverse community. Later, a list of the names of the dead was placed there.
I hoped at this point someone would come up and claim the flag, and I would have an opportunity to explain why it had been taken down, but nobody spoke to me in the full 15 minutes between taking the flag down and the vigil starting. I placed the flag to one side of the plinth. Later, a couple of younger people picked it up and stood on the plinth with it. I explained to them that some of us felt it should come down, they said ok, we’ll just get a photo.
Blurred boundaries – whose space was it anyway?
I guess if it had been understood as a separate vigil, things would have been clearer, that the original QTIPoC organisers had every right to set things up the way they wanted. But the boundaries had been blurred by talk of it being a “joint vigil”. The PoC space had, in fact, been encroached upon.
The second vigil was powerful – a bigger crowd, passionate speeches, singing and readings. It went on for about an hour. Speakers represented 3 religions – Christian, Jew and Muslim, as well as people of no faith. Women, NB folk and men, brown, black and white. A much more diverse space that went deeper into the issues and feelings that people were holding in their hearts. From the people who stayed for it, I have not heard a bad word spoken.
I felt much more represented and included as a non-binary trans person. The existence of my identity (bisexual and non-binary) was mentioned by more than one of the speakers, and when one cis lesbian spoke of the “lesbian and gay” community she got a good-natured heckle from a cis (I believe) member of the QTIPoC group: “and trans, non-binary, bisexual and intersex!”
Good-natured challenges like that go a long way to build better inclusion, and the atmosphere was such that it was safe for these challenges to happen. People were showing up for each other, making and holding space for each other. On the whole, it was a very unified crowd.
To me, this is the big difference between a Fascist vision of unity and genuine inclusivity – in an inclusive world, people are free to bring all their lived experiences, differences, disagreements, passions. A fascist vision has everyone singing from the same sheet – we will all be assimilated. Fascists talk about “divisiveness” when people don’t act or think the way they want them to, while inclusive communities are robust enough to cope with disagreement without falling to pieces.
It took a bit of time for the second vigil to get going. Maryam, the organiser, seemed slow to get up and speak – I could tell she was nervous. She had a loudhailer to try and send her quietish voice to the back of the now 200-strong crowd, but it wasn’t always enough to get her heard. I was close, so I heard her fully, but I wondered who else caught all of it. It didn’t help that quite quickly a small group of people not far from the centre started speaking while she was speaking – so disrespectful! I got the impression that as soon as she mentioned this is the holy month of Ramadan they just tuned out. They looked cross. At one point a couple of them came over to talk to me, and I told them not while Maryam was speaking and they strutted off looking grumpy. I don’t think it occurred to them what it means for a white person to speak over a person of colour. They were clearly forming an impression of events, but it was not through paying any real attention.
Oh how I wish they’d really heard what Maryam had to say! But she repeated the gist of it when she spoke to the Post, and I recommend watching this video. Despite a few sour faces, most of the huge crowd were with her, and gave her a huge cheer. I suspect the few that walked away angry had grasped very little of what was being said, their minds closed up that Maryam had dared to mention her religion at all, or dared to speak her worries about racism and Islamophobia in the aftermath of the attack with a similar level of passion that the earlier speakers had spoken of homophobia.
After a couple more speakers, I got up and spoke spontaneously. I was close to tears, although apparently I sounded angry. Perhaps loud hailers make you sound angry with their harsh sound. I spoke of my upset that the news and politicians were politicising these events, naming the ethnicity of the shooter, but ignoring the lives of the dead, both their ethnicity and LGBT status. I explained that I had taken down the flag as a mark of respect to the dead – at least I tried to say that! I was rather overcome, and I was brief, because I did not want to take up too much space.
A little later Angela Dy got us all roused with a beautiful Audre Lorde poem and a call and response: “Black and Brown, Trans and Queer, Our Lives Matter”.
At some point a white gay guy got angry and aggressive saying “all lives matter” as if he did not understand we were lifting up the kinds of lives that matter less to too many people and remembering them specifically. “All lives matter” is on a par with “heterosexual pride“. Other than that, there was no trouble. The crowd remained large, and there was convivial mingling in solidarity long after all the many speakers had finished. People continued to light candles way into the night. I think for the vast majority, it was a wonderful vigil, and I was very grateful for the chance to be in such a warm, inclusive space.
A bitter aftermath
Sadly, we returned home to fallout, very angry people online who felt some of the principled words and actions in the QTIPoC vigil were out of place, and felt it necessary to loudhail their condemnation over social media. I have reflected a lot in the ensuing fortnight, but I still can’t find any validity in these attacks. A kneejerk feeling of unthinking anger is one thing, and I would not want to censor people’s feelings, however illbegotten, when they are grieving. But to take that onto social media and use it to whip up hate and anger is quite another.
There was nothing inherently more “political” about the later vigil than the earlier one, it’s just that it was a politics some did not understand as well – they were as clueless about issues of PoC erasure, marginalisation and Islamophobia as Sky news had been about homophobia. Same exact problem – lack of knowledge, lack of empathy.
It was a shock that people could stir up so much nastiness during a time of mourning, and create rifts so quickly. The silence of a lot of my white peers was equally depressing. They rallied round me for taking down the flag, but then I felt centred when all I’d wanted to do was take some of the heat. Nobody directly challenged the underlying stink of Islamophobia and racism in online posts about the QTIPoC speeches.
All of what was said was insinuation – an impressionistic portrayal of people being too political, politically correct, having a religious agenda – no mention of what had been said or how, or why it had offended, just a vague impression given of nasty people doing nasty things, not in the “Spirit of Pride”. All inference, and of course no substance, but it’s amazing the insidious power of allusion to make something seem bigger than it is. You only need really say the speaker was a Muslim who “pushed her religion” and enough people will get angry, just because they need someone to be angry at right now.
When the earlier vigil’s organiser launched an angry online attack on Maryam one responder said “I was on my way n had to turn way in disgust I wasn’t sure what was going on but now I know” – in other words, they were ready to be angry without having witnessed much of anything. I’d love to know what “disgusted” them if they hadn’t taken the time to listen. Another complained about the use of a loudhailer, not considering how hard it is for some women to get their voices to carry. A few people used the massively inappropriate word “hijacked” – they all spoke as if the QTIPoC group were outsiders, and many somewhat obliviously considered the earlier vigil more inclusive. Not one other person challenged the organiser’s post, which was public, and shared in groups I am in. Not one.
Let me spell out why. People are afraid of challenging racism, and that’s why it is taking a greater and greater hold. Plenty of people were condemning this oblivious racism, just not directly to the people concerned. What we don’t challenge, we enable. The silence of white LGBT people exactly mirrored the silence of cishet people in the wake of this atrocity.
People only need to say a Muslim did a bad thing and too many people will believe it without any evidence. Because similar is true for trans people. We are united in our marginalisation, the constant attack and condemnation, the prejudice and closed ears, the sufferance we receive in our communities if we are sufficiently well behaved and assimilated, and make no demands for change. The readiness people have to go against us if we put a foot wrong or make any kind of a fuss, or even dare to consider ourselves to have as much of a claim to the community as anyone else. Our experiences are not the same, and we should not co-opt each others struggles, but we should stand united in empathy for one another’s plight.
Well, a Muslim did a good thing here. Maryam was so incredibly brave and generous to stand up like she did. I will never forget her good work, and Angela’s, and all the others who brought together such a rainbow crowd on that powerful night. My gratitude is huge to them for holding a space that truly reflected the diversity of our community, and for empowering so many diverse people to speak. If that wasn’t a comfortable space for unconsciously racist, clueless white people, well I’m not really sorry – we pander to their comfort too much at the expense of others, and this level of discomfort and more is what QTIPoC people feel in LGBT spaces all the time.
We can accept our failures and focus on doing better
I don’t want a witch hunt like the one that came at the QTIPoC group. People need to learn from their screw-ups, not be hounded out and excluded. I know I’m a clueless white person too. I will continue to fuck up, but I will continue to make myself accountable to those more marginalised than me rather than letting those with less marginal positions always dictate terms. The reality is, prejudiced people will look for the flimsiest excuse to push marginalised people out, and claim they are doing it out of some sort of weakly justified self preservation.
We are all enraged about what happened in Orlando, we are all in grief. How this was expressed at the vigil (aside from the hostility towards the QTIPoC and trans speakers) was appropriate. All of those voices needed to be heard.
A community that cannot make space for the anger, needs, feelings, views and lived experiences of QTIPoC is not an inclusive community, and not my community.
Go listen to Maryam’s speech again. This time listen without prejudice and you will hear how we can be united.