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14 June 2016

Love wins, actually

At the Soho vigil for the Orlando shooting victims, I watched the balloons rise, and I felt it go: the razor-edge of my rage I’d been slicing myself against all day. 

By Laurie Penny

It’s been a hard few days. The headlines were bleak enough already before Sunday morning, when the news hit that 50 people had been slaughtered in a gay club in Orlando. That morning, I woke to the sound of my housemate sobbing. 

She was frightened, and angry. At that point, nobody knew who the shooter was: we only knew that he was probably a man, and that he hated gay people enough to walk into a club with an assault rifle and start mowing people down. We found out later that he was Muslim, and a wife-beating misogynist. We found out even later that he was, in all likelihood, a man with one foot out of the closet who messaged men on dating sites and was a regular at that same night club, Pulse. Shame, bigotry, self-hatred. A culture of fear that responds to progress with intolerance. That’s where violence comes from. One of the places.

I put the tea on and listened to my housemate as she cried for the dead in Orlando, for the knowledge that we are not as safe as our community sometimes allows us to feel, and for herself, too. She’s recently out, having managed to airlift herself from the version of her future where she got married to a man, raised a couple of kids in the suburbs, and slowly stifled under the weight of life unlived. She cried with relief and regret and anger and grief and I cuddled her and said – I know, I know. I didn’t cry. I don’t cry in front of other people. The tears clot in my heart and I have to go somewhere private to dig them out.

I opened up Twitter to see a flood of love and grief washing against ugly waves of prejudice and violence. I tweeted my sorrow for the victims. I wrote, briefly, of my refusal, along with millions of LGBT people around the world, to treat this as an opportunity for more hatred. I spent the next few hours being told that I ought to die, that because I refused to blame “radical Islam” for this homophobic hate crime, I had blood on my hands. 

The death threats and harassment I’ve received and continue to receive, along with hundreds of other queer and anti-racists journalists and activists, are not to be compared to the tragedy of losing your life, or a loved one, to homophobic violence. Nor are they unusual. They’re part of daily life in a society that tolerates violent prejudice. And, inevitably, people of colour have it worst of all. Queer Muslims, in particular, are spending this week being told that they don’t or shouldn’t exist, even as they fend off brutal intolerance from all sides. 

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There is homophobia in Afghanistan, and homophobia in America. There is homophobia within Islam and within Christianity and within the new atheist movement. There is homophobia in the mainstream media and on the Internet and in the workplace and at home, and none of it is to be tolerated, and all of it destroys lives. Sometimes it destroys lives in seconds – the blow to the head, the shot in the dark, the horror. And sometimes it destroys lives piece by piece, wearing them down and picking them apart until there is nothing left but shame and self-destruction. 

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Almost exactly a year ago the global LGBT community was celebrating a breakthrough: the United States had definitively granted LGBTQ people the right to marry. This year, Pride parties will be held in the shadow of the worst massacre of queer people in living memory, and we will be told that we must respond, in kind, with hate. 

All day the rage worked inside me like an ulcer. Fifty people murdered, and fascists using their still-warm bodies to build hatred against immigrants and outsiders. The hypocrisy of a culture that tolerates religious bigotry against transsexual and homosexual people as long as it’s the right sort of religious bigotry. Apologists for a society where bombs are being set in chain-stores that dare to let trans people use the bathroom in safety claiming that queerphobia is something external to itself. 

Straight people who have spent years harassing trans and gay people deciding they get to speak for dead queers as soon as it’s politically expedient to do so. Pinkwashing. The spectacle of a gay journalist in Britain, Owen Jones, walking off a TV debate in disgust when his fellow guests refused to acknowledge that this attack was about homophobia. The sheer maddening gall of people who spend their days harassing queers suddenly deciding that they care about LGBT people and know better than us what this attack was about, and how we should respond.

The use and abuse of LGBT grief in the service of hate. Hell, I’m just going to say it. I think there are a great many dreadful people out there today who are pleased about the slaughter of 50 souls in a gay bar.  Attacking Muslims is already a favourite pastime of neocons and angry bigots everywhere; how much sweeter to be able to do it when the dead are those you never thought of as fully human in the first place.

I could not stop thinking about it. So I went to Soho, the heart of London’s queer community, for the solidarity vigil. I was there an hour early, and already crowds of people were filling Old Compton Street. I’ve never seen that seedy, fabulous stretch of street so busy, or so quiet. The same Old Compton Street where I’ve sat with LGBT friends on the kerb drunk and smoking on pride nights, sharing stories of all the private traumas that had brought us to this point. Hearing stories of how much harder it used to be, and how people made it through.

Something about the queer community that is non-obvious to anyone who doesn’t live in it: survival is what we do. Survival, taking care of each other, holding each other up through tragedy and violence, is not incidental to the struggle. It is the struggle. 

One woman held up a sign that said Every Life Matters: “Queer, Black, Muslim, Latino.” Her arms were getting tired. A handsome young man offered to be her armrest. Then the silence started.

Thousands of souls packed into a hundred feet of street, and dead silence, like the breath before rain. The warmth and glory of it. A banner above the crowd reading, simply: “Love wins.”

Somewhere out of sight a song began, practiced, strong, in harmony – it was “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, and the singers were an LGBT choir who had been rehearsing for hours for the part when their voices would swell over the quiet crowd, tweaking out tears. It was beautiful, and well chosen: a song that everyone knows but nobody quite remembers all the words to, joining in on “I will lay me down”.

Next to me in the crowd a white man in his forties held a sign that said “I’m Gay And Religious – Get Over It.” Squeezed in beside him was a young man in a taqiyah, standing with a girl. “My friend is Muslim,” said the girl. “Can we hold your sign and take a picture with it?” The older man passed it over, through the press of bodies. “Thanks be to God,” he said, quietly.

Over the silence on Old Compton Street a huge cheer went up as rainbow-coloured balloons were released into the grim white sky. The press of bodies against me and above me, hands being held, people kissing – I’m only five feet tall, so being in a large crowd is like walking through a thick jungle of humanity. This one was angrier and prouder and better-dressed than most. 

I watched the balloons rise, and I felt it go: the razor-edge of my rage I’d been slicing myself against all day. The horror. There it goes, up into the air over the city, that conviction that the world is only already dark, that hopeless hurt. And in its place, quiet pride, quiet love. 

And then I cried. At the private, kitschy gorgeousness of that moment, alone in the crowd, I pressed a hand to my face and wept. A stranger squeezed my arm. I patted someone’s shoulder. A few feet away, someone I know online only well enough to say hello to in the street on any normal day waved to me fiercely, and we held on to each other, without saying anything else.

It took me half an hour to fight my way as politely as possible down a hundred feet of packed-out pavement to where my housemate was. We cuddled, and she said “It’s OK to be us. It’s OK to be us.” And I said, “I know.”

If you’ve never found it hard to say or feel that about yourself because of who you are and who you love and what you look like, you can hold your goddamn opinions for now.

The victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre were murdered because they were queer. Or because they were standing next to serving someone queer. Or serving drinks to someone queer. But the lasting legacy of the hateful, wife-beating scumbag who opened fire in that nightclub will be this: more love, more solidarity, a reminder that queer people around the world must continue to support each other, because survival is not optional to this struggle. 

Survival itself is the struggle. And love wins when you least expect it.

The love that wins is more than love between individuals who happen to be of the same sex. The love that wins is the love queer people everywhere have for each other when the storm rolls. Stronger than hate, stronger than violence, stronger than any of us alone.