Four years ago, I wrote a blog post about the year that followed my coming out. It was a deeply personal piece of writing (as my posts often are) and talked about the effect my coming out had on my life in that short span of time. At the time and even in the several years that followed, I thought I had understood the enormity of my decision to live openly. In fact, I was sure of it; so sure of it that the transition into my new “lifestyle” was relatively smooth. I navigated the waters of my new life with more ease than many of the other gay men I’ve met. I wasn’t met with hostility; I was met with open arms and open hearts. I was met with a support system that inadvertently shielded me from many of the horrors that others in my situation have faced. I felt emboldened by my support from others and for the first time in as long as I could remember, I felt like I could take on anything, a feeling I had carried with me for a considerable amount of time after my coming out. While uncertainty and anxiety related to my sexual orientation stilled cropped up here and there, neither was enough to detract from the person I was becoming.
On June 12th of this year, just four months and a half dozen days shy of my five year anniversary, everything changed. I woke up to headlines I hadn’t expected, with the words “Pray for Orlando” on repeat. I saw rainbow-colored Facebook pictures and wondered what all the fuss was about. I started browsing my news feed, following every source I could, trying to learn as much as I could about what was happening. The more I read and watched, the more horrified I became. As the news rolled in, I learned with the rest of the world that a man slaughtered forty-nine individuals at a nightclub in Orlando.
Speculation ran rampant and the “facts” flew left and right as they often do when tragedy strikes. It took some time for news outlets to sort through all the information and even more time to piece it all together. We discovered that the man who stole the lives of dozens was (allegedly) himself a semi-closeted gay man who frequented the club. He also happened to be Muslim; something that the media took great care to mention repeatedly.
In the time that followed the massacre, I watched as the world latched upon his faith, dubbing him not the gay man with internalized hate that we all knew him to be, but rather the radical Islamic terrorist that this country wanted him to be. I watched as people lined up outside blood donation centers to help, with gay men hearing the decades old “your blood is no good here,” turned away because of grandfathered fear and government-sanctioned discrimination. I watched as my community, my brothers and sisters, wept and mourned for strangers. I watched as the very best of humanity became synonymous with the very worst. I watched as something inside of me broke.
I felt the weight of a loss so enormous that it’s only rival was the burden of my days denying my inner truth. I felt grief for people I didn’t even know; people that were as familiar to me as any person on the street. It didn’t make sense to me at the time why I was so upset. I didn’t know these people. Their lives had no bearing on my own. I thought I was being ridiculous, something that many others agreed with as they posted things to invalidate my grief. What right did I have to hijack the grief of others? What right did I have to feel something for strangers?
I tried to make sense of what I was feeling, but couldn’t find the words to articulate it. I even posted another blog about how angry I was because anger was the only thing I could put into words at the time. How do you articulate such a profound loss? How do you shrink something like that down into a digestible size? You can’t. I can’t. So I grieved in the only way I knew how: I read and reread the stories. I watched and re-watched the videos. I subjected myself to the pain of it in some masochistic attempt to be worthy of the grief I wasn’t supposed to have. I mourned for forty-nine strangers. I mourned for their families. I mourned for everything that both we and I lost. I mourned because nothing could ever be the same.
In the 127 days that have followed the Pulse Night Club shooting, I’ve thought about what we’ve lost, not only in the physical sense, but also in the intangible/abstract sense. What is it about this event that shook me to my core? What is it about this event that fundamentally altered my perception of the world? When I dig deep enough, I find that the answer is far simpler than I had immediately expected. We, my LGBTQ community, have lost something that oddly enough we’ve never fully had, but were gradually gaining: peace of mind.
Not even a year earlier, we witnessed marriage equality become the law of the land. Four years earlier, we watched as Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. President to openly declare his support of that marriage equality. Three years before that, we saw more laws going into place to protect us against hate crimes. We watched as “don’t ask don’t tell” became obsolete. We watched as athletes, movie stars, and even government officials declared their love openly. We watched as leading nations began to protect the rights of all of their citizens, and not just the ones who uphold “traditional values.” We watched as our very existence was being legitimized, something that we weren’t all sure we’d see in our lifetimes.
We were beginning to feel like we belonged. We were beginning to ignore that nagging fear of holding hands in public. We were beginning to feel like we weren’t alone. We were beginning to see coming out as just a normal right of passage. We were beginning to feel safe and whole.
On June 12th, we came face to face with the reality that we, as LGBTQ individuals, are still lesser than our straight counterparts. We were forced to face an uncomfortable truth: there is still such a long way to go.
In less than twenty-four hours on some idle Sunday, everything I had tucked away – the fear, the anger, the sadness, the loneliness – came back and unraveled so much of what I had built within myself. It made me, for the very first time, really question my decision to share myself with the world and in doing so planted the seeds of doubt; the very same seeds that had plagued me prior to my coming out. It was that doubt that shook me; shook me in such a way that I was barely holding it together.
I wish I could tell you that my peace of mind has returned, that the doubt was washed away with time, but to do so would to be disingenuous. I’m not sure that time can fully heal a wound like this; a loss so great that we continue to question our place in this world and relive our coming out each and every day, wondering whether today will be the day that “it could have been me” becomes “it was me.”
A wound like this will likely never heal, but it won’t kill us either because we are resilient, we are strong, and we are defiant. It is that resilience, strength, and defiance that propels us forward; that allows us to push past the fear, ignore the doubt, and replace anger with love. We will suffer, we will hurt, and we will bleed, but we will not quit. We will not falter. We will not go down without a fight.
I am gay. It’s so strange to think that I used to be afraid of those words; afraid of what they meant, what they could do. But now…now I will say those words to any and everyone who will listen, while bleeding from wounds they cannot see, until my very last breath because in the last five years, I’ve learned one very important thing that I hadn’t known until coming out: I am not alone.
Until next time…stay classy.
– C.M. Berry