On the Orlando shooting and a sense of erasure

Watching coverage of the murder of 49 people in an LGBT club in Orlando, Olivia Laing experienced familiar feelings of shame and paralysis. She reflects on growing up in a climate of intolerance and the many ways queer people have been silenced through history

I woke up this morning to a video of Owen Jones repeatedly being told by two straight people that the murder of 49 queer people in a gay club in Orlando was not about homophobia.

There is a particular feeling that comes with erasure: a kind of paralysis, a kind of shame. Dont be silly: what youre seeing is not about you, what youre seeing is an attack on western freedoms clubbing! and not part and parcel of the everyday viciousness of homophobia, a climate of hate enacted in everything from casual comments on street corners and in school playgrounds to violence, to the systematic application of laws that erode LGBT rights, to the dozens of countries where being queer means prison or death.

Get back in the closet: thats the feeling. We cant see you, therefore you dont exist.

God, but I know it well. I grew up with a wonderful lesbian mother in the home counties, in the 1980s, under the malign rule of section 28, when teachers were not allowed to promote the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship. We cant see your family, therefore your family does not exist. Eventually she was outed among the parents at our convent, and we ended up leaving the village and starting again hundreds of miles south.

The toxic atmosphere of those years. Stiffening against the casual insults, gaylord, lesssssssssbian. Hiding pictures of my mother and her partner, so school friends wouldnt find out. A compulsory class debate about whether gay people should be allowed to have children. I remember shaking my way through that, the choking sense of needing to speak and hide at the same time.

Im not complaining about my childhood. My sister and I were very loved, and in many ways Im grateful for having seen from the off how society works to exclude and stigmatise unwanted groups of people.

By the time I was a teenager I knew that both my gender and my sexuality were fluid, not fitting into the boxes they were supposed to. If anything I felt like a gay boy, a femme gay boy, quivering on the cusp between this and that.

Years later, living in New York, I finally found words for what this might mean. Trans, genderqueer: this beautiful, helpful emerging language for articulating the experience of not fitting within the binaries of man and woman, gay and straight. Or simply queer, that most inclusive and encompassing of words.

That winter I read Kate Bornstein and obsessively Googled top surgery, the only change to my body I wanted. That winter I went to see the trans performance artist Mx Justin Vivian Bond regularly, traipsing down to Joes Pub and sitting quaking at the front with a bottle of beer, often on the verge of tears. Each time I saw v (Bonds gender neutral pronoun of choice), I felt some of the armour of shame chip away. Mx Bond embodied the right to be other, different, self-defined, a radiant trans witch, making space for all of us. I think Im trans, I told my oldest friend at one of these nights. She cocked her head and said: You told me that when you were 17.

Writer singer and musician Anohni of Antony and the Johnsons, who pay tribute to Marsha P Johnson. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

You come out and you get pushed back in again. I summarised some of this in my last book, The Lonely City. Later, a journalist interviewing me asked if Id had trans pushback for my comments. For a minute I didnt know what she meant and then that familiar, drenching rush of shame I understood. She meant I wasnt a real trans person because I wasnt, as far as she could see, transitioning from one gender to another. We cant see you, therefore you dont exist. Straight people erasing queers for not fitting into their assumptions of how things should be.

All of this came back to me when I watched the footage of Jones on TV. Forty-nine queer people dead, many of them Latinx, queer people of colour, their sexuality and race erased in an instant. Hardly any wonder Jones walked out.

I cant bear it any more, this arrogant, hateful refusal to see. So let me tell you a little bit of queer history, about some of the invisible people: the ones who dont fit into cosy definitions, who arent white, who bust up gender binaries, who wreak havoc by their very presence.

Let me tell you about Marsha P Johnson. The P stands for Pay It No Mind. If you know Antony and the Johnsons, this is the Johnson they commemorate. Johnson was an African-American trans woman, a performer, a model for Andy Warhol, a homeless sex worker and a lifelong activist.

In the US in the 1960s, presenting oneself as the opposite gender was illegal, a crime known as gender impersonation. This law criminalised all kinds of people: from those who wanted to play with gender or who took pleasure in blurring boundaries to those who felt they were locked into the wrong gender, or who knew that who they were inside did not match what their bodies looked like. Drag queens, butches and transsexuals were regularly rounded up, arrested and imprisoned for the crime of wearing the wrong clothes.

One of Johnsons closest friends was Sylvia Rivera, a Puerto Rican drag queen, civil rights activist and homeless advocate who later identified as a trans woman. Both were veterans of the Stonewall riots, which kicked off the modern-day gay rights movement. This is so important to remember: that it was drag queens and trans people who began the whole sea change in the legitimising of gay identity. But as gay activists began their move toward increased acceptability and legal status, they began to see queens and gender variant people as an embarrassment, a liability to the cause of assimilation.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ybnH0HB0lqc?wmode=opaque&feature=oembed]
Watch a film about Sylvia Rivera

Rivera and Johnson worked through the early 70s to shape what would become the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act in New York City, preventing discrimination according to sexual orientation in arenas such as housing and education. But in order to get the bill through, the gay rights groups they were working with dropped the elements that dealt with transvestism and drag, explaining they were too extreme to be passed. Extreme. The last taboo: messing with gender. (In fact SONDA was not passed by the Senate until 2002.)

Shamefully, the same thing happened with feminism. Like many transgender activists, Rivera was ruthlessly excluded by feminists. At the 1973 Christopher Street Pride, the feminist Jean OLeary denounced her as a man, describing trans women as female impersonators profiting from the derision and oppression of women. It was an experience Sylvia found devastating. It is still devastating now.

Johnson and Rivera were extraordinary. In common with many trans people, who are often rejected from their family of origin, both had been homeless since childhood (Rivera since the age of 11) and were often homeless as adults. Both were sex workers. Johnson was HIV positive, while Rivera struggled with addiction. And both were also radical, inspired activists. Together they founded the organisation STAR Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries moved by a desire to care practically for the outcast and homeless transgender kids of New York City and to change the laws that made their lives so difficult.

What happened to them, these beautiful women? Johnsons body was found in the Hudson river on 6 July 1992. She was 46 years old. The verdict was suicide, but many of her friends thought she had been murdered. Rivera died of complications from liver cancer in 2002, at the age of 50. Hours before her death, she held a meeting from her hospital bed to argue again for the inclusion of trans rights into New Yorks SONDA.

I want to tell you, too, about Kate Bornstein, the legendary auntie to trans people everywhere. Growing up as a Jewish boy, all Bornstein wanted was to be a pretty girl. It took her a long time to transition, a period of soul-searching and shame that included two decades in the Church of Scientology, serving in L Ron Hubbards private army, the Sea Org.

Once Kate had realised that her desire to be a girl wasnt going to go away, once shed gathered the courage to begin to live her life again as a woman, she found she wasnt welcomed with open arms by women, either. Not one to be cast down, Bornstein has spent the rest of her life as what she describes as a gender outlaw, dedicated to exploring and delineating the vast and apparently terrifying space that exists between the so-called two genders.

When Chelsea Manning announced her transition in 2013, Bornstein wrote her a letter.

Its easier to use the labels boy and girl than man and woman. Men and women both cisgender and transgender are very possessive about those labels, so Ive found it easier to claim neither gender as my own. A lot of people are upset with you because youre tampering with the notion of what it means to be a woman. I do that too I break the laws of gender. So, I call myself a Gender Outlaw. My neither/nor gender status has been a choice. Your current in-between gender state has been forced on you, and it breaks my heart. I wish I could hug and comfort you.

She closed with two pieces of advice, which have become her mantras over the years: be kind and stay alive.

As I write, they are still identifying bodies on the floor of Pulse. It isnt easy to stay alive.

What can we do? How can we be visible, especially if we exist in the blind spot between accepted definitions? We can keep finding language, we can keep insisting on our presence, our right to exist.

This morning, there was a poem on my Twitter feed, next to the video of Jones on Sky. It was by Mark Aguhar, a trans poet of colour, and it was called Litanies to my heavenly brown body. A series of blessings, to all the gender categories Aguhar could think of. Blessed are the cissies. Blessed are the people of color, my beloved kith and kin. Blessed are the non-normative. Blessed are the disabled.

I cried while I was reading it, and I cried again when I found out that Aguhar had killed himself at the age of 24. It isnt easy to stay alive. But that poem glitters with hope and so I want to pass it on to you, in the ardent wish that we will all learn to see the people we habitually erase.

Mark, I want you to have the last word.

Blessed is the spectrum.

Blessed is respect.

Blessed are the beloved who I didnt describe, I couldnt describe, will learn to describe and respect and love.


In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jun/16/orlando-shooting-and-a-sense-of-erasure

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