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June 01, 2016

Reflections on Orlando

On Fear and Groceries

Late on a Tuesday night in mid-July, I had my moment.

The “moment” I’m speaking about here is that instant as an LGBT individual where you feel fully and personally the effects of trauma against the community. I have heard about many of these moments over the past weeks as the entire LGBT community deals with the trauma of the Pulse shooting in Orlando.

I am usually reluctant to share my personal life in a public forum, but in light of recent discourse, I find it to be necessary. I realize this article will take a few minutes to read, but if you're struggling with your feelings or opinions after Orlando, particularly if you're someone outside of the LGBT community, it is time well spent, if I may say so myself.

As I said, my moment happened.
It happened in the grocery store. I was preoccupied walking down one of the aisles. Not paying attention, I skipped a bit to the ambient store music as I walked. For those that know me, it would seem odd that I would be the kind of person that dances at random. But I am. Most people, even many of my friends, would be surprised to learn this. They would be surprised, because that night when I caught myself, I abruptly stopped and in an almost instant state of panic looked around to make sure nobody saw me.

I have probably done this exact thing a thousand times in my life. I have always simply accepted it as part of life. But with Orlando on my mind, I recognized that tense feeling in my chest for what it was: fear.

Fear that that I might be seen. Fear that an angry individual, or more likely a few, might decide to follow me into the parking lot and teach a fag a lesson. I was afraid in the middle of a grocery store. Could there be a more mundane place?

And as I thought about it, I realized I'm not just fearful in the grocery store; I'm fearful most places. In fact, outside of the safety of my apartment and the few square blocks in center city Philadelphia designated by brightly colored street signs where I and others like me have made our homes, I often have moments of fear.

I police myself to make sure my wrist don't flare too much or I don’t hum too loudly. I, who had always been an A student, stopped answering questions in class after my sophomore year of high school because I became worried my voice sounded gay.

I would suggest this to my readers: if you've never had to legitimately fear that someone might take one look at your physical appearance and decide that you were worthy of harm – that you were less than human, then you've never had the unfortunate distinction of belonging to a minority group that faces hatred.

I understand that recent months have bred recalcitrance over safe spaces, concern over bathrooms, rhetoric about gun control, and a great deal more. All of that is not my point.
What needs to be understood is that the idea that strangers may decide to tie me to a tree and beat me to death in a “gay panic”, or ignore a virulent epidemic decimating my friends, or end a night of drinking by beating my boyfriend and I just for fun is my reality. Matthew Shepard, the victims of the AIDS epidemic, and the couple that was brutally beaten a few blocks from my apartment in Philadelphia just last year attest to that. I now add “being shot at the bar down the street” to my little black book of fears.

In the same way the Black Lives Matter movement is in no way claiming that white lives don’t matter, addressing what happened in Orlando as both an attack of terror and a crime of hate against the LGBT community isn't downplaying Sandy Hook or Fort Hood, or the far too many other tragedies of the past few years.

It's saying, and while I doubtless will offend some of you, of course heterosexual lives matter. You assume it every day in things like feeling safe buying your groceries. We do not. No one wants to make other lives matter less, but as a member of the LGBT community, it is often not clear that our lives matter. Security is not a given. And if you believe that fear unfounded, I suggest a Google search for people condoning or endorsing the massacre in Orlando, because there are many. I do not recall such acceptance or jubilation over the murders in a movie theater or a church or a school. Ponder why, according to The Trevor Project, lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers.
Pulse has emphasized that someone who has never felt unsafe buying groceries may not recognize that such security is not a given for everyone. It’s not cruelty, it’s misunderstanding. To view this as an implicit assignment of blame is to miss why Pulse matters. It’s an opportunity for introspection and growth. I wrote this piece to address that misunderstanding.

If you struggle to empathize with or understand why it matters that Pulse was a gay club, why it matters that it was Latin night, why it matters that it was a safe space: that is why it matters.
It matters is because dancing like no one is watching is not a luxury afforded to everyone. Far too many of us wait until the blinds are closed and the lights are out to exist. There are far too few places to feel unconsciously alive.

It matters because if you’ve seen me and I don’t dance when a song comes on, then you haven’t really seen me at all.

MATT MECOLI is the Law Student Division Co-Liaison to the SOGI Commission, a 3L at the Kline School of Law at Drexel, and an aspiring writer. He lives in Philadelphia and dreams of one day living in an apartment with multiple rooms.


As the Andrew S. Cray Law Fellow,
Nathan assists the National Center for
Transgender Equality (NTSE)