This morning I took pictures of UM Diag, where a PRIDE Flag has been chalked in support of the survivors of the Orlando massacre. The candles had burned to the ground, and melted away, leaving wax in the cracks between the bricks.
Last night I was one of a some hundreds of people at the Candlelight Vigil for Peace sponsored by the /aut/ Bar, also in support of Orlando.
Yesterday afternoon, I sang with the Out Loud Chorus at Motor City Pride in Detroit.
A week before that, I was riding the train home, curled up in a seat by the baggage, away from the other passengers, with tears streaming down my face, grieving for the loss of a dear-to-me friend who was a transgender woman.
Two days before that, I’d walked 22,464 steps, because I couldn’t find a cab to get me to the memorial of Robin, one of my BFFs (best friends forever), married-with-children, who had died of cervical cancer.
Two weeks before that, the breast cancer community, the healthcare social media community, the WORLD lost Jody Schroger, who I also considered a friend, even though we never met in person, because of the sweetness and richness of our six years of conversations on Twitter. Jody was a breast cancer survivor and advocate, until she wasn’t anymore.
These things are all connected, and not just through my recent life or experience. They have in common issues of community, loss, love, health, and more. They have in common issues of how to feel safe, how to be safe, how to be heard.
Jody was a hugely influential breast cancer advocate, one of the founders of the famous and successful #BCSM Twitter chat. Jody started out fighting for herself, but that just wasn’t the kind of person she was, so after her diagnosis, she basically spent the rest of her life fighting for everyone else. Yes, especially for breast cancer patients, but it wasn’t long before that became a very gracious and determined effort to encourage equality, access, information, and empowerment for ALL patients.
Robin had cervical cancer, one of the cancers for which healthcare has done a pretty good job of prevention, or at least really reduced the incidence. Here’s a line from the American Cancer Society about this: “Most invasive cervical cancers are found in women who have not had regular screening.” Now, right up front, I want to say that I don’t really know anything about Robin’s own personal medical history with this, and I wouldn’t share it if I did. What I can share is that sense of hurt and betrayal that comes with the death of a loved one that is perceived as preventable, except for … fill in the blank. While I know that Robin and her family were incredible people, joyful, kind, funny, and generous to a fault, there were times when they had to make tough choices about financial stuff. I’ve had to do the same, but I’ve always had the failsafe of employer health insurance. Not everyone does. I imagine that because there were times when one or another of them worked multiple part-time jobs without insurance, or were self-employed, that perhaps there were a few times when routine screenings for perfectly health people seemed unnecessary. But, as things turn out, the screenings were needed. Is this something that happened because we didn’t yet have Obamacare? Because the insurance people have doesn’t cover what they really need? Is it a question of access or information or health literacy or trust in the healthcare system? I don’t know. But I know that ALL of those issues play a part in the pain and suffering and losses experienced around us every day. And whatever we’re doing to fix them is too little too late for Robin, and I will miss her for the rest of my life.
I’ll tell you that while coming home from one memorial is a rough raw time to get the news about another friend’s death. When I got the news, I was no expert, but knew enough about the context of trans* lives to know what you ask when a transgender person dies unexpectedly: suicide or murder? Those are the two questions that leap into your mind, and which you try not to ask. When I hear about a sudden loss of other friends, I’ll ask was it an accident or cancer or some other illness. But not for trans* friends. As friends talked with me about my grief, I was surprised how many had no idea about this.
“From our experience working with transgender people, we had prepared ourselves for high rates of suicide attempts, but we didn’t expect anything like this,” says Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “Our study participants reported attempting suicide at a rate more than 25 times the national average.” http://www.commondreams.org/newswire/2010/10/07/study-high-rates-bullying-suicide-attempts-among-transgender-and-gender-non
“A staggering 41% of respondents reported attempting suicide compared to 1.6% of the general population,ii with rates rising for those who lost a job due to bias (55%), were harassed/bullied in school (51%), had low household income, or were the victim of physical assault (61%) or sexual assault (64%).” http://endtransdiscrimination.org/PDFs/NTDS_Exec_Summary.pdf
“The Trans Murder Monitoring (TMM) project systematically monitors, collects and analyses reports of homicides of trans people worldwide. … The name lists present the names and some details about the deaths of the otherwise anonymously reported trans murder victims. These lists are specially compiled for the annual International Transgender Day of Remembrance. The tables present statistics on the world region, country, date of death, location and cause of death, and the age and profession of the victims. The maps illustrate the worldwide scale of the reports of murdered trans persons.” http://tgeu.org/tmm/
If you are one of the good hearted people who is surprised by this, you are probably asking, “Why?” Basically, it comes down to fear as one of the primary motivators of hatred. I could go on a long time, but you are smart folk. Just look in Google for “transphobia” and you will find plenty. For the heartbreak of suicide, I’m a big fan of the Social Media for Suicide Prevention (#SPSM) group who meet on Twitter at 9pm Eastern Time on Sunday evenings. I don’t know of a similar regular chat for transgender life, but there are a lot of Twitter hashtags that might be relevant. Here are just a few: #Transgender / #Trans / #Transpeak / #StopTransMurders / #TwoSpirit. The lesson I take away from these awful statistics, and from the death of my friend, is that love doesn’t always win, at least not at the level of individuals, but that we can keep working toward a world in which love does win. You know, my trans friend who died last week? The events in Orlando would have infuriated her so much. We had a memorial for her tonight, and someone said it was almost like she was one of the victims of Orlando, what with the two coming so close together.
At Motor City Pride, I was singing with Out Loud Chorus, which is one of the choirs I sing in. Why do we sing in choirs? For a lot of reasons, but right up there at the top is for friendship, community, creativity, and challenge. (There are a lot of health benefits, too, by the way. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4) Why do LGBT communities have PRIDE events like Motor City Pride? Some of the same reasons (community, friendship, creativity), and some different (it’s a safe space is probably one of the top). “Safe space” is a concept that has been mentioned an awful lot since the Orlando Massacre. Where I’ve seen it, it’s been mentioned as part of a larger explanation of why and how LGBT folk are not and do not feel safe or included as members of our broader culture.
I remember vividly the first time I felt attracted to another woman. It was in high school. She was an upperclassman — lean, olive-skinned, wearing shorts and a man’s sleeveless undershirt. I felt like someone had zapped me with electricity, skin prickling, mouth hot and dry. And I had absolutely no idea what had just happened, because nothing like this had ever happened to me before. I eventually figured it out, years later. In the meantime, yes, I’d been dating guys, been married and divorced, had a kid. By the time I was divorced, a safe space was the number one thing I wanted most in the world. After I had a kid, I wanted the safest place possible for BOTH of us. Attraction to women was something I felt sometimes, but not very often, and frankly, it wasn’t something I sought out or looked for, and never acted on. A big part of “never acted on” was feeling distinctly unsafe. I’d heard the stories, knew about the things that happened to people who were gay. Some of them were pretty horrible stories. Of course, the decision wasn’t as simple (or as reasoned or conscious or aware), as I’m making it sound here.
When I joined Out Loud Chorus (OLC), decades later, I was firmly wearing my rainbow ALLY button. Quite a number of people in the choir are LGBT allies, so I didn’t feel strange about that. I recently sang in my first concert with OLC, selections from which were what we sang for the crowd at Motor City Pride. The title of the concert was “Destination: Me.” It was about transitions in our lives, how we change, how we choose to change (or not). Parts of it were about transitions experienced by the transgendered. As we prepared for the concert, what I kept noticing over and over was how incredible the people are in the choir. The bravery they take into their everyday lives, almost as if they don’t even think about it, it just IS. The determination and laughter. The unquestioning honesty and acceptance of people the way they are. There was a man at the concert in May who stopped the choir in the hall while we were lining up, and said a bunch of hurtful, almost vaguely threatening things to the “queer choir” as we lined up to go perform. I was taken aback. I’m accustomed to being the ally on the side who intervenes when things like this happen. It’s different when you stand there as one of the people with the invisible target on your chest. There is a very distinct “straight” privilege that belongs right there beside white privilege.
I stopped wearing my rainbow ALLY button recently. Today, I started giving away the rainbow ally buttons I have, because, for me, right now, it feels like a lie, and one that, after Orlando, I can’t bear to live with.
At the Candlelight Vigil for Peace, one of the phrases that was repeated over and over by speaker after speaker was, “knows what it’s like to be afraid to hold hands in public.” You know, there are health benefits to holding hands, too, of course. Rumor has it that this is maximized when holding hands with a romantic partner. Think about that for a moment. Holding hands makes people feel healthier and happier. But if you are gay, you are probably afraid to, or have been. It was strange for me to listen to this over and over. I’ve held hands with people. Usually, just people who are friends. There was one romantic partner with whom I enjoyed holding hands. I’ve held hands strategically when a man was threatening me or endangering me, and it calmed him to hold hands. I’ve held hands with people when my hands were hot and theirs were cold (or the reverse). I’ve held hands with my kids probably more than any other human beings. But I have never held hands with a woman who had romantic potential for me. And even so, I knew what they were talking about, about being afraid to hold hands, about being afraid to even want to hold hands.
My favorite speaker of the night was Amanda Edmonds, the Ypsilanti mayor, who spoke of putting her wife on a plane to Orlando just a few hours after the shootings. Of worrying. Of crying, and not being able to stop. Of not being able to help the way she longed to help. And of finding different ways to help, but starting here, with the people and places where we already are. There were other great speakers, so many of them. It was so special when Jim Toy said we need to remember not only the victims of Orlando, but all the victims, and to stand in solidarity with not only the gay communities, but other marginalized communities who suffer from isolation and exclusion, and when he explicitly stated the need for us to befriend the Muslim community, the crowd practically roared with support and applause.
There was music. This little light of mine, which is probably sung at many candlelight vigils. We shall overcome. The small choir sang a thoughtful piece, with this wonderful phrase: “There is no map for where we go. There is no map for where we go. We’re not lost, we’re here.”
Some folk have focused on the why of the Orlando massacre pretty heavily. Was it ISIS? Was it homophobia? Was it self-hatred? Was it planned? Was it mental illness? I’m not sure if it really matters at this point. Or perhaps there is value in both sides, working from a multiplicity of perspectives toward a variety of solutions? Personally, I think there is significant value in taking a nuanced or multifaceted view, in considering aspects of all of the proposed causes. I’m not sure that it really matters to find a single cause to blame for this. The potential causes proposed are all reasonable considerations, they are all ongoing problems. We should be working to correct and improve all of them, as potential causes of future incidents, at the same time that we work to improve safety and provide healing for the families and communities involved in this and other tragedy.
You see, what happened in Orlando is terrible, but it isn’t just about Orlando. There’s a post going viral on Facebook about all the places you can’t go or can’t be unless you are willing to be murdered. It starts with your home and your office. There are similar posts about getting raped. And if there isn’t one, there should be one about who you aren’t allowed to be if you want to be safe in America, with LGBT, Muslim, disabled right at the top of the list, complete with “a different color” and “from a different place,” ending with just plain “different.” You want to be safe? Find a hole and crawl in, and never come out. You want to be safe? Don’t be different, don’t get sick, don’t get injured, don’t be born to the ‘wrong’ parents or have the ‘wrong’ friends or family. Don’t love, because that’s dangerous.
After 9/11, the local Buddhist temple painted an MLK quote on their walls that resonates with me today: “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” The messages written around the chalked flag on the UM Diag today focused largely on similar messages, of love, and its power to heal. There was one in particular that seemed to describe an ideal vision for all the underserved, excluded, wounded, isolated, underprivileged people; be they gay or straight or genderfluid; be they patients or survivors or family or providers. The gist of it was that when all our children love themselves, this won’t happen anymore. For our children to love themselves, we first have to love them, and love each other, and set a good example for how to love. You know what? That may be the hardest thing any of us ever do.