The Pulse Nightclub Shooting Robbed the Queer Latinx Community of a Sanctuary

Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Early on Sunday morning, in the midst of Pride celebrations, a gunman opened fire at an Orlando, Florida LGBT nightclub in what we now know was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, leaving at least 50 dead and 53 injured. The mayhem occurred at the club’s popular Latin Night, and as the city of Orlando begins to release information about the victims, names like Sotomayor, Guerrero, and Almodóvar make up the list of the dead. But instead of a complex picture that dives deep into the root causes of attacks like these, mainstream news outlets have provided sensationalist and Islamophobic headlines that completely miss the mark on the ways LGBTQ Latinxs experience violence in this country, and distract from true solutions.

Shooter Omar Mateen, who died in a showdown with Orlando police, was a U.S.-born man of Afghan descent. Almost immediately, in what has become a media ritual every time a Middle Eastern or Muslim person is behind a violent attack, Islamophobic and anti-immigrant coverage appeared, only to grow worse as reports that Mateen had called 911 to pledge allegiance to ISIS emerged. But relying on the poor treatment of LGBT people in the Middle East as an explanation for this tragedy is lazy journalism; particularly without looking toward prevalent homophobic attitudes in the United States, where Mateen was raised.

Steve Nesius / Reuters
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Yet few mainstream media sources turned their attention toward an escalating climate of violence in the United States against LGBTQ people – and transgender women of color in particular – that has nothing to do with Islamic extremism. Last year, 23 transgender women were murdered – most of whom were women of color – in what is widely considered a national epidemic that appears to have no end in sight.

For LGBTQ Latinxs, the club is where many of us go to feel at home and free.

The truth is that some of the primary actors of terrorism against LGBTQ people of color in this country are in fact much more homegrown: our legislatures and bodies of law enforcement. The victims of this weekend’s tragedy were celebrating the anniversary of a night when mostly queer and trans people of color – many of whom were Latinxs – fought back against discriminatory policing.

But we don’t have to go as far back as the now legendary Stonewall uprisings of 1969 for examples of discriminatory policing. Just last Friday, Oakland Chief of Police Sean Whent resigned amid a statutory rape scandal involving multiple Oakland Police Department officers and a young queer Latina who traded sex to survive. Nor should it go unmentioned that photographs depict Mateen wearing a T-shirt with the logo of the New York Police Department – an institution well known to routinely harass and brutalize LGBTQ New Yorkers.

In the past six months, predominantly Christian and white state legislatures have introduced hundreds of anti-LGBT bills while a national panic around transgender folks’ use of public restrooms has reared its head, despite the fact that it’s actually trans women who are most likely to be in danger in gendered public restrooms. And the Christian right – who hold much sway and power in Florida’s legislature and state legislatures across the country – spews a consistent barrage of anti-LGBT hatred, creating systems of structural violence endured by communities of color, including LGBTQ Muslims.

Pulse Nightclub
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But the much more common ways that we suffer rarely make headlines. The truth is that LGBTQ communities of color endure violence in some of the same ways heterosexual communities of color do more generally, but often with a particular queer or trans experience that complicates standard narratives of both LGBTQ or Latinx suffering. LGBTQ Latinxs are victims of brutal police mistreatment; we are detained by immigration officials and tortured in immigration detention; we are deported into violent situations often created or exacerbated by U.S. foreign policy, all of which are complicated by our queer and trans identities.

In this context, it feels difficult not to think of the violence that the patrons of Pulse – which also operated as an important community center – experienced over the weekend as a continuation of the violence that has been enacted upon LGBTQ communities of color.

For this reason, these attacks feel intensely personal. For LGBTQ Latinxs, the club is where many of us go to feel at home and free – a place to escape from state-sanctioned violence. When so many of us are rejected from our families of origin for part or all of our lives, the club is where many of us experienced our whole selves for the first time: where we see queer and trans people upending gendered notions of how we dance salsa, merengue, and cumbia, where we can be free in our sexuality while still connected to our roots perreando to some dembow.

We are robbed of a rare feeling of belonging, home, and safety for our full selves.

When we’re given messages that our cultures reject us, when our families refuse to call our partners anything more than our “amigas” or speak to us at all, when we’ve been kicked out and cut off from our families and cultures, we not only find community and chosen family in those dark, sweaty rooms pulsating with the rhythms of our people; we find that LGBTQ Latinxs are inextricable components of Latinidad, that we are part of the lifeblood of Latinx communities – whether our families of origin choose to see that or not. For many of us, myself included, going to the Latinx night at the queer club is transformative, allowing us a feeling of safety and home in our bodies unlike most others.

For this safety to be violated leaves many of us not just angered and hurt, but robbed of a pivotal space where queerness and Latinidad have been able to not just co-exist, but be celebrated. We are robbed of a rare feeling of belonging, home, and safety for our full selves, and many in our community who survived cannot even come to the aid of the fallen due to outdated and discriminatory FDA guidelines on blood donation.

Paradise Garage, one of New York’s iconic queer nightclubs.
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There’s also the reality that much of U.S. nightlife owes its existence to black and Latinx communities. Whether we’re talking about genres like disco and house, or the rise of club culture more broadly, the black and Latinx community actually helped engender the freedom and transformative power of the club space. That’s why this shooting is so painful. It’s not just an attack on the queer Latinx community; it’s a loss for U.S. nightlife collectively.

Despite the pain that we are feeling, LGBT Latinxs must not let this tragedy become yet another spectacle in which leaders craft narratives later used to attack entire peoples, entire nations, entire regions. We cannot allow our suffering to be used as a tool for scaremongering. Not in our names.