Ways of Seeing: After Orlando, let us lean into love and labor for change
By the time this goes to press, we will have numbly stumbled through almost two weeks since the massacre in Orlando. By now, the raw facts are familiar: the worse mass shooting in modern U.S. history, 49 dead — almost all of them young, gay and Latino — killed by a mentally unhinged, self-radicalized man whose access to a military assault weapon was simple and perfectly legal. By the time this goes to press, who knows what else will have transpired in our worlds, what sorrows, what joys, what tragedies and what transformative acts of compassion. And by the time this goes to press, I hope I will feel a little better than I do right now.
It is fair to say that in Addison County, the majority of us are not Latino, Muslim or gay. But some of us are. I can’t speak to what it is like to be Latina or Muslim in this country after June 12, 2016, but I can speak to what it is like to be gay. For the first time in a very long time, I find myself wondering and worrying about my safety and the safety of my friends all over the country. I question whether, as a country, we have come as far as I think we have in terms of ending hatred and discrimination directed to of those of us who happen to be gay.
As I’ve been going through my everyday routines, from scholarly work to gardening, I talk back to myself the second these fears arise. “Don’t be ridiculous, you live in enlightened Vermont where we respect one another’s differences even when we disagree. We have gay marriage in Vermont. Last year at this time, the Supreme Court made gay marriage the law of the land. Did you ever think that was going to happen when you were 20?” My fears are irrational, I reassure myself. And this is true. It is also not true. As every gay person in America is likely feeling right now, it could have been me. I mean, it really could have been me.
Now most of the time I feel about as lucky as can be: happily partnered for 24 years (and legally married for one!), doing work that I love, living in a beautiful and progressive state. It is also extraordinary to live at this particular moment in history, where — thanks to the unflagging labors of many of my immediate friends and neighbors — I have rights and protections I never imagined I would have when I was in college wondering about what my future would hold. And every day, in ways both obvious and subtle, I enjoy the vast privileges afforded to white people in this country that my non-white friends do not. Nevertheless, right now I feel broken-hearted, vulnerable and devastated.
I ask myself, what must it feel like to be gay and Latino right now? What must it feel like to be Muslim in America in these past days, steeling oneself — yet again — for the social and political fallout from another violent tragedy for which one bears no responsibility whatsoever. I can only begin to imagine.
In my classes, I go out of my way to teach my students that there is no such thing as the Muslim community or the Jewish perspective or the African-American experience. Of course, we use this language because of its ease and simplicity. We also do this because as members of any of these communities we share certain kinds of everyday experiences and a cultural “collective memory” of both the beautiful and the difficult things that bind us together, now and in the generations that preceded us. In my high school, the “black kids” and the “white kids” often did not sit together in the cafeteria and with good reason, the same reason that I enjoy those moments when I happen to be spending time with just my gay friends. I’m not desperate for these moments as I was when I was younger, but I still find that it is sometimes simply more relaxing to just be together without having to explain or to apologize or to try to be exemplary to “make up for” the judgments of others. In this sense, I do belong to “the gay community” and rarely have I been as acutely aware of that as I have in this last calendar year: when I raised a glass to my freedom to marry (and proposed!) after the Supreme Court ruling on June 26, 2015, and when I got into my car and wept after hearing the news of June 12, 2016.
What do we do in the face of something as incomprehensible as the massacre in Orlando? That depends a lot on who you are. If you can channel your grief and anger to work for reasonable gun control akin to what exists in other countries, that’s a very good place to start. In Australia, a culturally pro-gun country like the United States in many respects, sweeping legislation in the mid-1990s (in response to a mass shooting) led to a stunning 59 percent reduction of firearm homicides and a 65 percent reduction in deaths of people who felt hopeless and turned guns against themselves.
Maybe you have the capacity to give money to support the families of the dead, in which case I recommend giving money to the GoFundMe campaign initiated by Equality Florida, which is one of the most carefully vetted fund-raising sites you can find right now, channeling all of the donated money directly to all of the families that need it (www.eqfl.org). An equally dependable fund is “OneOrlando” launched by Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer (www.oneorlando.org). But for my Addison County audience, let me also suggest this: Reach out to a friend. Call (or better, visit) a gay friend, or a Latino friend or a Muslim friend.
If you think you don’t have any friends who claim one or more of these identities as their own then just reach out to a friend whom you think may be hurting as much or more than you are. It may be that he is actually in more pain about something else (a sick friend, an unemployed relative), but he experiences Orlando as yet one more wrenching thing to add to the list, making his days that much more difficult to bear. It may be that your friend feels guilty because she feels several steps removed from what happened and doesn’t know quite how to think or to feel or to act. Listen to him. Visit her. Take someone out for coffee or on a walk with you and your dog. Offer a hug. Connect. For in the midst of feeling devastated and vulnerable, my primary feeling is of one of hope. Our human capacity for love and compassion — exemplified by so many stories we hear coming out of Orlando — is stronger than any act of hatred against us. We must believe in love and we must enact it. We can give our energy out to Orlando and we can also open our hearts to our neighbors right here.
But let me circle back to working for change. Two days after the shooting, I circulated the lyrics to a song written by Holly Near, a long-time activist for civil rights, for the preservation of nature and for gay rights. She first wrote the song in response to the shootings at Kent State and went on to write verses pertaining to Stephen Bantu Biko’s fight against apartheid in South Africa, Victor Jara Martinez’s arts-based activism against the junta in Chile and Karen Silkwood’s environmental justice campaigns in Oklahoma. “It Could Have Been Me” was also sung in campaigns for civil rights for gay people everywhere:
“It could have been me, but instead it was you. So I’ll keep doing the work you were doing as if I were two. I’ll be a student of life, a singer of songs, a farmer of food and the righter of wrong …. If you can work for freedom — freedom, freedom, freedom. If you can work for freedom, I can too.”
Love your neighbor. Work for change. Reach out. Connect. Honor and re-tell acts of love and compassion.
And thank you for listening. In sharing these fears, hopes and dreams, I feel better already.
Author’s note: Just as this column was going to press, a friend with whom I had shared the lyrics of Holly Near’s “It Could Have Been Me” wrote to tell me that Holly had just re-written and performed a new verse of her classic to honor those who died in Orlando. You can find it on the “Holly Near Fan” Facebook page.
Rebecca Kneale Gould is a writer, scholar of religion and senior lecturer in the Environmental Studies Program at Middlebury College. She tends — and learns a great deal from— a small flock of sheep in Monkton.
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