An Invitation to Empathy

All the gay drama over the Orlando shooting must, for some, feel frustrating. It may feel like another potent weapon in the fight for the radical gay agenda (aka: Trojan horse for sexual permissiveness); a myopic self-absorption in the face of the greater threats of guns, ISIL, and immigrant-phobia; a taking personally of a random act of violence by a crazy person.

To be honest, I’ve been a little puzzled by how much emotional drama and difficulty it has caused me as a gay man. As I’ve thought about it, there are at least two main reasons. If you are up for an adventure in empathy, here they are:

A) It was our family that got shot – Here’s my experience of it. Growing up gay was incredibly isolating. Within me was a heavy psychological, social, sexual, emotional, who-I-love-secret, that I didn’t tell anyone until I was nineteen. The first time I met another gay person I was nineteen. I instantly felt a solidarity with him—a shared history—that was so intimate it felt like I was meeting a family member I’d never known.

It was our family that got shot. Click To Tweet

Since I met him in the context of a conservative Christian college, we had to keep our sexuality on the down low. When talking about other gay people we would sometimes call them “Canadians” with a wink, but mostly we just called them “family.” Like family, they were people with whom we shared a common experience, and could be counted on for support and acceptance.

If you aren’t part of a marginalized group, this experience may not seem intuitive to you but it is real. To this day, a popular song in gay clubs is Sister Sledge’s, We Are Family. In the face of familial and religious rejection, other queers feel like family. So, when I, when we, hear about LGBT people being shot, it feels like we’ve lost uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, and cousins.

B) It stirs memories of how we’ve been hated, and how we’ve hated ourselves – Again, here is my experience (I don’t claim to speak for all LGBT people). When I was in junior high, I took different routes home every day to avoid being beaten up as a “sissy.” In high school, the worst thing a guy could call another guy was “gay.” I knew I was “that guy.” One of my high school friends, in an over-the-top, uncensored moment said that if he were ever to meet a gay person he would either “try to run away or kill him.” In my own head, after most sexual thoughts, I would tell myself that I was “sick, a pervert, a homo.”

Traumas like that are etched deep me and many LGBT people. The news of the shooting wakes those memories, and the primitive, reptile part of our brains is sending anxiety and fear messages to our stomachs, brains, and hearts.

I and many of us, have found lives away from hatred towards us by others and ourselves. But the shooting is a potent reminder that there are people who still despise us and are willing to do us harm. The old questions are back: Am I safe? Am I loved? Am I worthwhile?

The old questions are back: Am I safe? Am I loved? Am I worthwhile? Click To Tweet

(As of this writing, there is the news that the shooter used gay dating apps and frequented the Pulse bar. It is unclear whether he was doing this because he was planning his shooting, or because he was gay. If he was gay, I think this makes it worse rather than better. Rather than a random outsider attacking the family, it is a family member who—due to the demons of religious and societal prejudice—hurt the rest of the family.)

If you’ve read this far, thank you for pursuing empathy. I have a suggestion. Rather than continuing to stew on all the news, reach out to an LGBT friend or acquaintance. You don’t need to worry about what to say. Just ask, “How are you doing?” It is one little gesture toward healing the tsunami of badness caused by the event in Orlando.