After Orlando: On Fear of Moving Through the World Brown or Queer
I am 19, freshly back stateside after a semester abroad. I am visiting New York City — the home I’ll eventually settle in — on my own for one of the first times.
I am with two friends, also queer. After a day at the Metropolitan Opera, museums, and Times Square, we make our way down to the village. We walk into Duplex, a cabaret and piano bar next door to the Stonewall Inn.
We settle into patched vinyl chairs on the second floor. I order a drink, my first one ever at a bar in the states. No one asks for my ID. My friend flirts with the bartender. We hum along to a Scissor Sisters song. An older balding man sits by the window, quietly nursing a drink.
I can’t stop smiling. It feels like home.
Women are no strangers to violence, both at home and abroad.
Sometimes it’s microaggressions. It’s stares, snickers, or comments.
Other times it’s more overt. It’s catcalls. It’s gestures.
When you are a Muslim woman, it’s being physically confronted for wearing a hijab. When you are a queer woman, it’s slurs yelled or things thrown at you because of the way you present, or whose hand you’re holding.
And then there is what happened in Orlando.
And not just the literal facts there — the hatred that led to the murder of 49 and wounding of 50 mostly Latinx and Afrolatinx LGBTQ people at the Pulse, a gay nightclub — but what came after it. The incorrect and erasing media reports and conversations about the victims, or about what type of club was targeted. The dangerous assumptions about the attacker’s motives. The erasure of the victim’s identities. The Islamophobia.
These things are all connected, and we cannot pretend that they aren’t. Women are Muslim. Women are brown. Women are queer. When any one of us is targeted, we are all targeted. What affects one of us affects us all.
It’s a scary thing to be a woman in this world. And it’s even scarier if your being and identity are already subject to violence.
I’m waiting for the elevator on my way to work. My apartment is in an old Soviet-style building right where St. Petersburg meets the Finnish Gulf.
The doors open and I see an elderly man and his grandson. I smile and walk inside.
The little boy is looking at me. “Privyet!” I say, smiling. He shyly turns his head away. The grandfather laughs. He talks to me in Russian and I say that I don’t understand a lot. He points to his head and then mine. I hear some form of the words “Chyorny” and “Nekrasivy.” It means “black” and “not beautiful.” My hijab is black today.
A few days later, I meet them in the elevator again. My hijab is royal blue. “Ochen krasivaya,” he says. “Very beautiful.”
I feel so welcome and beautiful. I almost cry.
Media and public figures were quick to call what happened in Orlando Islamic terrorism. Only when confronted by Muslim and queer activists did they begin to hesitate.
None of this, however, has stopped media from playing up the shooter’s declaration of loyalty to ISIS. Through further investigation, it was found that Omar Mateen pledged his allegiance to several competing terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. All of these later reports clearly show that he didn’t know the difference between them or their goals.
But this is all after the fact. There was no turning back once those words were approved for print. The damage is done.
For Muslims, Middle Easterners, and brown people worldwide, it’s as if a finger is being pointed directly at us while accusers yell, “There are people out there who are just evil. They did this. It’s their fault.”
To say that Islam is an innately violent religion is to erase the lived experiences of Muslim people across the world who are also targets of violence by groups like ISIS. Recently, this can most notably be seen in the attack that murdered over 100 people (mostly Shia Muslims) in Baghdad’s Karrada shopping district this past weekend in Iraq, or the 43 people whose lives were taken and countless others who were injured in the attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport (in Turkey — a country in which 99% of the population is Muslim) last Tuesday. Both of these attacks (and many others) took place during Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar — a time of daily fasting (broken by evening feasting), praying, and charity — proving that those behind them care nothing about religion.
[Tweet “”It’s a scary thing to be a woman…if your being and identity are already subject to violence.””]
Likewise, initial media reports about the Orlando shooting were slow to specify that it was a gay club that was attacked. And even now, many refuse to acknowledge why it is particularly heartbreaking that a safe space like the Pulse was targeted.
Additionally, after weeks of advocacy by queer people of color, the fact that most of the victims of the Pulse shooting were Latinx or Afrolatinx — or that the attack took place on Latin night at the Pulse (a club that also functioned as a community space where educational events were held) — is frequently left unmentioned. (This is not to imply that the Pulse was any less “deserving” of an attack than any other gay club because it also served as a community center. It should go without saying that nowhere and no one deserves to be targeted in this way.)
In later days, reports surfaced that the shooter was secretly gay, had been a regular at the Pulse, and had used hookup apps like Grindr to solicit sex from men. This all may be true, but as a result, mainstream news has incorrectly taken this to mean that his motivation must have been due to mental health issues or in response to some sexual rejection. In reality, this indicates that it was likely a combination of internalized homophobia and toxic masculinity (the same toxic masculinity that contributes to worldwide violence against women) that inspired what happened in Orlando.
The erasure of these realities is not unlike the erasure that women around the world experience every day of the violence that is continuously perpetrated against us. When any one of us is targeted, we are all targeted.
I am booking an Airbnb in London.
I send out messages to inquire about six listings. I hear back from three. Of those three, two tell me that the dates I’ve chosen aren’t actually available, they’re sorry, they forgot to strike them out on the calendar, they’ll do that now.
A week later, I still haven’t booked a room. I check again. Both listings are still shown as available for the dates that I had inquired about.
On my profile, it says that I am queer.
I can’t know for sure, of course, but I wonder if there is a connection.
When queer women move through the world — both while traveling and in daily life — safety concerns related to our gender are compounded by safety concerns related to our sexual orientation or gender identity or presentation.
[Tweet “”When any one of us is targeted, we are all targeted.””]
We are already targets, by nature of our gender. Compound this further with our love, our presentation, the color of our skin, or the perception of our ethnicity or religion, and existing in any space can be exhausting — if not life-threatening.
There is a joke in the Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and other brown communities called Flying While Muslim, Flying While Brown, Flying While Arab, or other variations thereof. In queer and trans communities, a similar concept is the reality of Flying or Traveling While Trans.
Humor may be a helpful coping mechanism, but it doesn’t mask the extent to which people of certain perceived backgrounds are targeted.
A student should not be kicked off a flight for speaking to his uncle in his native tongue about chicken. A transgender woman should not be detained by the TSA because her body does not conform to an agent’s assumptions. A family with bright-eyed, active kids should not be denied their vacation to Disneyland because they’re brown and therefore suspected of terrorism.
No innocent person should have to fear that when we travel, we will be singled out, patted down, swabbed, and forced to silently pray that it will all pass quickly while onlookers stare.
I’m heading into the T station in Boston. I’m visiting my sister and some friends for the weekend.
I walk down the steps to the Red Line. It’s surprisingly empty. There are only a handful of people around.
I hesitate for a moment. I am thinking back to the recent report of a Muslim woman who was pushed onto the train tracks by a stranger in London.
I scope out my immediate surroundings to see who is there — a thing I have done many times before. I take off one headphone just in case. I stand with my back against the wall, making sure no one is too close.
When 130 people were murdered and hundreds others injured by terrorists in Paris this past November, the world mourned. Country leaders banded together in solidarity for lives taken. Facebook profile pictures were shaded in red, white, and blue stripes.
Meanwhile, grief for the lives taken in the Beirut bombings, just a day earlier, fell on deaf ears.
Fifty-four percent of Lebanese people identify as Muslim and 21% as Christian. Muslims and Christians were both victims of the attacks. Both groups have been fleeing the atrocities in Syria and Iraq. But despite the fact that Muslims are targeted by these terrorists as often as (if not more often than) non-Muslims, the refugee camp of Calais burned in revenge. All Muslims are blamed for Paris, and for all attacks worldwide.
In the United States, marriage equality became a legal national reality for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people last year. But since then, politicians across the country have introduced over 100 bills targeting LGBTQ — and, more specifically, transgender and gender-nonconforming — people.
While this legislation is dangerous for anyone — straight or queer, cis or trans — who does not physically conform to gendered stereotypes (like, for instance, cis women with short hair), it particularly impacts transgender people (especially trans women) who do not “pass” as cis. Legislators (most of whom are cis men) continue to use “women’s safety” as an excuse for these laws, despite the fact that there have been literally zero reported incidents of trans people assaulting anyone else in a restroom, that assault is still illegal regardless of who it is perpetrated by or against, and that public restrooms in the United States have privacy stalls.
It should come as no surprise that queer and brown people are literally being killed when we live in a world in which bigots shout daily that our communities are dangerous.
If your body does not conform to what is viewed in the Western world as “normal,” tough luck. Unless you are male, white, cis, straight, and Christian, there is no place for you here.
It’s important for every one of us to acknowledge how this individualized cruelty is harmful to all women.
It is a sunny Tuesday morning on Wall Street. I stand outside, against the marble facade of an office building, sneaking a few brief moments with a person I’ve been seeing before I have to grab a cab to the airport. We embrace and a large group of tourists walks by.
I see their heads turn, watching us kiss. One by one. Like the plunks of a dial passing each notch on a perpetually spinning wheel.
“Have you noticed these people staring?” my date asks.
“Of course I have,” I say.
They’re not staring because they think we’re nice to look at.
Queer and brown people fear for our lives constantly, and in the wake of these tragedies, our daily vigilance feels so much more urgent.
Allies: If you have brown or Muslim or queer friends, reach out. Check in. Make sure we’re okay.
If you witness violence — in the form of overt acts or microaggressions — in your travels, do something about it. (We recognize that sometimes safety concerns make it difficult to do something in these situations, and that’s absolutely understandable. Not everyone can be Superwoman all of the time. But when you can, do.)
[Tweet “”In Islam, there is a saying about community: If one part of the body hurts, the whole body hurts.””]
We should not have to tell these stories in order to be seen as human, but the sad truth is that we do.
I’m on the metro in St. Petersburg, on my way to work.
I’m minding my business, listening to my iPod, and scrolling through news on my phone. I can tell, out of the corner of my eye, that the woman next to me is staring. I ignore her and continue scrolling.
She gets out of her seat and stands directly in front of me, holding onto the metal bar above. I try to sneak a look at her. Her face has an expression of deep hatred and disgust. I put my head back down and try to ignore her.
She moves again, this time toward the door.
I look at her, and she’s still staring at me. Now everyone on the train is looking at her, looking at me. I can feel my face flush with embarrassment.
The train slows to a stop. I grab my bags and hurry out two stops before Nevsky Prospekt. The doors close. I hang in the doorway of the station, trying to hide my face.
I wipe away tears. It’s fine. I’ll catch the next one.
In Islam, there is a saying about community: If one part of the body hurts, the whole body hurts.
The same must be true for our worldwide community of women. By working together, looking out, and being there for each other, we are so much stronger. Not only as women, but as people.