Identities, LGBTQ, Race & Politics
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There’s no such thing as a safe space: Grieving after Orlando

Black man with rainbow flag

by Irna Landrum

This post was originally published on Daily Kos and is republished here with permission.

I needed an updo. I have dreadlocks, thick heavy tresses now long enough to fall over my shoulders. I was going to be a bridesmaid in an outdoor wedding in New Orleans. In the summer. The thought of my locks touching my face and my neck and my shoulders and back while I stood smiling in steamy humidity was too much to bear. I needed an updo.

At the recommendation of several of my dreadhead sistren, I found a stylist in the 7th Ward, drove to her through pouring rain, and waited more than an hour to be seen. I walked into the shop and saw locs and afros and braids being done. I heard the familiar Creole cadence of speech I’d grown up with. I was called darlin’ as soon as I walked in the door. There are no spaces like this in my current city, Minneapolis. This new place immediately felt like home.

When homophobia slaps you in the face at home the pain is sharper, the disruption that much more jarring. When you take your black woman, nappy-headed, country-thick body into a space that welcomes you like family, and you sink a little deeper into the seat, and you breathe a little more easily, you forget that they might still hate you if they knew you were queer.

The stylists worked hard on thickly coiled manes and casually talked about one of these punks in the city. I realized they were talking about a locally famous transgender woman. They misgendered her, called her a man in makeup, and lamented how much the media is glorifying “that mess.” They all agreed we must be in the end days with all these gay people everywhere and men wanting to be women.

My heart ached, but my mouth clamped shut. I didn’t have the energy to address it. I no longer knew who I was with. I had no idea how safe it would be for me to speak up. I didn’t know whether to out myself and challenge their bigotry head on, or to accept that, as a person living in several marginalized identities, no place would be safe for them all. I couldn’t figure out whether it was worth it to leave, my own hair unfinished, and show up at my best friend’s wedding the next day with the best hairstyle I could muster on my own.

So I seethed inwardly, pulled out my smartphone, and told my social media what was happening around me.

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Their casual homophobia went on and on. And I swallowed the lump in my throat.


It’s the same lump I swallow when my family shoves me into a glass closet I keep trying to smash. I talk about my queer life, my queer friends, and my queer love, and they pretend not to notice. And I don’t push, because this is the price of having a family.

It’s the same lump I swallowed at church for years, before I realized that I felt more divine love in the embrace of my QTPOC community than I did at the church that deliberately erased me. More than I did from the pastor whose silence pierced my heart when I wrote to him “I am queer. I am not confused. I don’t need counseling. I just want to come home.”

It’s the same lump I swallow in black radical organizing spaces that still haven’t figured out how to hold the queers among us, insisting that only our blackness matters.

I left the shop with a beautiful crown of braided locs atop my head and shame inside my heart. I felt the assault—a barrage of insults, often veiled in thin religious doctrine and vile slurs all at once.

Two days later I woke to the news that a gunman opened fire in a gay nightclub in Florida.

It was Latin night. They were there, gay and queer, Latinx, many of them immigrants. And they thought they’d found a space that would love and hold all of their margins, all the parts of them that were hated elsewhere.

I’ve tried and tried to find the words to explain the sickness that overtook my body when I found out. I had been accepting that homophobia was the price of having family, or of having my blackness embraced. I had accepted that for me, a queer black fat woman, there is no such thing as safe space.

I understood that I may never be safe from judgment or proselytizing, or harassment or discrimination. Homophobia has broken my heart and caused me deep emotional anguish. Homophobia has cost me friendships and communities. Homophobia has weighed down my spirit.

But I never really suspected that my body wasn’t safe.

I never suspected that someone would hate what I am—and what he may also have been—so much that he would try to exterminate it, en masse.

So, I trembled and cried and tried to talk to my mother about it. She ignored the GAY CLUB aspect of it and focused on the number of people who were hurt. She ignored that I sat there in tears knowing that, in a different city, it could have been me. I continue to interpret her purposely closed ears as a closed heart to a part of me, but it’s stopped hurting as much as it used to.

She left to go to a church that teaches her to close her heart to part of me.

Alone, I opened my laptop, ready to commiserate on social media. I was overcome with white hot rage.

All the people who loved the sinner but hated the sin, the ones who loved us but just didn’t agree with our lifestyle, the ones who pray for our deliverance, who call us abominations; the ones who pull their children closer because they think our love perverse, our public affection obscene. The ones whose homophobia I accepted as the partial price of love were sending out prayers. They were calling for us to love one another through this. They were happy the gunman was apparently a Muslim, because they could blame this horrid tragedy on Islamic extremism instead of reckoning with how each and every one of them create a world where Omar Mateen thought he needed to kill our queerness with (gun)fire.

Their continual attacks on our spirits feeds the hate and anger that could unleash this kind of attack on queer bodies.

Enraged, I lashed out. I wrote and wrote about all the ways people murder queer and trans spirits day by day. I cried that they could not claim the moral high ground and that I would not allow them to grieve alongside the communities they hate on every other day. I insisted they were no better than he was, not really.

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And now I’m wrestling with myself, too. How I can tacitly accept slow soul murder while deep-soul mourning this tremendous loss of life? How can I so regularly silently comply with the eating away at queer and trans dignity—just because I’ve built up enough calluses to endure it—and weep with every news update coming from Orlando?

On one hand, I don’t believe it is the fault of oppressed people when they struggle to find ways to survive a bigoted world. I don’t believe it’s wrong to want to be a part of family or community, even when they fail to tenderly hold every vulnerable part of you. I don’t believe it is the duty of every LGBTQ person to be loud and proud, because we all have to consider our lives and our safety.

But right now, in the midst of it all, I feel guilty that I have been relying on my silence to protect me—relatively safe me. I feel guilty that I’ve been quiet to preserve peace of mind when so much of my queer family needs me to use my place of relative safety to shout down Babylon, and fight to protect all of us.

[Header image courtesy of Michael Dwyer, Associated Press, 2016]

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