After Pulse: Queer Intimacies in the Shadow of Orlando

Existential Stress Ball

It’s been ages since I’ve posted on here, and I’m both saddened and frustrated that it’s taken the anniversary of the Pulse Orlando massacre for me to get back to writing about these sorts of issues. The shootings at Pulse, a gay club in Orlando, Florida, USA, took place exactly one year ago, when I was working on a book manuscript about intimacy, belonging, and affect on the (electronic music) dancefloor. As the summer went on and the shockwaves from the attack continued to reverberate within queer Latinx/QTPoC, I found myself writing a very different epilogue to the book than I had planned. I’m still putting the finishing touches on the manuscript, but I thought I would share an excerpt from the epilogue, which recounts the aftermath of the Pulse shooting and begins to reflect on what that might mean for queer public intimacy, shared risk/trauma, and historiography.

I learned of the Orlando massacre right after returning home to Birmingham after a week spent teaching at a summer school in Prague. After the plane landed and began to slowly approach our arrival gate, I fired up my mobile phone with the intention of scrolling through my social media feeds as a calming distraction before facing yet another encounter with the UK’s Border Force. Instead, I found news reports from Orlando in all of my feeds. At the time, the reports mentioned an “active shooter” with potential hostages, but little else was known about the attacker, the circumstances, or the death toll. All I knew was that a bunch of queer Latinxs had been attacked in the place where they went to dance, feel safe, hook up, and celebrate another week of survival.

Unable to do much more than worry helplessly, I went into a sort of self-protective lockdown. I reposted one of the news links with the comment, “Welp, everything is terrible again,” and then shut off my internet connectivity for several hours. Mercifully, I had a date with two friends for a “Sunday pub dinner” somewhere in the countryside west of Birmingham; for a couple of hours, they kept me distracted with talk of vegetarian pub grub, canals, longboats, music festivals, and BBC radio comedy while my mind struggled to right itself.

In the meanwhile, as I was out being distracted with dinner, further details about the shooting were coming to light. The shooting began shortly after 2 a.m. Sunday, June 11, 2016, when a heavily armed man walked walked in through the front door of Pulse, a gay nightclub that was hosting a “Latin Night” as part of local Pride Weekend celebrations. The first “breaking news” dispatches reported at least twenty dead and many more wounded. Soon afterwards, the shooter was holed up in the club’s toilets with several hostages. The shooter was Omar Mateen, a twenty-nine-year-old American-born local resident and security guard of Afghan heritage. Rumors were circulating that he had called 911 (emergency dispatch) before the shooting rampage to swear allegiance with ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). About three hours after the shooting began, it was all over: Mateen was dead by police gunfire and the surviving hostages released. As police entered the venue to tend to the wounded, the casualties rose to nearly fifty dead and more than fifty injured. As the day wore on, accounts by survivors began to surface that recounted bar staff and guests alike risking their lives to help others escape. Local news outlets began to collect and publish text messages, voice messages, and recorded phone calls from hostages who had been trapped inside—in many cases capturing their last moments. A message on Twitter begins to circulate widely, pointing out that many closeted Latinx queers have just been outed by television footage of the shooting or by having to call home from a hospital bed. Later in the same day, Mateen’s father denied that his son had any connections to islamist extremist groups, offering instead homophobia as a potential motive—a motive supported by his former co-workers, who characterized him as not only violently homophobic but misogynist and racist. Despite the shooting taking place at a “Latin Night” in a queer club during Pride Weekend, most national and international news failed to mention the racial and sexual dimensions of the shooting until queer Latinx activists criticized the coverage on social media. That night and in the days that followed, American public culture showed itself reluctant to mourn brown queer lives.

When I got home, I was sucked into a feedback loop of horror, sadness, and anger: force-feeding my outrage with every news update, posting frustrated status updates, commiserating with other queer and brown friends through public comment threads as well as private messengers, and so on. I got into bed late in the morning, had trouble getting to sleep, and for the rest of the week I struggled to return to any semblance of productive work. I felt more than just absentminded. As the days and weeks went on, however, I found myself more closely connected to a network of queers, people of color, and allies than I had been before. Friends and acquaintances reached out through various channels of communication to “check in,” to express support, to spill out their own mess of feelings, to remap past traumas to the present, to share weblinks to commentary that was either uplifting or further infuriating, or just to confirm that they were not the only ones still aching.

A renewed sense of intimacy and connectedness within queer club culture seems to have emerged under the shadow of the Orlando massacre, one grounded in a similarly-renewed sense of shared risk and struggle. In the days immediately following the shooting, the Internet was awash with the testimonies of queer clubgoers, attesting to the importance of musical refuges such as Pulse. Marea Stamper a.k.a. The Black Madonna, a queer DJ and producer from the Chicago scene who in the previous three years had become an internationally-touring artist and a vocal proponent of political activism within club culture, described Pulse on Twitter as:

Daniel Leon-Davis, a local resident who grew up in close proximity to Pulse, recounted in an article for Fusion his first revelatory visit to the club as a high-school senior student; for him, the club’s significant was not just personal, but collective: “Pulse was not just my safe haven, but a safe haven for hundreds of LGBTQ individuals in Orlando”. Four days after the shooting, prominent popular culture magazine The Fader published an interview with two queer Latinx party promoters in Washington D.C., Kristy LarAt and Precolumbian, who described events such as theirs (“Maracuyeah”) and Pulse’s “Latin Night” as “necessary spaces of resistance”; for them, such spaces offered not only escape from oppression but also opportunities to release and channel their frustrations in constructive ways. Although hardly full-fledged utopias, these dancefloors provided spaces where queers of color could collectively imagine, play out, and feel a world less toxic than this one.

Some of the online responses to the Orlando massacre were remarkable in the intimacy of their tone and content, especially those addressed to an imagined community of queers and Latinxs. Often writing in the second person or the first person plural, these commentators posted deeply affective “open letters” to their queer and brown brethren on public blogs and through social media channels. One of the most moving of these was a series of posts by a Twitter user under the pseudonym of “Supergrover” (@fuzzlaw), a commentator on issues of criminal justice in the Baltimore area who also identified herself as an “ageing dyke”:


[…several tweets summarizing the history of queer political struggle, especially the AIDS crisis…]





In the series of thirty tweets (from which the above have been excerpted), she explicitly addresses a younger generation of queers, addressing them frequently as “kids” and alternating between the second person singular and the first person plural to narrate a story of care, solidarity, and political pedagogy. To convey her sense of heartbreak, she traces a timeline of anti-queer violence—Stonewall, UpStairs Lounge, responses to AIDS crisis, and Matthew Shepard—describing how the political advances in GLBTQ rights after the Shepard murder raised hopes that the worst of the violence was behind them. The Orlando massacre, however, not only reconnected this dark timeline to the present, it far surpassed previous anti-queer attacks in its scale of carnage and brutality. Indeed, some of the more reflective news stories that circulated later that week situated the Orlando attack within this longer history of homophobic mass violence. This historical perspective brought the violent past of queer struggle uncomfortably close, implicitly questioning whether contemporary political advances towards queer visibility and institutional recognition had substantially increased the chances of queer survival. A trans-identified Twitter user Kylie Jack (@ixKylie), captured this disheartening realization with bleak humor:

ixKylie Gay Agenda
Notably, the checkbox next to “survive” was left un-checked.

The Orlando massacre was especially shocking for those involved in queer nightlife not only because the attack took place in a queer nightclub, but also because it occurred during a period of flourishing for their scenes. In 2014, when I wrote a revisionist history of sexuality in dance music for Resident Advisor —an article I wrote in response to the erasures of sexuality and race that seemed to stem from the influx of mainstream attention during the EDM “boom”—I closed the article with a brief survey of some of the queer, sex-positive party crews that were just beginning to gain notoriety beyond their local scenes at the time. Two years later (and three months before Orlando), Andrew Ryce devoted an entire feature article in the same magazine to a growing network of queer party crews that he described as “America’s Gay Techno Underground”. These two magazine articles bookend a two-year period where various media outlets, bloggers, and artists sought to “reclaim” dance music from a straight, white, middle-class mainstream and recenter it around burgeoning queer scenes; they did so by insisting on electronic dance music’s queer, brown, working-class, inner-city roots. By 2016, queer nightlife was resurgent and vibrant again, and their increasing visibility seemed to herald growing acceptance by a wider public. All of this may have been indeed the case, but Orlando did much to deflate this sense of political and cultural progress.

It is out of this discursive landscape in the days following Orlando that an “intimate public” took shape (Berlant 2008), a sphere of affective belonging based on the assumption that personal experiences of (sexual, racial) oppression are sufficiently similar in their affective contour to provide a basis for solidarity across other differences and distances. This public mode of queer intimacy existed well before the Orlando massacre, but this most recent and very public tragedy provided a new instance of common affective experience, that is, the irruption of homophobic violence into a queer dancefloor. Many responses to the attack described queer nightclubs as “sanctuaries,” alluding to the desecration of a sacred, sacrosanct space in order to express the gravity of the violation. In Remezcla, an online magazine of alternative Latin culture, Veronica Bayetti Flores notes that Pulse was not only a nocturnal sanctuary of dancing, companionship, and self-realization, “where many of us experienced our whole selves for the first time,” but also “an important community center,” providing support for HIV prevention, breast-cancer awareness and immigrant rights. Queer nightclubs like Pulse are spaces of cultural and corporeal survival for queer people of color (Amico 2006, Bailey 2013, Buckland 2002, Muñoz 2009), and so the resurgence of queer public intimacy in the wake of the Orlando massacre had its affective basis in a renewed awareness that we are not even safe in our own spaces, on the dancefloors of our own making. On the day that the shooting happened, just before I tried (and failed) to finally go to sleep, I posted a tweet that encapsulated this realization in less than 140 characters:

Queers, women, people of color, and transfolk repeatedly find themselves caught in between these apparently irreconcilable conditions, and the friction they create permeates our nightlives with a persistent hum of precarity. As much as we might go out to escape our troubles, they have a way of following us into the club.

[To be continued…]

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