At the very end of Civil Rights Movement activist Anne Moody’s memoir, Coming of Age In Mississippi (1968), Moody sits among her fellow activists as they sing the movement song “We Shall Overcome,” and she thinks of all she has witnessed –– houses burned, churches bombed, friends beaten and arrested, leaders murdered. It was 1964, a year that many historians would call a turning point in the Movement, where the murders of three civil rights workers in rural Mississippi galvanized many Americans, forcing them to choose a side in the Black freedom struggle lest they continue to be complicit in the South’s racist violence. Still, as Anne Moody listened to the words, “We shall overcome. We shall overcome. We shall overcome someday,” she found herself thinking over and over again, “I wonder. I really wonder.”
We face a similar historical moment right now, when an act of heinous violence against a marginalized group has forced many outside that group to grapple with their own complicity in our oppression and decide with whom they will stand. Sunday morning, I awoke before 7am to a text message from a close queer friend: “Mass shooting at gay bar in Orlando. I think it’s time to leave America . . . 20 beautiful queers taken . . . I can’t stop crying, shaking. This is too much.”
In the subsequent hours and days we learned that it was not 20, but 50, dead, and more than that injured, most of them Latinx or other people of color –– the worst mass killing since Jim Crow-era atrocities like the 1923 Rosewood Massacre, which happened not far from Orlando, nor from where I grew up in Florida. We also learned that the shooter may have been enraged by seeing two men kissing, or he may have been gay or bisexual himself. Internalized or not, homophobia seems to have been his motivation.
Just over a year since nine Black churchgoers were murdered in Charleston and nearly a year after the marriage equality ruling, here we are, once again mourning the murders of a group of people who just want to be free, people who have fought for centuries to be accepted as equals, only to be killed by someone who blindly hated them for who they were.
Like Anne Moody, I am a homegrown southern progressive activist, but my primary cause is for equality and acceptance of LGBTQ people, a community of which I am proud to be a part. In recent days, more than ever, I have been amazed at the beauty, strength, and resilience of my queer siblings.
But also like Moody, something inside of me has been broken, not just by the 50 murdered in Orlando, but by the dozens of transgender women of color who have lost their lives to violence in recent years, the generation of gay men lost unnecessarily to AIDS while government officials did nothing, the queer youth who face rejection from their families and experience homelessness, and the staggering number in our community who simply can’t take it anymore and end their own lives.
What happened in Orlando is horrific and devastating, but it isn’t new. They’ve always been killing us. Even after marriage equality and other legislative gains, all LGBTQ people exist in a world where our mere survival is revolutionary. And while I know several amazing straight cis allies, I find myself angry and sad that it took a massacre or historic proportions for the rest of you to notice the crisis our community faces every single day. As many of my fellow queer writers have pointed out in these last few days, most straight cis people will never know how it feels to be scared to hold the hand of someone you love in public, or to dress and act as yourself.
Even as I have been uplifted and healed by the outpouring of support from non-LGBTQ friends and family in recent days, I find myself wondering if we ever really will overcome, if I or my children or grandchildren will ever live in a world where we are truly free to be ourselves and love whoever we want. I really wonder.