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My personal pain: Reflections on Orlando

Tommy Allen joins the vigil.

The LGBTQ community across the country knows what it is to face constant violence. For those in power to try to silence them. To fight, entirely on their own, to fund research that would save  lives. Now, once again, community members are faced with heartbreak, devastation and anger, this time following the mass shooting of 49 LGBTQ individuals and their friends at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Publisher Tommy Allen reflects on this — and the change that must come.
I lit a candle on Sunday night as I gathered downtown outside the Apartment Lounge with the many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning individuals, and their allies, who had gathered to honor the 49 LGBTQ, and their friends, whose voices were extinguished at the Orlando Pulse nightclub on June 12.  

As I moved about the crowd, holding both my candle and camera high to record the many pop-up spoken or sung expressions of grief within this audience of hundreds, I began to wonder why no tears flowed from my eyes.

All the triggers that would have plucked a good cry out of me were there as I witnessed old folks silently hugging; younger people’s arms around each other, smiling as their eyes visibly betrayed an inner struggle to fight back a wall of tears; and, the greater than six-foot tall drag queen/performer Jasinya Sanchez, who broke the silence by belting out many songs, including an acapella version of “I Know Where I’ve Been” from “Hairspray: The Musical.” 

It wasn’t until the next day, and after I had appeared on the WGVU’s Morning Show with Shelley Irwin, that the tears I thought I had lost appeared as I drove home.

My 10 minute commute from the studio to my doorstep ended up taking nearly 90 minutes as I drove around the city, letting my sorrow flow behind sunglasses. It was the hardest drive I have ever made, which ranks right up with having to drive myself alone in a funeral processional to bury my grandmother. With my partner out of town, I was left to process these emotions of Orlando alone. I guess I was too proud to call for help.

During this time I reflected on why my tears took so long. Was I too angry? In denial or shock? Or was something even more sinister at work within me?  Had I lost my faith in our nation’s ability to solve a crisis motivated by hate? I live in a city where so many complex problems are being tackled through public, private, non-profit, and governmental agencies. It seems like we should have evolved beyond the point that what happened is kind of expected now as a part of our living. 

I didn’t grow up in an era where modern parents with LGBTQ children are supported with love and services, but rather I was raised by loving parents who would take me to church and enroll me in a religious school, where I was taught on a regular basis that people like me were cursed.  

I was even pulled out of class when I was a child so that a speech therapist could cure me of my lisp. Too bad she didn’t have shots of testosterone, or I might have been a bass and not sounding like a alto when I speak as an adult.

Later as I ventured to college — and not Calvin College, where I would eventually land and out myself — I was once again treated to a new level of self-hatred, as my room would be searched by the dorm’s resident advisors looking for material banned like rock music, cigarettes, or, worse, evidence of my homosexuality.

So I learned to adapt in this environment. And they almost got me once when I was caught dancing with my straight friends to Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration,” as it was played on a pipe organ that rose up from the floor at 28th Street’s Roaring 20s pizza parlor.

After college, I would enter society during an era where men were literally dying in the hallways or silently at home without care because hospitals would often refuse to treat them as the mystery of HIV and AIDS ravaged our community.

Even as we marched and protested that our lives mattered all across the nation, we still continued to die. It would take until 1987 before President Ronald Reagan would utter the word AIDS in a public statement; even though this public health crisis had emerged in the early 1980s and had already killed too many to ignore.

Realizing that we as a community could not do this alone, the LGBT of our country invested our own money to fund research that would lead to the first steps in treatments.

Even with the advances, we were dying.

I would bury my partner in 1996 literally on the eve of a new wave of medications that could have saved his life.

By the end of his battle he was so defeated by the disease that even the headlines — which were still filled, as they are today, with such hate=speech towards the LGBT — couldn’t phase him anymore, as he had resigned to simply stop fighting. His spirit was broken. Neither one of us really ever understood why such hatred existed from folks who had never even met us. I’d like to think we were loving people.

I can never forget his last night as I slept next to him. As he labored to breathe in the oxygen, I had no idea he was on his last leg of his journey out of this world, and I was there, alone, in the darkness, trying to figure out how to create some comfort within him as I checked the monitor to see if the breathing unit hospice had delivered a few days earlier was failing or simply empty.  I had no idea this would be his last hours in this life.  Somehow against all odds, we tell ourselves that hope is still alive even in the face of such devastating circumstances.

Having watched a few friends give birth, I can say it is still one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. Right next to falling in love.

But to watch a human die, a human who has given up on a life where we are exposed to such hatred from those we never even met, is just as crippling as it is mind-blowing to even my seemingly endless, positive spirit. Fast forward to our city today, I am happy to see within the arms of a modern Grand Rapids, I feel a bit at home finally with organizations providing service to ensure no child has to experience the pain many of us recall from our past.

Maybe that is why my tears failed to flow on Sunday. Maybe I was in shock that for all the road that we have traveled as natural born-citizens of the U.S., we still have that gnawing reality in the back of our minds that we do not have the basic freedoms that protect one born and identifying as straight in this world. In the U.S. you can still be fired or denied housing simply because you are perceived to be gay. 

I, like so many of my LGBTQ friends and other societal outsiders who have lived long enough to experience this hatred first-hand, quite possibly are just growing tired. We may have won our legal battle with our court appointed-rights to marry the ones we love, but with each year that passes, and as violence continues to rise around the planet against the LGBTQ, many of us are losing our faith in humanity.

For as generations of homophobia still works its way through our society, as witnessed by me and others of my generation, this recent attack born out of a hatred from the sight of two men kissing — a loving act of affection and so pure that people all over the world, and across the spectrum of sexes, have engaged in daily since the dawn of time — would ignite a flame of internalized homophobia within a person that ends the lives of 49 LGBTQ people who had simply gathered with friends to celebrate the music of their Latino culture through dance is simply numbing to my soul.

Forty-nine grownup children across a diversity of ages will not have the opportunity to express their love to their dads on Father’s Day this June 19.  49 people will be missed around the table on Thanksgiving. And next April, 49 mothers will mourn all over again the absurdity that her child has joined the thousands of others who die each year because we will not break our national silence on gun legislation. And in between we will continue to lay our slain brothers and sisters in to the earth simply because we are told to be silent or that we can't innovate ourselves a workable solution on this one topic.

Maybe the absence of my tears were not for these 49 LGBTQ members of our society who were selected for murder. Maybe my tears come after witnessing a lifetime of aggression against peace-loving people who have been split into diverse groups, as in recent memory, simply wished to worship with other African Americans or send their children to a neighborhood school or even gather to dance to a favorite tune; maybe my lack of tears is that, after all this and knowing what I know as a member of the LGBTQ community, I know, too well that we will probably do nothing.  And maybe that is why I cry over the loss of our humanity and our ability to not talk about the topic we so desperately need to be having as a nation.  The song Jasinya sang out into the darkness says, “to stand still would be a sin.”  And for once I could not agree more.

Doing nothing is not an answer. Maybe I'll regain my faith and belief that we, as a society, as evident by my community's ability to tackle the tough problems, will lead us to inventive solutions that will spread everywhere.  That is the faith I have in my city
— and for all our cities. 
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