By Preston Mitchum
This past Pride month marked the one-year anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla. At approximately 2:00 AM, 29-year-old Omar Mateen – who allegedly pledged allegiance to ISIS on a 911 phone call during the hate crime and terrorist attack – walked into Pulse on June 12, 2016, killed 49 people, and injured 53 others on the club’s weekly “Latin Night.”
As a Black queer man, it’s hard not to see myself in the victims and survivors. Despite much of the media’s attempt to whitewash this tragedy, the fact that the victims were largely Latinx and Black queer and trans people matters because our communities are often told that safe spaces are not a reality, and only part of our fictitious imaginations. But if Pulse made anything apparent, it is that spaces for Black and Latinx queer people are now, and always have been, necessary.
Pulse was supposed to be a safe space for the LGBTQ community writ large. All too often, however, we see how hate-based violence against marginalized communities—particularly those at the intersections of race, sexuality, and gender identity—has a long, troubling history within the United States and abroad. Last June, Pulse presented a frightening reminder that even places designated as safe and sacred spaces for all LGBTQ people could result in an untimely death at the hands of one vitriolic person.
The majority of people killed last year in Pulse were Latinx and Black because they viewed Pulse as a safer space for queer people of color, especially on Saturday night’s “Latin night.” Last month, I wrote about the importance of exclusive spaces for Black queer and trans people in relation to D.C. Black Pride. In this piece, I made a call-to-action based on the importance of Black queer people having access to spaces where only we are present. This feeling became even more necessary with my experience at New York City’s Pride on Saturday, June 24.
While at NYC Pride, I pointed out to a friend the alarming rates of uniformed police presence. “This makes me uncomfortable,” I said. “Pride started out of resistance and against police institutions that harmed LGBTQ people of color, so I wish we valued that more.” My friend, obviously disagreeing, told me that these aren’t the bad cops and they are here to support us. I then noted how the overwhelming police presence was counter to what we know about Pride and resistance, especially in an area blocks away from the 1969 Stonewall Riot.
As they so often do, a gay white man close-by interjected, saying, “That was 50-60 years ago, let it go, these people aren’t bad anymore.” “That may be easy for you to say,” I responded, “but cops continue to beat and kill Black and brown LGBTQ people throughout the country.”
This interaction once again enforced why Black LGBTQ people need our own spaces. Spaces exclusive to the experiences of LGBTQ people of color matter. It’s how we grow, connect, and share our cultural experiences and identities especially within a hostile political climate like one in which white gay men defend the police against Black queer men. But whenever Black queer people discuss the need for our own spaces, it is met with resistance.
We know that marginalized communities respond to racist exclusion by creating communities that are intended for our survival. Oftentimes, this is accomplished by building spaces around people who look like us and understand our experiences.
What’s been most disappointing is the realization that, even after Pulse, many bars across the country began focusing on a “diversity” model, which ultimately ends up decentering LGBTQ people of color in order to uplift whiteness. Black and Latinx queer people rarely have access to exclusive space because we are told that all parts of society should be diverse, and therefore having our own space would be no better than if a white person only wanted white people to access a space.
This diversity model—ordinarily enacted by non-marginalized people—cannot lead to safety or safe spaces for Black and Latinx queer and trans people. The inclusion of every voice all the time makes it impossible for Black queer people to safely speak up about wrongdoing because society empowers some voices more than others.
Like diversity initiatives usually do, these efforts focus on numbers rather than being informed by experiences of the most marginalized. The diversity model centers white people—and by extension, whiteness—and then it attempts to include Black queer and trans people. That isn’t safety, it’s violence.
What I have come to discover about places like the nation’s capital, in the heart of gentrification where Black residents are continually being pushed out, is that many want our hard-earned money, but rarely do they want the body attached thereto.
Growing up, I felt like an outcast for being Black and queer. As an adult, I won’t be made to feel bad for wanting a space where that little boy can unapologetically exist.
As I revisit the anniversary of Pulse, I’m reminded of the importance of space for Black and Latinx queer people, not as a diversity model but a focus on intentional inclusion. Pulse may not have been that space during that night, but it’ll never take away from the fact that those in attendance got one final dance with those who looked like them—and who understood exactly why they were there.
Preston Mitchum is a Washington, DC-based writer, activist, and policy nerd. He is a regular contributor with The Root and theGrio and has written for the Atlantic, Think Progress, OUT Magazine, Ebony.com, and Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter here to see just how much he appreciates intersectionality.