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Identity

The Pulse Tragedy and the Ongoing Erasure of Queer Latin Culture​

One year after the Orlando shooting, in which 49 people were gunned down at Latin Night at a queer nightclub, my culture still doesn't see the recognition it deserves.

by Xorje Olivares
Jun 12 2017, 10:00pm

A woman mourns at a memorial for the 49 victims of the Pulse shooting tragedy. Drew Angerer/Getty

"I hate that there are practically no Latino gay clubs in Manhattan!" I shouted, as a few of my buddies and I strolled toward one of our favorite gay bars in Hell's Kitchen. It was June 11, 2016, and we were out celebrating my Cuban-American friend Tony's 34th birthday. He furiously nodded in agreement to what, at that point, had become a common refrain from me, a border kid who grew up dancing to cumbias by artists like Selena and seriously missed the sounds of his childhood. Can a bitch get a timbale drum beat up in here without a 45 minute subway ride to Queens?!

And I wasn't alone in feeling that. The other Latinx guys with us that summer night (some of Mexican descent, another hailing from Panama) echoed my frustrations, and each mentioned how they'd tried and failed to find a nearby Latin night so we could best express our unique sense of identity—an identity we felt was constantly overshadowed by the gay rights movement, which has been painted almost entirely white by both mainstream culture and the LGBTQ community at large.

Now, don't get me wrong: in asking for a designated space just for LGBTQ Latinos, we've never wanted to segregate ourselves from our light-skinned queer brothers and sisters. There's a difference between honoring our heritage in a comfortable setting and refusing to coexist with those who don't share our racial or ethnic background. That's not the case here. We are all part of the same queer community, even if it's often depicted as looking one way more than another.

But those observations didn't keep us off the dance floor that Saturday night, where we grooved alongside fellow Pride Month celebrators until 3 AM. I remember thinking on my way home that it was the kind of fun, invigorating experience that forces you to take a second and realize just how enjoyable it is to be out and proud.

Then, a few hours later, I was awoken by a text message: "This Orlando shooting is terrifying and sad." Originally mistaking it for a separate incident involving former Voice contestant Christina Grimmie, I responded, "Ughh with the young singer, I know!"

And that's when I started seeing the headlines on Twitter about a fatal attack inside a Florida nightclub called Pulse. Few news outlets I saw at the onset made note of the fact that it was a gay club, which angered me to no end. How could no one care to acknowledge that this massacre affected my community? Not only that, but it hit us at a place where we routinely find refuge from an exclusionary world. These crucial details needed mentioning, in my opinion, in order to avoid complete erasure from the media and those consuming it.

A pit soon formed in my stomach with each new update. But it wasn't until I heard a CNN anchor declare that it happened to be "Latin Night" at Pulse that I felt nauseous, weak, and frankly, helpless. "Wow, they really came for us," I remember thinking. "This was a direct attack on my people: we were the targets."

Yes, we. Looking back at the victims list and scanning through their pictures, how could I not take it personally? A vast majority of those killed had names that sounded like mine, faces that looked like mine, skin tones that matched mine, and likely struggles that resembled mine, as a South Texas native forced to hide his truth from those who thought homosexuality was a sin reserved for jotos y maricones.

Those proud Latinos gunned down that morning presumably sought out the exact same music I've longed to move my hips to. The truth is that these queer, brown victims lived (and died) as their authentic selves, and this queer, brown man couldn't help but feel deeply affected by their loss.

I reverted back to that moment from the night before with my compadres, where we lamented the lack of venues (and by extension, events) created specifically with us in mind. Had they existed, we would've been there, cha-cha'ing it up with like-minded folks. And had Orlando been New York City, it could've been us; we could've been the casualties in America's deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman. The only thing that saved us was a ZIP code.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, and even to this day, it was impossible for me, and other LGBTQ Latinos, to not play the "what if" game; to not consider placing ourselves in that very situation, since it was entirely plausible. And, honestly, who could blame us?

Well, apparently, some could. I had several gay acquaintances, who happen to be white, ask why I felt as affected by the tragedy as I did. I recall one brunch that summer, when a white "friend" I hadn't spoken to in several weeks tried to assert ownership over the table's grief. When I, the only Latino at the table, calmly challenged him, he essentially asked: what made it so different for you?

That harsh line of questioning—from fellow queer people, no less—not only angered me, it made me cognizant of the growing divide that exists between LGBTQ Latinos (and queer people of color in general) and our white counterparts. Because it seems the latter just don't get it, particularly after Orlando. The fact remains that our LGBTQ community has a tendency to consistently showcase white members over others. It allows them to showcase their opinions first and assigns them a greater weight. Their stories and success have somehow become the default for our community. And it too often feels like the existence of LGBTQ Latinos are rarely included in America's queer narrative, because society has always chosen to elevate voices that don't quite know how to roll their Rs just yet.

Visibility is key, and it hurts knowing that the only time I've really seen myself as a gay, brown individual is in watching Pulse's coverage. White LGBTQ people aren't neglected; their faces never not seen. They know representation well, while we're here trying to find someone who reflects our experiences on a larger cultural scale. Don't believe me? Name more than seven prominent, out Latinos. Go ahead, I'll wait. Ricky Martin? Cool. Wilson Cruz? Got it… next?

And Cruz himself, who lost a close family member during the shooting, agreed that people needed to be more respectful of the victims' ancestry. "Not only is this a story about a minority group being attacked, but it's a minority within a minority that was attacked," the actor and activist told the Huffington Post shortly after the shooting. Noting that he, too, felt the presence of cultural erasure, the Puerto Rican star added, "Let's not whitewash their experience; it's multi-faceted."

Former Orlando resident Sergio Lugo felt similarly. A work acquaintance introduced me to Lugo late last week both because of his connection to the region and his own visceral reaction to Pulse as a bisexual Afro-Latino. Lugo told me that, while at a local cafe, he overheard a Bible study leader characterize the victims not as gay or Puerto Rican but as human. He wrote to me and said, "Rhetoric like [that] seems nice in theory, implying that we're all equal under God's eyes, but I couldn't help but perceive it as a lecture in erasure."

Rudy Campos is a close hometown friend of mine who was out clubbing in Austin, Texas, on June 11th. He wrote me, saying, "It makes me really sad that as a Latino and as a gay man, I have a huge target on my back." He also expressed discomfort with knowing that, in addition to perceived religious persecution, he's seen as "less valuable than a Caucasian man."

"My feelings are basically: why don't I feel safe being myself?" Campos said.

And it's a valid question, considering how tough it is growing up, and ultimately existing, as someone who is gay and brown. For instance, there's the weight of machismo, or overt masculinity, that dictates our early behaviors and mannerisms; there's the pressures of a religion, usually either Catholicism or Christianity, that shames you for your same-sex attractions; there's the lack of representation on all fronts that makes you feel worthless and invisible; and there's the persistent fetishization of Latinx people, particularly gay men, by those enchanted by our "exoticism."

As difficult as this queer brown life can be sometimes, especially post-Pulse, it's mine—it's ours. We have the privilege to enjoy it, and I, personally, am more determined than ever before to do just that. Not everyone receives that blessing, and I don't take my fortune lightly; not when 49 people were senselessly deprived of their own. So in the words of the Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz, in her iconic Carnaval hit, we must know that "la vida es una hermosura, hay que vivirla"—life is beautiful, we must live it.

Follow Xorje Olivares on Twitter.