Stereoscope of Lake Wilcox, Orlando, Florida. New York Public Library.
WE ARE STRONGER
By Sarah Viren
I was twenty-two, queer, and coming of age in Florida. Finishing college, I knew two things: I wanted to get out of that state, and I wanted to be a writer.
But then I landed a gig with Florida’s longest-running gay newspaper, Watermark, based in Orlando. The editor responded to my inquiry about freelance work by asking if I wanted a regular monthly column. I had no experience, no connections; he’d never met me. But a generosity of support thrives in the queer community, especially for the youngest and most vulnerable among us. Maybe he could tell how much I needed a chance. I took the job and stayed in Sarasota, promising myself to delay, not abandon, my plan to leave.
The first edition of my column ran in the September 2001 issue. I’d written how, when discussing my college studies with strangers—my senior thesis was on lesbian detective novels—I often outed myself in the process. Queers twenty years ago, I wrote, never could have studied their own people and their own histories, let alone take a class called “Reading and Writing Homoeroticism.” The fact that I could meant that this country had to be getting a little better for people like us.
A week and a half after my debut column came out, the twin towers fell in New York. I was home, trying to finish my thesis, when my then girlfriend, a mechanic, called to say she had been working on a roof near the airport when the area went into lock-down. President Bush had been visiting Sarasota, our town, and was just flown out under top security. I hung up the phone with her and watched on TV the burning steel and falling bodies; it was well into afternoon before I ventured out to a gas station for a soda. I remember now the man working behind the counter, a dark-skinned man with a thick beard, how he and I looked at each other with shared grief when he handed back my change.
By the next day, the rhetoric changed from mourning to fighting; then the war started and soon terror was a word politicians used to wield power rather than a term that might describe what many of us have long felt, at least those of us who have a history of being persecuted, attacked, and erased by the country that is supposed to claim us as its own.
I am thirty-seven now. I am no longer living in Florida. I’ve moved to West Texas, married a woman, had a child. More than fifteen years have passed since a little gay paper in Orlando gave me a chance, since the word terror became a political tool.
I never went to the nightclub Pulse, the site of last weekend’s massacre, but I’ve been to plenty of places like it. My safe space as a young lesbian woman was a queer coffee shop in suburban Tampa called Sacred Grounds. It was run by a lesbian couple who treated me like their own daughter. I went there every afternoon during high school. I met my first girlfriend at Sacred Grounds, too. Pulse was such a space for a lot of people in Orlando, I’m sure.
Politicians who bandy around the word terror often have no idea what it feels like to limit your sense of safety to a small, select set of semi-private spaces: home, the bar, the streets on that one day of the Pride parade. Nor can they imagine the strange but wonderful sort of pride—almost like patriotism, but better—we can sometimes feel when we find ourselves in a self-claimed space together and we see each other for who we are, in all our differences and all our shared fears.
I slept on the couch last Saturday night because I’m five months pregnant and can’t get comfortable anymore in bed. I wake up a lot, and when I can’t fall back asleep I read the news, which is what I was doing early Sunday morning before my wife and daughter were awake. My first thought? I wish I wasn’t pregnant. How can I bring a child into a world where something like this could—does—happen?
Then I remembered the recent reading I gave in Orlando with some friends—four queer writers in front of a packed room. One women performed a spoken word history of queer and black women; a trans woman gave us our bodies as the myth of Icarus; I read an essay about a college break up, about discovering that Florida was a real place, after all, an important place.
As a nation we may think of the queer movement living in cities like New York or San Francisco, but so many of us grew up in Alabama, North Carolina, Florida—places where the laws criminalized until way too recently our bodies and our families. For those of us from rural America, it is cities like Orlando—with its Pulse nightclub and its Watermark newspaper—where the movement rises.
I never responded to the September 11 attacks in my Watermark column. At the time, I couldn’t figure out how to view the world with such a wide lens. Instead, I wrote about all the little ways the personal was made public, and political, in my daily life. I wrote about “gay dollars”—dollars stamped with the phrase, an effort to show how we were circulating everywhere. And I wrote about how my college girlfriend bought me two female Kiss-Kiss Bears for Valentine’s Day, that we realized too late our bears would never be able to kiss, their lips manufactured away from each other.
I didn’t plan to write about Orlando either. But when I drove my three-year-old daughter to day care Monday morning, listening to the news on the radio, I heard her repeat the word shooting in the backseat.
By one account, Omar Mateen committed the massacre because his three-year-old son saw two men kissing. My daughter often sees two women kissing. It happens in the morning when her parents wake up and fix her breakfast, make ourselves coffee. It happens, too, sometimes, when we take family walks through our neighborhood or go to the park near our house on Sunday mornings.
I can’t yet explain the Orlando shooting to my daughter, but we did take her to a vigil with us on Monday night. Two hundred people or more packed into a small public square, and my daughter stood on the concrete rim of a planter box, listening as they read the names of the men and women who were killed—almost all of whom were young, queer, and Latinx. “They speak Spanish like us,” she said about halfway through the list, smiling in recognition.
The last column I wrote for Watermark was a farewell of sorts, in which I thanked the paper’s readers and editors for making me a writer, and for giving me a community. It had been almost two years, and, though it was hard to let the column go, I had a full-time writing job that was taking up more of my time.
This week, I went back and read some of my old Watermark columns, including that last one when I said goodbye. “What I’ve realized,” I wrote, “is that there is power in our communication and in our community. Because when we get together, whether it is through a newspaper or at the bars, we are stronger than we are by ourselves.”
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