Those kind of questions always baffle me for two reasons. First, it assumes we choose our causes. We don’t. They choose us. Even when we choose charities to donate to, we are inspired by our own experiences, views of the world and political beliefs. I’m fighting for LGBTQ+ equality and women’s rights because as a queer woman, I only have to exist to know there is still plenty to be done. Which brings me to the second point, which is the assumption that the fight for LGBTQ+ people ended with marriage equality.
In 2016 there are people being gunned down during Pride month because of the fact they are LGBTQ+. Whatever else drove the atrocities at Pulse in Orlando, there is no doubt the attack was motivated by homophobia and should be viewed as a direct attack on the LGBTQ+ community. The bars which have provided a safe space for generations of LGBTQ+ people were violated again this week. Again, because it is not the first time these spaces have come under threat. The threat to those spaces starts at the lower end of the spectrum with the closure of pubs and bars as new developments claim once LGBTQ+ proud spaces. At the other end of the spectrum is the threat to life - the risks posed to those who simply want to enjoy being who they are. Those risks are violent ones - from bombs and guns used such as the nail bomb at the Admiral Duncan in Soho and the recent attack on Pulse in Orlando to the attacks on individuals leaving clubs, holding hands walking down the street or daring to kiss in public.
I have already posted on my Twitter and Facebook about the events in Orlando, but I find my mind is still full of those events and I want to say more. We are fortunate in countries like England and America that we have streets open to us to celebrate Pride events and bars where we feel welcome and accepted as part of the LGBTQ+ community. We have loud, proud voices from politicians to celebrities who support LGBTQ+ communities. I say we are lucky, not because it shouldn’t be the natural order of things, because of course it should. We are lucky because there are countries where falling in love is still a crime; places where being gay is punishable by death. So I am enormously grateful that I can enjoy the events, bars, communities, parades and marches publicly and openly. I can write posts like this one, Tweet and update my Facebook status without fear of censure. I can dress as I want, present as I want and for the most part feel safe, confident and proud.
The attack on Pulse resonates because it was a space just like one I – and many of you – will have enjoyed on countless occasions. Just the other week I was at Birmingham Pride, dancing until dawn and watching some fantastic cabaret, meeting new friends and making contact with people I’ve every intention of seeing again. I am going to York Pride this Sunday and Manchester Pride at the end of August. Yes, there is a different tone to Pride events these days. There is a different focus to some of the parades of the past – I remember attending a Stockholm Pride in the early noughties where the political focus was a very different one to today’s Pride parades. However, I would argue the politics still remain if you’re looking for them and you know where to find them. They are found in the cabaret tents, in speaking to people who have come to their first Pride and those who might be on their twentieth year at the same Pride.
There is still a bravery involved with walking through the streets carrying rainbow flags and dancing in clubs with people from the community. There’s a bravery in attending candlelit vigils and standing up in public, vocal support of LGBTQ+ rights. Sadly, there’s still a bravery to walking down the street with someone of the same gender, hand in hand. There’s bravery because there is still a threat and a real one from people who can’t stand to see LGBTQ+ people simply being who they are. The fact Pride events are bigger and more celebrated than ever is simply the good fortune of our generation – a reminder of the many people who fought for our right to be out here in the open – not hidden away. At a time when people are thinking about pride and celebration, somebody saw fit to silence that joy, snuff out young lives and to attempt to curb those freedoms. Whatever else the shooter in Orlando wanted, the intent of such attacks is often to attempt to stamp out celebration, silence people being themselves and to leave a collective community cowering beneath the brute force of fear, hatred and violence.
For the LGBTQ+ community, this kind of persecution is not new. The scale of the Orlando attacks was brutal and overwhelming and my heart goes out to everyone touched by the attack. In some way, I believe every member of the LGBTQ+ community and their friends and allies will be touched to a greater or lesser extent by those events. Everyone who has danced in a bar like Pulse and felt that moment of freedom will feel the impact of the attack keenly. This is why, as we dance and celebrate, we can’t simply forget the times when men in their thousands were left to die when governments turned their back on those of the AIDs generation. We can’t forget the countless occasions when authorities allowed the deaths of LGBTQ+ people to go unpunished in the not so distant past.
The nature and extent of the persecution faced by LGBTQ+ community may have changed, but the fight is far from over. The LGBTQ+ community does not have its happy ever after. We cannot and will not just wash our hands of the work that remains and disappear quietly off the back of recent victories. How can we, when there are still people losing their lives just for being LGBTQ+? Homophobic motivated hate crime in the UK saw a sharp rise in 2014 – 2015. There are still politicians in 2016 that display an open ignorance of – and in some cases hostility towards – LGBTQ+ people. For all the community might have an outpouring of love and support from its members and allies, it also faces threats from those who seek to attack someone just because they are different to that individual’s view of ‘normal’. People continue to be beaten up because they fall in love with someone of the same gender or because they were born in the wrong body. People are called freaks, fags, queers and I still see gay used as an insult in unexpected and unwelcome places. There is a real lack of understanding and visibility around non-binary sexuality and gender identity and there is still a lot of legislative progress to be made in terms of protecting the trans* community.
Are things better? Yes. Are they perfect? No. There are times in LGBTQ+ activism I am too young to remember. There were the times when I didn’t even know who or what I was. I wasn’t even close to being bold and brave enough to take up a flag and march with pride through the streets. To educate myself, I have made sure I am well-versed on the politics of those days when I wasn’t fighting or championing LGBTQ+ or women’s rights. I read about the feminists of the sixties and seventies, the LGBTQ+ activists of the 70s, 80s and 90s and about the countless people who have suffered persecution because of their sexuality or gender. The battle isn’t over for LGBTQ+ rights. The bars and clubs of LGBTQ+ friendly areas have long been a safe haven for LGBTQ+ people and many – like The Stonewall Inn – have been instrumental in the politics and activism of the fight for LGBTQ+ equality. The sad truth is that those spaces are not always safe. Pride events, nightclubs and bars in LGBTQ+ areas have come under attack before and those attending global Pride events globally this month with doubtless feel the increased security presence at all times.
When people ask me why I am so moved by the LGBTQ+ literature I study – both fiction and non-fiction – aside from my personal investment in the topic, my answer is simply this. There’s a powerful resilience within the LGBTQ+ community which gives me an overwhelming sense of hope. Despite those stories which make my heart shatter, there is an overwhelming sense of pride and a powerful collective voice which rises from the ashes no matter what is thrown at the community. There are events which have challenged, marginalised and oppressed the community. People have, in the past, turned a blind eye to the plights of LGBTQ+ people and through it all, those people have rallied and fought tenaciously for the only right answer. Freedom to be, to live and to love without censure or fear of oppression or violence.
This will be no different. Hands will be raised high, flags will be carried, candles will be lit and people will gather in support of one another. The LGBTQ+ community has cried too many tears to count and the events in Orlando have been keenly felt. However, as I write this from The Retro Bar I’m listening to music which is lifting my mood and I’m surrounded by warmth and laughter. I am desperately, desperately sad about the events in Orlando. But there is hope for a better future and a strength in confronting adversity head on.
Just as there always was. Just as there always will be.