It’s been 72 hours since I read the first post about Orlando. Like many others, I have been cycling through numbness, sadness, anger, and anxiety.
As a gay man and a therapist, I am struggling with what to do with all of this for myself and how I can support my clients as they make sense of it. I want to share a little about what this means as a queer person. I want to encourage others in finding healthy ways to cope. And finally, I want to describe what role allies can play in this.
When the news reports first came in, it was immediately reported that the club in Orlando was a gay nightclub and that there were dead and injured people inside. Perhaps there are some queer people out there who have never experienced homo/transphobia and discrimination. I don’t know any of them. If I can sum up the shared experience of many people after this news came out, it is, “not again.” The massacre confirmed our fears that with all the strides and gains and laws and protections that we have fought for, there are people who don’t like us, there are people who think we are bad, there are people who hate us and want us dead. This is not easy to hold as a therapist or as a queer person.
Safe space and sanctuary
I have had the privilege of working with many queer older adults in my practice. And over and over I have heard the stories of escaping horror after horror, both physical and mental, for the sanctuary of big cities like New York, San Francisco, and even Orlando. For the last 100 years queers have flocked to cities, and especially bars and clubs, to find shelter and safety. Gay nightclubs like Pulse are a place to commune and let your guard down. Maybe even meet someone and have a good time.
That’s what hurts so painfully about what happened in Orlando. We aren’t always accepted and we aren’t always safe, even in our sanctuaries. There are people who will hurt us. And here’s what I see in therapy when our safety is compromised: all of the awful memories and trauma can come right back. From the first time you got called faggot or dyke in middle school to last week when the nice lady on the train looked visibly uncomfortable because you put your arm around your partner’s waist. It adds up and tears you up, even when you think you’ve processed it and moved on. And worse, maybe you internalize this stuff and start believing all the things that people say about you. Or maybe to keep yourself safe, you retreat. Retreat from who you really are, who you love and whatever you really value in your life.
What You Can Do Right Now?
1. Be present
Be present to what is coming up for you and be willing to have it and talk about it. If you’re sad at work, be sad at work. If you feel comfortable letting people know, tell them. Call your family and let them know what state you’re in. Some of us (me included) hate to make people uncomfortable and so find it easier to stick to pleasantries. How about stretching a bit and trying a new behavior – let someone know what is really going on for you. “Yes, it is another foggy day in San Francisco and, by the way, I am furious right now. How are you?”
2. Reach Out
There’s been a lot of writing recently about isolation and lack of community among queers. We need each other now and we need to reach out to each other. We are social creatures and connecting with others is the best psychological coping mechanism there is. You get to decide what this means for you, but if you want a role model look no further than the mobilization during the AIDS epidemic 25 years ago. People living with HIV and their allies couldn’t wait for the government or anyone else, and so they organized themselves and took action.
3. Decide what feels safe for you and get support around it
I’ve already spoken to people who fear going to a queer public gathering like Pride after what has happened. Other people may be tempted to run back into the closet and definitely aren’t sure about kissing the person that they love in public. I’ve talked to other people who cannot wait to get out and scream from the rooftops in platforms and sequins and enough glitter to drown their sorrows. Both stances are OK. If you don’t feel safe – see if you can reach out for support from people that love you. Queer support groups, organizations and, yes, therapy can help in addressing all of the painful stuff that is coming up.
4. Let your actions bring meaning to tragedy
Honor the 49 people who lost their lives, the numerous other people who were injured and all of their loved ones by taking some meaningful action. Maybe it is something internal like taking better care of your mental and physical health as a queer individual. Let all of the bullies and bigots know that they cannot destroy you. Or maybe it is reaching out and building relationships and community with queers and allies. Perhaps you can take a more global approach in the form of activism and political outreach. All of these things are therapeutic. Taking meaningful action won’t automatically relieve you of the pain but it can help you cope with it in a better way.
What allies can do to help
I need to acknowledge the amazing and beautiful allies out there. When we are this angry and sad and scared it is hard to keep in mind that there are people who love us and really do care. So what can allies do?
Call people on their s**t. Seriously. Don’t let people get away with the status quo. Be brave in small ways and big ones. Don’t tolerate the homophobia and transphobia. Maybe you aren’t ready to be an activist but you can let people know you aren’t cool with any of this.
Bring Orlando up to the straight non-allies who don’t get what a big deal this is. It is a hate crime and it is about queers being murdered because of who they are.
Listen, listen, and listen some more. Reach out and let people know you care about what is going on. If you really aren’t clear on how big a deal this might be to someone: ask. You might discover that getting shot in a gay nightclub has been a secret fear of someone you love. Or that this brings up painful feelings of how unsafe or unworthy they feel all of the time. Or how getting bullied back in high school is still painful all these years later.
Ultimately we as queer people and allies can move forward in ways that honor the beautiful people who lost their lives, as well as the injured and all of their loved ones. Take time to express yourself, connect with others, and take meaningful action.