In early April I was a featured author at a Texas university's annual literary festival. I was interviewed by the campus TV station, did a reading from my lesbian-themed novel, took part in a lively Q&A, signed books. It was altogether a lovely evening, and a thrill for a little-known writer like me.
It was also illuminating. In two ways. First, it opened my eyes—and I was surprised they needed any opening—to how advanced young people's consciousness regarding the LGBTQ struggle is. Second—and this is only now unfolding fully in the wake of the Orlando atrocity—it reminded me of how hard queer life can be.
Yes we can get married, which for some, including my wife and me, has brought concrete material benefits. Yes we are protected from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender expression in some states.
Not under federal law, however. And not even in most states. Certainly not in Texas. Or Florida.
Bigotry, hateful rhetoric, violence, especially against trans people, especially against trans women of color who are murdered with impunity, remain the norm.
Last week, as women across the country reacted with rage to the news of the Stanford rape and the rapist's slap-on-the-wrist sentence, one uniform note from women everywhere was: yes I know. Yes this has happened to me. Rape and brutality for too many. For those who have not been raped there's still a lifetime of affronts.
For me, as what I think of as my greatest-hits reel of sexist incidents ran through my mind, I realized that many, perhaps most of them, were anti-lesbian in essence.
The time I was walking down my own block in a Lesbian Power t-shirt when a man suddenly pushed up against me, his hand gripping my ass, his mouth covering my ear, his tongue sticking into it, and hissed, "Tight pussy."
The time a man asked woman after woman in a gay bar to dance and when I, apparently, the last straw, said no, he punched me in the jaw.
The time my roommates and I had to flee down a street as a gang of young thugs chased us with chains and bats yelling, "Dyke."
The time a cop at an LGBTQ demonstration against Jerry Falwell grabbed me by the left breast and dragged me by the breast away from the barricade.
The time I was using a pay phone (young'uns—look it up) and a man shoved me and screamed, "Get off the phone you fucking dyke."
The time my mom said she wished I'd never been born.
Back to the Texas lit fest: that April evening as I sat signing copies of my book after the reading, a young woman approached and told me she had a bone to pick. She chided me for how I'd replied to one of the Q&A queries.
I'd been asked whether I personally had ever experienced lesbian oppression. The question took me off guard. I was flustered. I flushed and stuttered as the greatest-hits reel started to play in my mind. None of it, I felt, none of these flashpoints of fear, frustration, powerlessness, fury, rose to nearly the level of the awful things that have happened to others. I wasn't killed or beaten, haven't even lost a job or housing. I'm white which means I don't face the double, triple oppression LGBTQ people of color endure.
So yes, I'd said, I've dealt with some stuff but only a little, and I mumbled about hard times with my family, threats, epithets. All minor, I'd said, nothing too bad. Now the student said that was wrong of me. I should not have downplayed it, she scolded. If we keep sweeping the wrongs done to us under the rug they'll never stop, she told me.
I felt humbled and stupid. I nodded and said she was right. I apologized. I won't make that mistake again, I promised.
She was right. The way I'd said it was wrong. But that's not the whole story.
Because here's the thing: in this racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic society you are lucky if you end up with merely a litany of wrongs like mine. You're lucky if you survive.
Really, though, it's not about luck. The more oppressed you are, the more your life is at risk. I am oppressed as a woman, as a lesbian—but I do not face anything close to what LGBTQ people of color face as the targets of racist, homophobic, transphobic violence that is escalating at a horrific rate.
Don't let anyone say otherwise: LGBTQ oppression is what killed those 49 beautiful, young, mostly Puerto Rican queers murdered in Orlando. A few days before, it killed Goddess Diamond, a 20-year-old Black transwoman murdered in New Orleans.
Racism killed nine people massacred in Charleston's Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015—and we must honor them now, one year later, even as we reel from this latest horror.
Oppression is a political concept. It comprises a long list of crimes, injuries, violence, bias, constant relentless mistreatment that characterize the lives of those in the oppressed group. Racism. LGBTQ oppression. Misogyny. Ableism. Islamophobia and anti-Muslim attacks, which are multiplying.
Oppression is embedded in the capitalist system. It is necessary for the system to sustain itself. It is, along with the exploitation of labor, the crux of capitalism. That's why all the people crying out for gun reform right now, as if it's the solution that will end these vicious crimes, miss the point. I understand the impulse, the desperation that leads so many to think this is the way forward, but gun control will not end racist violence, rape, the killings of Black trans women, mass murder of LGBTQ people like our sisters and brothers cut down at Pulse.
James Byrd, lynched in Texas in 1998, was not killed by a gun. In February in Philadelphia Maya Young was stabbed to death. LGBTQ clubs have been bombed, set on fire.
The weapon is not the issue. The ideology is the issue. Until the ideology is wiped out, the attacks will continue, one way or another. The only way to wipe out the ideology is by building the struggle. By uniting and fighting against the endless U.S. wars and occupation, against racism, in defense of the Muslim community, for women's and LGBTQ liberation. Ultimately the corrosive divisive destructive ideologies engendered by capitalism will only be fully destroyed when capitalism itself is. That's the goal we've got to work toward.
For members of oppressed groups, oppression—as my night in Texas, the Stanford rape, the Pulse massacre, the Charleston massacre, the mosque bombings force to the front of my consciousness—is a way of life. It shapes and shadows your every moment. You can never just be.
We've got to fight to fix that. Fight for a world where it's no longer true. Fight hard, united, inspired by the brave, bold young activists and organizers, the queer, the trans, the people of color, who will lead us forward.
I'm a writer, but I was first and will always foremost be an activist. For the beloved Pulse martyrs—and that's what they are, killed for joyously defying oppression—I can promise no less.