Reflecting on the fragility of queer Latin@ safety

At the start of June 2016, Orlando, Florida, was best known for its theme park tourist attractions, which include Disney World. In the early morning hours of 12 June, however, that reputation was brutalized. ‘Orlando’ re-entered the international lexicon as the name for a mass shooting that, even in US terms, was shocking. The attacker’s targets: the dancing revellers at the regular Saturday Upscale Latin Night, hosted by the gay nightclub Pulse. Since then US governmental, legal-juridical and media spokespeople have speculated on the gunman’s motives, while circling typically, and feebly, around the lost US cause of gun control. Numerous commentators have argued – with divergent degrees of empathy and nuance – about whether or not the attack was a hate crime, an act of terrorism, perhaps both.

Overwhelmed in the media clamour are the people at the local heart of the 12 June attack. As the readings out of deceased names have iterated since the shooting, 90 percent of the victims were Latin@s; half were Puerto Rican, and the dead included people of Mexican, Cuban, Venezuelan, Guatemalan and Dominican Republican heritage. Since 12 June the surviving wounded, and the relatives and friends of those killed and injured, have struggled to make their voices heard, their daily realities represented, their losses acknowledged with grace. Much of the media coverage, which sees in the Orlando shooting the singularity of a remarkable, unprecedented event – for many, the deadliest mass shooting in US history – has failed to relate the attack to longer histories of anti-LGBT and anti-Latin@ violence and rhetoric. And precious little thought has been paid to what the Orlando shooting reveals about how fragile the notion of safety can be for sexual and ethnic minorities in the USA today.

With a population of 270,000, Orlando is the largest city in central Florida. It centres a greater metropolitan area housing 2.4 million people, some 28 percent of whom are Latin@, another 25 percent being African American. Outward migration from Puerto Rico has made Orlando a favoured destination, particularly since the 2006 onset of a crippling economic recession on the island. Alongside the Puerto Rican community (the largest in Florida) are groups from Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Central America, as well as Haitian and English-speaking Caribbean-origin sectors. The tourism and service industries are major employers in the region; this includes many victims and survivors of the shooting. Orlando also boasts a large LGBT population that mirrors the city’s ethnic, racial and classed demographics. Among Orlando’s handful of gay venues, Pulse enjoyed a reputation for embracing a diverse clientele, typified by the themed nights catering to Latin@s. For Adrián Padrón, a Pulse employee, the club was home: ‘Out of all the clubs from the staff to the people there, it just felt like you were walking into your living room.’

That sense of homeliness, of the nightclub’s special evening as sanctuary for LGBT Latin@s, is predicated on a tautly held collective conviction that outside Pulse lies a world of danger, threat and hatred. In that white-dominant world a US presidential aspirant declaims that Mexicans are criminals, rapists and drug peddlers, people to be walled out. In that world, immigrants are accused of murdering immigrants. In that world circulates rhetoric that homogenizes all Latin@s, irrespective of their familial and national-origin differences, as an alien sector that threatens the boundaries of the imagined American nation. It is particularly galling for Puerto Ricans – US citizens since 1917 – that US immigration debates continue to question their ‘American’ credentials.


A memorial for the victims of the Orlando massacre with 49 life-size silhouettes and short bios for each person killed in Roanoke, Virginia. Photograph: Heather Rousseau/The Roanoke Times via AP

A memorial for the victims of the Orlando massacre with 49 life-size silhouettes and short bios for each person killed in Roanoke, Virginia. Photograph: Heather Rousseau/The Roanoke Times via AP

Complicating matters, as noted by Steven Thrasher in The Guardian, Latin Nights push back against a middle-class model of US queerness that is blind to LGBT people who are working class and of colour. For the performance scholar Ramón Rivera-Servera, interviewed by The Atlantic, Latin Nights affirm a brown reclamation of space in which productive frictions can occur – for example, between English and Spanish languages, between rival musical traditions and tastes – enabled by a shared history of marginalization in the USA. That said, Latin Nights also offer their revellers respites from Latin@ homes that could not accept queerness in the family. And those Nights promise release from the heavy work of surviving the daily physical and verbal violence wrought by homophobia, transphobia, anti-Latin@ and anti-immigrant sentiment, and their intersections, in the streets of Orlando.

Inside and outside of Pulse the visceral and psychological fall out from the Orlando shooting was reinforced by the perversity of its timing: June in the USA is LGBT Pride Month, a celebration of the LGBT civil rights won since the street riots at the Stonewall Inn that began in New York city on 28 June, 1969. The rights have been hard won. It is astonishing to realize that only in 2009, 40 long years after Stonewall, was US federal law amended so that attacks on people motivated by their perceived sexual and gender identifications could be prosecuted as hate crimes. Given that post-Stonewall record, the Orlando shooting slots seamlessly into a series of attacks on queer bodies, and on the spaces they gather in, none of which counted as hate crimes. Between 1973 and 2013 six multiple shooting events and arson attacks were directed at LGBT people, the worst being the 1973 firebombing of the Upstairs Lounge, New Orleans, which killed 32. To this list should be added the hate crimes against LGBT people that the FBI defines annually as ‘single bias incidents,’ as opposed to incidents with more than one victim. In 2014, the last year the FBI has released hate-crime data, there were 5,462 single bias incidents. Almost half were racially targeted; 19 percent were based on sexual orientation; and 12 percent were classed as ethnic hate crimes. Half of those ethnic hate crimes were directed at Latin@s. There is no FBI data on hate crimes against LGBT Latin@s.

In an early response to the Orlando shooting Yale academic Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, writing for n+1 online, asserted: ‘The young men and women who died have already become tokens for whoever claims them best.’ She then asked: ‘Which fraction of their identity will win out in public memory?’ The question is heartbreaking. It is underpinned by the bleak realization that in the clamour over Orlando, the LGBT Latin@ victims and survivors of the mass shooting have little space to intervene in their own mediatized representations, let alone to comment on how fragile their reclamations of nightclub space might be.

Paul Allatson is an academic, cultural critic and writer based in Sydney, Australia, where he is an associate professor at the University of Technology Sydney.

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