How it felt to watch the events in Orlando unfold as a queer, latina woman

Growing up, my mother would tell me stories of how she survived years of gun violence and genocidal civil war in Guatemala. I remember swallowing, hard, as she recalled the deaths of friends and loved ones caught between the fire of rebel groups and a corrupt government. In my mind’s eye, I could see the faraway streets littered with bullet casings; I could smell the smoky air and hear the echoey whispers of gunshots.

As I listened to these stories, I remember feeling profoundly grateful for my safety. In those days, I was still young and safely sheltered among evergreen trees in a small suburb outside of Seattle, Washington. I was lucky enough to not yet understand the real meaning of violence. Whenever these stories made me feel afraid, all I had to do to pacify my anxious thoughts was repeat a simple mantra: the United States is safe. That danger is far away. I don’t have to worry.

Though I acknowledge my privilege of having grown up in what felt like a safe, non-violent community, it didn’t take long for my perceptions of the United States to change. Growing older while hearing news of shooting after shooting made me quickly realize just how wrong I had been.

Over the course of my lifetime, words like “Columbine,” “Sandy Hook,” and “Virginia Tech,” have become notorious for what happened there. After each shooting we come together as a country to briefly mourn these unwarranted deaths, and some chastise our lax gun laws while others say more people should be able to carry to protect from those who would do us harm. But then we return back to our normal lives and these important issues get swept under the rug. So far, nothing has really changed. But while gun violence statistics in the United States are unremarkable when compared to developing countries such as Guatemala, the rates of gun deaths in this country remain significantly worse than in any other developed nation in the world.

Early yesterday morning I woke to the news of Saturday night’s shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. Scrolling through the headlines, I blinked tears out of my eyes while trying to make sense of the numbers, figures, and hashtags on my screen. The previous morning, I was similarly jarred from my sleepy haze learning of another deadly shooting at a concert, also in Orlando, where young singer Christina Grimmie was killed.

Today, my heart aches for the families and friends of the victims of these shootings, but I must admit I am no longer surprised. Yesterday morning’s attack, now considered to be the deadliest mass shooting in United States history, is by no means an outlier; this type of violence has become a regularity.

As we mourn this attack, it would be a grave oversight not to acknowledge, once again, how badly the United States needs gun reform. However, we must acknowledge that last night’s shooting was not a random, senseless occurrence; it was a deliberate act of hate designed to strike terror into the hearts of a specific group of people.

Though the exact motives behind the shooting are still being unearthed, it does not take much imagination to gather why the shooter selected Pulse as his target. The club, created with the intention of bringing members of the queer community together, has been a vibrant hub in the Orlando queer scene since its opening in 2004.

The shooting took place during Saturday’s Latin night, a weekly event featuring Latinx DJs and dancers where the crowd is predominantly Latinx. I am deeply shaken by the knowledge that this crowd was targeted. Though I understand queer individuals from all cultural backgrounds may face many of the same struggles, as a queer Latina I understand firsthand how difficult a queer existence within this particular community can be.

Despite much progress in recent years, being queer in the United States remains a challenge for so many, especially those who are shunned by their cultural cohort. Because so much of this country continues to be plagued by homophobia, community spaces like Pulse play a crucial role in creating feelings of hope and solidarity, and for so many they represent the one of the few safe places queer folks can go to be themselves.

Although the shootings would be tragic no matter who the victims were, the events at Pulse are remarkable in their damage. These events have done much more than just rob fifty innocent people of their lives: they have threatened an entire community.

I am angry that our government has continued to fail us in developing comprehensive gun control laws. I am frustrated that this weekend’s headlines have become such a recurring theme. I am heartbroken for the families and friends of the injured and deceased. But, most of all, I am distraught to think of the feelings of hopelessness and fear these events might galvanize in the queer community.

I am no longer the little girl who believes violence and death exist only in a far away land. I recognize that terror and death permeate the fabric of this country, and that these threats are undeniably felt by some more than others. I mourn the fact that I — along with so many — may now hesitate when deciding whether or not to attend upcoming Pride events; events that should hold the potential to empower and unite.

As we look forward, I hope that the queer community — and our nation as a whole — can use this atrocity as an opportunity to come together. June is meant to be a time for celebration; a time to look back at how far we have come while steadfastly acknowledging how far we have left to go. Despite the severity of this weekend’s events, we must not lose sight of this hope. Instead, we must look forward, together, in solidarity. This murderer hoped that his actions would strike terror within our hearts, and for this reason we must respond with something greater than fear.

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