Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells These Stories: Orlando and Narratives of Trauma

“There are no words.”

There’s also no counting how many times I’ve said that in response to various facets of the Orlando shooting: first, the burst of reports; then the rising death toll; then the slow unraveling of each victim’s biography; and then, the aftermath, the responses — in forms both heartwarmingly compassionate and shamelessly opportunistic.

The extent and range of those responses isn’t surprising. Forty-nine people died and 53 were injured at a mass shooting in Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. This is the deadliest mass shooting in US history, and the shooter targeted the LGBT+ community, a group that — despite significant progress in recent years — remains a minority in every sense of the term. Many members of the community have already spoken about how jarring, how traumatic this attack has been; many more have continued to speak about how subsequent responses have been disrespectful, exploitative, damaging, or unhelpful at best.

I found myself unable, somehow, to join those engaged in the former. So far, the most I’ve been able to do is retweet messages of support and guidelines for volunteers, because secondhand sentiments are the only things I felt comfortable posting about the matter. Let me be clear: 140 characters, no matter how many sets I retweet, will never be enough to articulate the grief, anger, and despair I feel about this attack. However, shameful as it is to say so right now, 140 characters are more than enough to be a potential breach in the illusion of safety that stems from being a straight-passing, low-key member of the community. 

See, here’s the thing: I’m bisexual. I have hidden this fact from my religious-conservative family, though not from my friends, at least not for a while now. Nevertheless, it’s not something many people know as a fact about me, mostly because most people assume I’m straight (as they do to others as well, I’m sure) and I’ve never gone out of my way to correct them. My parents, after all, often reminded me to pray for one of my openly gay friends, in case I forgot that not being straight was a grave moral offense and that I ought to “love the sinner but hate the sin.” My relatives look on LGBT+ people as, well, not people but vile subhuman blights upon the world at worst, and ridiculous frivolities with little personal worth at best. My country elects senators who quote Bible verses to justify the discrimination, oppression, maybe even eradication of people like me.1

There’s a certain safety to a life of omission, at least when the part of your identity that’s being omitted would have otherwise forced you to contend with environments like that.

But there’s a violence in omission as well, and a damaging complicity to staying silent that I can no longer abide, at least not now. Various media outlets and political bodies insist on characterizing the Orlando shooting as an act of “Islamic terrorism,” and/or “an attack on the American people,” and/or a very human tragedy affecting just that: people. Curiously2, no one wants to mention the fact that Pulse served as an LGBT+ safe space, or that the victims were mostly members of the LGBT+ community (and often people of color, at that), or that — whatever other motivations he might have had — the shooter was known to have been enraged by a gay couple kissing.

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells These Stories

Trauma, almost by definition, is a messy thing. It disrupts, dislocates, disturbs “normal life,” whatever that might mean for us; trauma resists definition and comprehension. So a natural response would be to do just that: to insist on comprehending it. That is, we try to find a way to get it under control, to — as Kate Schick puts it — re-inscribe its disruptions into our otherwise settled narratives (70). We try to harness the chaos of grief and devastation into something that we can at least grasp, if not work through.

In order to grasp something, however, we must first want to touch it.

And there, I think, lies one of the main dangers in any attempt to address trauma. Jenny Edkins from the University of Wales identifies two temporal modalities that traumatic experiences can fall into, one of which she calls “linear time.” To borrow from Schick, linear narrative time implies politics as usual. In this modality, the traumatic experience in question gets subsumed into what Schick further describes as “linear, maladaptive meaning-making narratives, such as heroism, good and evil and revenge.” (70) In trying to get ahold of messy, relentlessly permeating trauma, we articulate the experience using concepts and notions that are familiar and understandable to us.

Yet the aftermath of Orlando shows us exactly why Schick characterizes these narratives as “maladaptive.”

Ever since the 9/11 attacks launched the US (and the rest of the world, more or less) into the war on terror, violent religious — specifically, Islamic — extremism has been a potent source of fear for many. From my admittedly limited knowledge of the current US political and cultural climate, I understand that this fear has come to mingle with strong currents of worry regarding the country’s immigrant and non-white populations, armed violence and the security of US domestic space, the prospect of insidious threats identified or addressed too late to have prevented catastrophe.

What a context, right? So I’m not surprised by the disproportionate media focus on the shooter’s ethnicity, his possible ties to ISIS, the chances of his being a religious extremist, even the immigration status of some of his relatives. These are familiar narratives to many of us, and certainly to many Americans. More importantly, they are acceptable3 narratives, ones that many of us have no trouble grasping and making sense of.

But they’re not necessarily accurate, and both these misconstructions and the illusion of accuracy that they foster contribute to an erasure of the very victims whose trauma everyone is scrambling to address. By framing the Orlando shooting as solely an issue of “Islamic extremism” (which might or might not even be a wholly applicable angle), we shift the conversation away from the fact that, whatever else this shooting might have been, it was a hate crime against a vulnerable community. We propagate discourse that neutralizes the specific effects on the attack’s very targets, and in fact, often excludes the LGBT+ community itself from the discussion.

The same can be said about the attempts to speak of the shooting as a human tragedy, i.e. as a horrific act inflicted upon “people.” Grief is a human experience, yes; but the shooter didn’t haul an assault weapon into Pulse just because its patrons were human. Too often, “people” here functions as an abstraction that dissolves any possible marker of specificity. We all suffer, it says; we all are hurt by sudden loss — hence there is no reason to highlight this blow as having hit any one community harder than it has the rest of us.

To settle for framing Orlando in these terms is to do a terrible disservice to the victims and the full reality of the event. Yet so many insist on doing it anyway.

And yes, okay, these are narratives that are easy to grasp, precisely because they fit into pre-existing popular frameworks of fear, violence, and harm. Especially for those of us who weren’t personally there, or for those who don’t count themselves as part of the LGBT+ or Muslim communities, we struggle to find footholds into the victims’ plight, points of similarity or familiarity through which we can connect and commiserate. But like I said in a previous post, if we’re not careful, these attempts can be more damaging than healing. We fool ourselves into thinking that these are the only possible narratives, and thus risk invalidating other possibilities, other viewpoints, even other aspects of the facts. We fool ourselves into enacting a commiseration filtered solely through our own personal lens — an empathy that is founded on a reduction of its targets to inert soundbites, generalizations, facsimiles of themselves that are pale shades of their personhood.

We fool ourselves into hijacking the conversation and transforming it into an avenue that makes us feel better, at the expense of those who have suffered the greater harm.

And feel better we do, because while these particular narratives do not truly resolve the trauma at hand, they accomplish many other things. Going back to Jenny Edkins’ book on the subject, there’s an illuminating passage from the introduction that I want to highlight:

“Events of the sort we call traumatic are overwhelming but they are also a revelation. They strip away the diverse commonly accepted meanings by which we lead our lives in our various communities. They reveal the contingency of the social order and in some cases how it conceals its own impossibility. They question our settled assumptions about who we might be as humans and what we might be capable of.” (5, emphasis mine)

Which brings me to why the narratives of “Islamic terrorism,” “shared human grief,” and even the recently-surfaced “shooter as closet homosexual” are the ones receiving widespread circulation, alongside deafening silence: these are the narratives that place culpability wholly outside the social majority, and these are the narratives that do not call for an interrogation of individual privilege and prejudices.

These are the narratives so many are ready to grasp, because the alternatives entail questions that nobody wants to touch.

After all, acknowledging the LGBT+ dimensions of this attack opens a nasty can of worms: the lethality of homophobia, as manifested in both the shooter and the society and culture that affirmed his prejudice; the very real problem of gun control (or lack thereof), the communities that prove more vulnerable than others to its consequences, and the ugly political realities that have allowed this problem to continue; and the very thing I’m word-vomiting about right now, the ease with which many of the privileged majority can dismiss, talk over, or even appropriate the pain of the minority. The pretense of benevolence afforded by “love the sinner, hate the sin” and other such excuses for homophobia would no longer hold. Neither would the often-disingenuous use of self-defense, security, and individual rights as justification for lax policies regarding firearm acquisition and ownership. And certainly not the unspoken (and sometimes unintended) yet frequently palpable implication that the LGBT+ community’s pain and grief can be entirely defined, spoken for, and declared resolved by those outside it.

What would remain? Violence, death, loss. And the reality that a great deal of people, ordinary or otherwise, powerful and influential or not, had a hand in generating the circumstances that made the Orlando shooting possible. Nobody wants to admit that. If only to avoid an apportionment of guilt, the vast majority of US (and global) society has a vested (and perhaps not wholly conscious) interest in the continued concealment of the sentiments and power structures that enabled this instance of violence.

By contrast, the simplistic assumptions embedded in slapdash narratives like “apocalyptic Islamic terrorism” et. al. don’t just allow everyone to disavow their roles in sustaining the aforementioned issues — these narratives also provide the means to reinforce the same problematic social conditions that the shooting brought to light. Case in point: Donald Trump spinning the incident as proof that the US must amp up its militarism and crack down on Muslims and immigrants. GOP politicians setting aside their anti-LGBT policies just long enough to exploit the wave of public sympathy. And from a staggering number of other people, there is, as always, the endless, resounding silence that grants tacit permission for these narratives to prosper.

So it seems to me that our communities are not just being ignored, dismissed, or erased; through action and inaction, narrative and silence, our own traumas are being used against us and other minorities, too.

Hence the need to speak, now more than ever.

Or as Edkins again put it:

“But in particular those who would try to prevent survivors from speaking out are the powerful, those who have perhaps more of a stake than most in concealing the contingency of forms of social and political organisation. […] The testimony of survivors can challenge structures of power and authority.(5, emphasis mine)

To be clear: I don’t presume to tell anyone what to do. I am talking about this incident from afar, and from a different social, cultural, political setting. To be honest I’m not even sure if I can call myself a full-fledged member of the LGBT+ community, let alone write as one; omission might have meant safety for me, but it also meant exactly what it said on the tin: non-participatory, unincluded. So there’s that. And besides, the LGBT+ community has been fighting long before I came into the picture, and that fight is not losing fire anytime soon; whatever suggestions I might have to give, though really there aren’t any right now (lol), I don’t think the community needs it.

So I guess what I do want to say right now is this: how sad is it, that LGBT+ people must fight to be included even in narratives of their own trauma?

And make no mistake, that trauma is not limited to this one instance alone. The Orlando shooting was a devastating earthquake, but it was one burst born of tremendous tensions from social fault lines that remain terribly, dangerously fraught. Trauma, after all, involves not just “a situation of utter powerlessness,” as Edkins puts it, but “a betrayal of trust as well”:

“There is an extreme menace, but what is special is where the threat of violence comes from. What we call trauma takes place when the very powers that we are convinced will protect us and give us security become our tormentors: when the community of which we considered ourselves members turns against us or when our family is no longer a source of refuge but a site of danger.” (4)

Unprovoked, unforeseen devastation at a known safe space is a betrayal, yes, but so is the constant call for our deaths by various religious groups, or the repeated denial of our rights in the arena of politics and public policy, or the grudging tolerance of a society that we must nevertheless be part of. Which is to say: Orlando is traumatic, but so are the everyday discomforts, judgments, denials, and aggressions that sustain the oppression of the LGBT+ community.

Trauma is not just situational; it can also be systemic. And in either form, narratives can (and do!) fuel it.

Resolving the traumas inflicted by the Orlando shooting, then, does not stop at mourning the dead or securing the acknowledgement of their (and the wider community’s) narratives. True, lasting resolution involves what promises to be a difficult and protracted struggle with collective narratives and social structures that many still refuse to even name.

“There are no words” — for a long time, this was a comfortable non-position for me, and perhaps for many other people (regardless of orientation) as well. But our narratives are precious, especially in a world where some get snuffed out with ease and others can endanger lives. This is not to say that everyone must speak or articulate their experiences in a particular way; I don’t think I can, really, and I’m not sure it would be of much use to anyone even if I could. Silence has grown too costly for many of us, though. And while I might not be able to voice narratives of trauma as part of the LGBT+ community, I feel I ought to at least marshal the words to interrogate narratives that leave us terrified, vulnerable, and — far too often — dead.

Notes

  1. It’s not all bad; I have many friends and acquaintances who don’t espouse such harmful views. But I don’t share a home with them, is the thing.[Back]
  2. Though we know why, but I’ll get to that in a bit.[Back]
  3. I’ll dig more into what makes these “acceptable” in a bit. But in a nutshell, these are the narratives that locates blame outside the majority, absolving many of personal responsibility.[Back]
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