In the weeks since the horrific mass shooting at Orlando's gay nightclub Pulse, the queer community has been reeling. Many haven chosen to mobilize, setting up help stations in Orlando, pushing forward with their pride and activist work, and setting up global support networks to combat both PTSD and generalized hopelessness. But many in the straight communities have been left wringing their hands, wondering how they can help and instead choosing to do nothing, lest they "overstep their bounds."
While their reticence may be well-intentioned, one queer legend recently explained how this approach does more harm than good—reminding us there's a better way.
Recently I attended a performance by the Tony-nominated queer icon Justin Vivian Bond at Red Bull Studios New York. Bond is a trailblazer in the purest sense of the word, and a pioneer of trans visibility in popular culture. Her mix of activism and cabaret brings humor and sensitivity to portrayals of both the queer experience and outdated societal expectations of gender.
Bond’s piece was a partnership with London-based artist George Henry Longly, who reconfigured Red Bull's cavernous downtown event space into a minimalist “space station”—meant to evoke modern life, alienation, and the subjective experience. Her performance was both homage to the alienation of space travel and the shape shifting we navigate each day as humans on earth. After the show, Bond and I had a chance to chat about how her high-concept performance reflects the sense of isolation queer people in America feel today:
[Many queer people] feel hopeless within their towns or within their situations. They don't see how they can go on, and they don't see a future of happiness for themselves. So the idea of figuring out how to keep going and stay alive is so important. Things are changing but they may be changing too slowly, and we have to look at our agency as queer people and how we can effect that change—even within our relative isolation.
For a lot of us, within the last few weeks, we're all just clutching to each other after the horror of Orlando. So many of us talk about how we've never heard from our families or our straight friends, no reaching out or expressing concern or even any sort of understanding about how this would trigger a community that is constantly negotiating being unsafe. So many people within the queer community choose to isolate so that they can feel safe, because then they're not around dangerous people. We don't know who we can trust.
According to The Trevor Project, a national organization that provides free counseling and suicide prevention services to the LGBTQ community, queer youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide as their straight peers. Sadly, "nearly half of young transgender people have seriously thought about taking their lives, and one quarter report having made a suicide attempt." These numbers are unacceptable, and due in no small part to the sense of alienation this community feels when faced with hatred, discrimination, and often just plain apathy.
After a tragedy, it's human inclination to reach out. When there's a natural disaster we send aid. When someone loses a loved one we send, at the very least, a card. So if we really want to be allies to our queer friends, why not pick up the phone and simply ask someone who may be suffering, "Are you okay?" or "Do you want to talk about it?"
Worst case scenario, they tell you to mind your own business. Best case, you might save a life.
Laura Feinstein is the Head of Social Stories at Fusion. Formerly, she held staff roles as the East Coast Editor of GOOD Magazine and the EIC of The Creators Project at VICE, and has contributed to The Guardian, T/The New York Times, Paper Magazine and many others. She specializes in the niche, the esoteric and the un-boring.