Columns » Jay Barth

The fragility of the gay body

The shootings at Pulse nightclub early Sunday morning remind us that the "gay body" is also under continual threat in America (and, indeed, across the world).

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The most important American book of the last couple of years is Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Between the World and Me." It's imperfect, but Coates's argument that the "black body" (especially the black male body) is under constant threat in white America because of its use and abuse dating back to slavery has helped provide a theoretical structure for understanding the egregious rates of violent death (including, of course, police shootings) and mass incarceration of African Americans a century and a half after Emancipation. As Coates puts it in the letter to his son: "In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage."

It is that argument that has helped build the foundation for the Black Lives Matter movement and other similar grassroots efforts across the country. In his work, Coates also celebrates the "Meccas" — places of black empowerment like Howard University — which he identifies as models for the spaces that need to become more common so that African Americans can be truly safe in a nation where the evils of slavery will never be fully exorcised.

The shootings at Pulse nightclub early Sunday morning remind us that the "gay body" is also under continual threat in America (and, indeed, across the world). This threat is grounded not in an institutionalized system like slavery, but instead in other social structures that can lead individuals to unpredictable acts of fanaticism: religions that occasionally lead "true believers" to violence (as was the case with Christian extremist Eric Rudolph, who bombed a lesbian bar in Atlanta soon after he perpetrated the Olympic Park attack in 1996) or undergird hostile legal frameworks (including the 10 countries — mostly Muslim majority — in which homosexuality is subject to the death penalty), as well as gender norms that too often create psychosexual chaos in individuals who can cannot abide violations of such social "rules" (including those who hate themselves for failing to fit within socially entrenched categories).

In the case of the Orlando killer, it may be that these two powerful forces intersected with easy access to high-powered weaponry to create the combustible force that killed dozens.

Even for someone with the privilege of living and working in relative Meccas where LGBT folks are accepted, this realization that there are many around me who threaten to do harm to LGBT bodies is an ongoing part of being gay in America. (Federal hate crime data shows that such fears are not irrational ones.) Partly because I've come of age during a period in which high-profile assaults on the gay body have taken place (from the assassination of Harvey Milk, to the torture and death of Matthew Shepherd, to the indifference toward HIV/AIDS in the years where its primary victims were gay men), such fears are part of my subconscious. Without being overdramatic, those fears do regularly migrate from the subconscious to the conscious at times (when I reach out to hold my husband's hand when walking down the street or when driving alone at night on a rural road with a pro-equality sticker on my car). Aside from lingering concerns over a threatening email when I was appointed to the State Board of Education, I am rational enough to know that such fears are not a legitimate source of worry and they quickly fade as I return to one of my Meccas.

And that is what is most disconcerting about the Sunday morning deaths at Pulse: The murders occurred within one of these gay Meccas. While all LGBT bars serve as safe zones (although bar culture has its own damaging impact in perpetuating ageism and body image issues for gay men, but that's another column), all signs are that Pulse was a truly special place. A memorial to a man who had died of AIDS, Pulse was a place where issues of age, gender and gender identities that too often divide the LGBT community were buried, making everyone feel welcome and safe. Then a killer invaded that space.

One of my recently graduated students voiced his sense that Pulse might well become his generation's "Stonewall." The events at the Stonewall Inn, of course, are the symbolic start of the modern gay civil rights movement, which has seen tremendous victories. However, as the events of Sunday morning show so clearly, the removal of those legal barriers does not provide true freedom. That freedom includes the absence of fear that one's body might be damaged just because of who one is. The Pulse killings will ideally be the start of a path to that true freedom for LGBT Americans.

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