News & Opinion

Orlando massacre

LGBT Latinos count the cost of the Orlando massacre

The Daily Beast

June 19, 2016

Before I speak to Herb Sosa, the President of Unity Coalition, which advocates for LGBT Latinos/Hispanics in Florida, Sosa himself has been speaking to a friend who escaped from the LGBT Pulse nightclub in Orlando, where Omar Mateen shot and killed 49 people around him.

“Every one of my friend’s answers to me asking how he was or whatever was one word,” says Sosa. “People are affected physically and emotionally. There are so many layers, like survivors’ guilt: why did I survive, and the person next to me die? Should I have done more? Did I wimp out by not doing more? These are very real feelings.”

As I write this, the funerals of the people who died have begun, accompanied by many wrenching pictures of distraught relatives and friends.

Most were Latino and Hispanic. It was Pulse’s Latino night. “It’s a horrible situation,” says Sosa. “This has been a huge hit for the Latino and Hispanic communities.” It was reported that 90 per cent of the victims were Latino/Hispanic, with 23 of the victims from Puerto Rico, specifically.

Richard Blanco, the first openly gay (and Latino, and immigrant, and youngest) Inaugural Poet, told the Daily Beast he was writing a poem inspired by the awful events of last week.

Blanco said he was feeling the tragedy keenly, “not only in terms of my ethnicity and connection to the Latino gay population but also because it’s Orlando. I grew up in Miami. So it’s home. There’s a double layer of community when it comes to being Latino and gay, a double sense of home and coming home.

“There’s a familiarity not only in terms of belonging to LGBT community, but also a Latino community–it’s an idea of cultural sexuality. We’re very tied to our community: the two are intimately related.

“I think I may have even been to Pulse. Certainly when I see the faces and names of the victims makes me think of the unique challenges facing LGBT Latinos. You go to a Latin night at Pulse as a way of expressing your own culture as an LGBT person. You can’t really do that in other settings where you’re culturally stifled at times.”

“Pulse was a club that meant a lot to a lot of people,” says Hector Constanzo of the Orlando Youth Alliance.

“It’s a place where everyone could forget their troubles and be themselves. It was the first place where my cousin and I saw two guys dance together, two guys kissing.

“It was a place where I could be with my gay ‘family.’ It was an amazing feeling to be there, and it’s really sad that it’s taken 49 people to die for people to understand something about what LGBT people deal with on a regular basis.

“People need to wake the hell up, and understand that anti-gay violence and homophobia is a problem. We need to address it. At Pulse people could enjoy the happiness and freedom that they couldn’t have outside. It’s sad and terrifying that it’s gone.”

Currently, what Sosa is particularly seeing is “huge needs and confusion on the part of family members. We have people trying to get here from Honduras, Puerto Rico, a variety of places, and are facing issues of getting visas, hotels, and air fares. On top of all of that their child or loved one is dead. There are other challenges too, like the transporting of bodies, whether in the US or outside it. There has been an amazing amount of help from companies and individuals, and people offering their rooms and hotel rooms. The community couldn’t possibly be doing better.”

When I ask Heather Wilkie, Director of Zebra Coalition, an organization serving the needs of Orlando’s LGBTs, aged 13-24, how she is doing, she laughs softly. “I have an auto-pilot answer for that now,” Wilkie says. ‘I’m hanging in there.'”

Since Sunday, the Coalition has been working closely with the LGBT Center, taking on the responsibility of running a hotline. Young people were scared to even come to the building after the event.

“The long-term impact may be that people feel afraid and what does that do for someone like a young person coming to terms with themselves, coming out, and connecting to the gay community? There are a couple of ways that may manifest–not reaching out for help, or internalizing unhealthy behaviors associated with that: substance abuse, anxiety, depression, all of that.”

Wilkie says Zebra’s young clients are shocked. “Most people know someone who knows someone. Orlando is kind of big, kind of not-really. People know each other. The LGBT community is centered downtown: the resources, clubs, and bars are in one area. Pulse is about two miles from us, and caters towards a younger clientele–like our clients.”

Shane Alexander Arvelo, chair of Zebra’s Youth Council, is too young to go to the bars, but has friends who went to Pulse.

“I was really upset about it. I didn’t know how to feel. I thought it was like a dream. I didn’t believe it could happen so close. I feel like LGBT bars were safe before. Now I really don’t feel like they’re safe.

“It was an attack on the LGBT community, but when I realized the number of Latinos killed, it hit much closer. It was a different level of hurt,” the transgender teenager says.

“That’s the closest you can get to my community in every shape and form.

“I’m still very confident in my my sexuality and sexual identity. For people who aren’t as confident I feel like this would make people want to go back into the closet. It was a direct attack on the Latino LGBT community, People are already scared to come out, and this didn’t help anyone in that sense.”

For Arvelo, in the first days, going to Zebra didn’t feel safe, “and this is my second home. It’s just shocking that one person could change the whole dynamic of a city. I’m pretty positive. I’m not as scared as I was on Monday, and I’m continuing to feel better.”

People have been very affected, Sosa says. “There are the people who got out or survived who are injured physically and psychologically. A friend in Puerto Rico says that everyone is devastated on the island. This tragedy has affected thousands of people indirectly. There are the immediate victims, and then the shockwave surrounding this goes on and on.”

“I’m sure people are scared,” says Constanzo. “I’m sure they don’t want to leave their homes or go anywhere.

But we can’t be afraid, we need to stand proud. We can’t be pushed back into the closet or the corner. We want all LGBT young people to know that we are there, whatever they need.

“We know that the shooter knew it was an LGBT club, we don’t know if the shooter knew it was a Latin night specifically. These were gay Hispanics. It can be very hard being gay and Hispanic if you’ve been told by a family that being gay and Hispanic doesn’t co-mingle. It can be very disheartening. Come to terms with it, even if you don’t want to.”

As Sosa says, Pulse was extremely important for LGBT Latinos. “It was a place of fun, of escape. Places like Pulse have been our families and out homes. Many in our LGBT community have not come from a supportive family.

“In the Latino and Hispanic communities, there are social norms, prejudices and sometimes crazy religious extremism. Kids can be thrown out by their families on to the streets. That itself can lead to child abuse, exploitation, drugs, homelessness. Clubs like Pulse fulfill a real need for the LGBT community.”

Sosa had seen reports that some families of the shooting victims were finding out their children were LGBT for the first time.

“Nothing is worse than the death of a child, and then that. In no way am I judging them, but I have seen some interviews where mothers have said, ‘My son was not gay.’

“It doesn’t matter, but that’s a whole other layer: family, religion, social pressures. We know what happens next–there are fewer vigils, the outpouring slows down–but one thing I hope comes out of this is that parents, if their child comes out to them, are supportive to their LGBT children.”

If you are Latino or Hispanic going to a club for its Latin night like Pulse is partly about the music, says Blanco, and “being able to dance to salsa and what-not,” but also a more general sense of community.

“We have to deal with a certain, distinct flavor of homophobia within our communities–the idea of machismo and very strong families. I certainly feel more at home in an LGBT Latino atmosphere than a more generic gay atmosphere. It’s because of all these nuances and layers of things we deal with.”

For Blanco, while religion can cast an oppressive shadow for LGBT Latinos, machismo–or the perception that a man is showing any sign or symptom of femininity–is far more insidious. “Latino culture may be female-revering, but at the same time it diminishes female power,” he says.

Growing up, it was Blanco’s grandmother, “who really did a number on me. She tried to ‘make me a man,’ make me behave ‘like a man.’ For her, I always liked being too girly. She was constantly watching me and making sure I was not doing girly things, like eating croissants.”

He has met with LGBT groups in countries like Mexico who look to America “with awe” on how much LGBT progress they have achieved. But there are “generations of cultural norms and pressures” in Latino culture to confront, he says. Blanco says he does not want to stereotype or generalize or be derogatory, but working class Latino parents may find it harder to accept a child’s coming out.

Pretense is valued harmfully in Latino culture, Blanco says. His grandmother–“who had me under surveillance and gave me verbal abuse since I was 6 or 7–had a saying, which translated means, ‘It’s better to be it and not act like it, than to act like it and not be it.’

“The idea of secret lives still happens in Latino culture: men have secret lives behind their wives’ backs, and everyone knows it, but it’s very hush-hush.

“It’s more honorable to have a secret life and not see it. I hate to stereotype, but a lot of it is true. I’ve seen it my own family extended family. That’s why coming together as LGBT Latinos is even more special.

“When I saw the young faces of the Pulse victims, I thought about what they must have gone through already, their bravery. It takes courage to come out in any culture, and I certainly identify with those youth because in a way they were me.”

Arvelo, fortunately, was raised in a very accepting family, he says. “My mom’s side is Mexican, my dad’s from Puerto Rico. It took him a little longer to accept it. It wasn’t like he hated, it just took a lot for him to understand and accept it.

“A few of my Hispanic friends, their parents definitely did not accept it. It’s not really accepted a lot of the time in the community. Their parents disowned them. If you’re Caucasian and you get to 18, it’s like, ‘I can do what I want.’ That’s not the same in Hispanic families, and church and faith is also important.”

Especially in the Hispanic community, says Sosa, “we’re very religious and influenced by faith. I am part of a church, and 99.999 per cent of our churches have been supportive, or at least non-judgmental, after the shootings. I would hope those churches have had an epiphany towards LGBT people, or at least this has provided an opportunity to start a conversation.”

Wilkie concurs, though notes that while church is supposed to be a safe space, it often hasn’t been for LGBT Latinos. “But we had a press conference here this week, with 35 leaders of the faith communities, talking about opening their doors to the LGBT community. We need more of that, and more education around that.”

Latino and Hispanic LGBT people, says Sosa, face the same kinds of discrimination that Latinos face in society in general, especially around language and accent barriers, which can also occur between Latinos and Hispanics themselves, and around social class.

“There is, of course, segregation within the LGBT community itself between Anglo and Hispanic communities,” he added. “Up until recently the dirty truth was that Hispanics and Latinos were seen as a fetish. Everyone liked to have a Hispanic boyfriend until it came time for your typical blue-eyed, blond-haired white boy to take him home to his mommy.

“But I have definitely seen a shift in that: a lot of it is generational. Younger kids are more open-minded when it comes to color and social class. Even a tragedy like this might nudge that forward.”

Blanco has a more positive experience. “I think there’s a lot of attraction between Latino and non-Latino gays. We all, as LGBTs, go through similar trials and tribulations. We all know what it is like to be rejected and discriminated against. I married a non-Latino. We love those differences–we see those differences as complementary, an attraction rather than repulsion.”

Sosa does not think an attack like Mateen’s will cause fear around coming out.

“I almost see the opposite—that it could cause a situation of empowerment. Only crazy people are saying awful things. Our president has been incredibly compassionate and eloquent; our young people see open, LGBT journalists like Anderson Cooper, Rachel Maddow, and Don Lemon speaking so supportively and passionately. That, in itself, is a wonderful validation for young people to see.

“There has been fundraising, blood donations, and vigils. I don’t think we have missed a beat. For the victims’ GoFundMe fund to have raised $5.4 million (by the time of writing) already is incredible. To think that anything attached to LGBT could have raised so much attention and compassion nationwide would have been unthinkable to me a few years ago.”

For Sosa, “the most positive thing” is symbolized in that huge figure. “We are not unicorns hiding in the cave, we are brothers and sisters, kids and neighbors. We have even had approaches from organizations, quite conservative ones, offering us help and whatever we need.”

In his poem, Blanco says he is writing about the various levels of “gay experience” the victims may have been at. “When I worked with [the campaign group] Freedom To Marry on the [pro marriage equality poem] ‘United We Stand,’ that was a great battle we won, but the war isn’t over. We have other communities who need our attention, especially youth in other ethnic communities.

“For them the first conversation isn’t ‘I want to get married,’ but ‘Can my boyfriend come to dinner?’ We have to be there for our youth, and have a culturally specific awareness of the issues they may face.”

“The mental health needs for these people is going to be huge in the future,” says Sosa. “It’s great to have so many people offering help now. The key thing will be to guarantee that care and help will be available in the long term.”

Professionals like Sosa and Wilkie and their various staffs have been working flat-out since Sunday–from the adrenaline of doing what was needed to do to help, the shock now–nearly a week on–is beginning to set in.

Wilkie and her wife went to Pulse many times: she fondly recalls its stylish ‘white room,’ outdoor tropical-themed area, and dance room. “People have been posting pictures of being there, and we came across one of us all outside the bathrooms, which I just couldn’t (many victims were killed there). It had that trigger. It’s so close to home, you feel so many emotions.

“You go through, ‘What if,’ and then ‘Where are the Zebra youth? Are they safe?” she says. “The trauma will start to happen as times goes on. I haven’t watched the news. I know the whole world has watched the news.

I’ve spoken to the media, but I haven’t looked at the footage. I don’t know if I want to. Your brain can only handle so many emotions and be extended so far.”

How would Sosa sum up the LGBT Latino community after this hellish week? “We are embattled, strong, and under attack. But like LGBTs more generally, we’re resilient. We have been dumped on by families and the clergy. We have been hated and discriminated against. We have had acts of violence committed against us.

This is a really, really hard one, the worst kick in the stomach. But we have experienced persecution, rejection, and hatred before, we’re used to it, and we will get through it.”

For Arvelo, his family has been a wonderful support these last few days: he is able to talk to them about his feelings, and they and friends have accompanied him to the main Orlando vigil which was very moving.

“There were 5,000 people there. Between each toll of the church bells, all you could hear was heavy breathing and sobbing,” he says. “It was the first time I actually cried.”

Wilkie has seen her clients in “crisis mode,” disbelieving a friend has died or been injured, blaming who they want to blame as an understandable way to process what has happened.

As for Mateen, “if it is true that he was struggling with his own sexuality and sexual identity, and we don’t know, then I think of all the things that would have happened, been different, if we had seen him at Zebra at a young age,” says Wilkie. “If he had had counseling, family support, what positive things could have happened from that? It’s interesting to think of the work I do every day and consider that.”

For Constanzo, “49 people are too many people to forget. Be strong. The strength comes from being lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender: we’ve been through shit. If we need to go through more shit, we will. We will fight. We are the most amazing, fierce human beings.

“Stay close to your friends,” Constanzo says. “Pay attention to your surroundings. Be safe. But don’t let this one horrible incident scare you out of going out or coming out. Show support to others, and get support if you need it.”

Wilkie says that–the wonderful outpouring of love and support notwithstanding–it will be “six months down the road” when people in Orlando will need support.

Should Pulse reopen, I ask her. “Well, of course,” she says. “To say, ‘We will prevail, we stay strong and still a community,’ yeah I think it should.”

Blanco is also optimistic. “Again, I don’t want to stereotype, but we Latinos can be fiery bunch, and the idea of a strong family carries over into our community to a larger degree. A double bonding. I don’t think it will destroy our community: it will make us stronger.

“I hope it will be a tipping point for everyone, for all of us, in terms of these senseless acts of gun violence. Every tragedy comes with some kind of positive or we’d lose our minds. As LGBT people, we know how to wave a flag or two. We are used to fighting for years. So many different kinds of people are victims of violence. I wonder if can find commonality through these tragedies to find the voices to say, ‘Enough is enough.'”

For Arvelo, the massacre could “open people’s eyes,” in that “hopefully now people understand when something is focused on a certain community. The community will be stronger. People will start going out again. I know that if you’re in the closet you might see something like this and think, ‘If this is what I am going to face every day, why should I come out?’

But I’m happy I came out. I say, ‘Don’t be scared. It sucks. Come out and stand with your family and community, and be honest about it. Get involved: that’s the best thing you can do.’

“Of course it hurts right now. But I don’t think anyone should have to hide who they are because one person did a terrible thing and took countless lives away. To families and churches, I would say, ‘Treat people if they come out equally, as human beings. They’re not a different person just because they are LGBT.’ I want everyone to be able to stay strong.”