It was a Tuesday, over a week after the killings, when they finally opened the immediate area around Pulse to the public. The June 12 massacre at the Orlando gay nightclub left 49 victims and one shooter dead and many more wounded. It also created a shadow geography—an unofficial map of landmarks commemorating loss and trauma. I noticed this as I walked the miles from my hotel through the center of town, the Google route to Pulse becoming a queasying “highlights” tour of the attack’s aftermath—like “Sex and the City Hotspots!” but for a hate crime. First up, a OneBlood donation center, where locals’ desire to help proved to be overwhelming in the days after the shootings. Then, Lake Eola Park, a pleasant expanse of grass and water in the center of downtown, still littered with ad hoc collages of flowers, candles, and photos—remnants of a massive vigil the previous Sunday. Further along, the small landscaped strip in front of Exit Realty Central, now overgrown with homemade signs of support for the victims and survivors. One sign featured a cherry-red pump stomping onto the slogan “CRUSH HATE: Everyone deserves a chance to LOVE.”
Down the highway from the ever-growing memorial on the lawn of the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center, I came upon the campus of Orlando Regional Medical Center, the hospital located just blocks up the road from the club where many victims were treated, many saved. A smattering of people stood before the 49 white wooden crosses that a man from Illinois had built and installed near the entrance to the complex. And then, after another half-mile, the final stop.
Pulse, done up in jet-black stucco and brushed metal trim, had clearly been the pretty boy among the beige Dunkin’ Donuts–, Radio Shack–, and Wendy’s-level normals that surrounded it. But now, the club was shrouded by the fencing and construction felt that police had erected around the building. Cars slowed as they passed on the newly opened street, like you do for a funeral procession.
Before Orlando, I think I thought grief was a more genteel way of saying sadness. But this changed as I spent the glowing sunset hour observing the site’s first pilgrims. A number of families—like the victims, largely Latino—had brought their children. Two little girls in summer dresses colored on the asphalt with chalk. A young father helped his son place grapefruit-tinted roses in a vase while Mom scratched his curls. Some folks attempted to take smartphone photos of the building, tearing small holes in the felt to get a better view. An elderly woman, smiling awkwardly, had her daughter take her picture in front of the fence. Later, a stoic tomboy in a beanie wafted incense past a redheaded nurse in Minnie Mouse scrubs who was crying quietly to herself.
People often say that we each grieve in our own way and that you shouldn’t judge anyone’s way too harshly. This certainly felt true that evening at Pulse. But there’s more: Grief isn’t really a discrete emotion or even the idiosyncratic expression of an emotion. It’s more a drowsy bewilderment, a stumbling in the dark because the objects in the room have unexpectedly shifted location. My guess—after spending the summer mourning the 49 and, more generally, mourning a sense of respite in gay spaces that I used to take for granted—is that grief’s core sting comes from this blocked instinct to do something. Or, a little more precisely: the shock of falling into the absence of something you can no longer do—like calling your grandma or dancing out late with your friends and making it home to text about your hangovers in the morning.
But the thwarted urge to do one thing can be channeled into doing something else. This is the work of mourning. Sometimes that something else is small and personal, like burning incense or getting a tattoo of an EKG reading, as many folks did at Stigma Tattoo Bar the first Saturday after the killings. Sometimes it’s peculiar, like Instagramming at a crime scene or worrying over the health of an orchid at a public memorial. And sometimes, the something else grows bigger and involves a lot of people—a crowd redirecting their grief-energy together toward a common goal.
After incomprehensible events like Orlando, this last use of grief is the story we like to hear: that our collective loss can be filled with some kind of action. “Gays in America over the last three decades: survived a plague, redefined marriage,” the New York Times’ Lydia Polgreen tweeted the day after the massacre. “Is gun control next?” Other people focused on fixing the country’s impoverished mental health system or fighting fringe Islamic terrorism, but the gist was the same: This grief must be—as quickly as possible—worked into the something else.
There was also a widespread sense, articulated in Polgreen’s tweet, that “gays” (or queer people more generally) were somehow uniquely positioned to make something of our grief after Pulse, that our facility with mourning was somehow exceptional or preternaturally productive. Many of us, myself included, felt this viscerally to be true. But why? Why should gay mourning be poised to bring forth gun control when the distraught mothers and fathers of Newtown couldn’t? Why should queer tears be special?
If there is a distinctive power to queer grief, it lies in the styles of mourning that have emerged from queer cultures over time. These styles set the shape and tone of the activism that comes out of grief—and activism, of course, is itself a type of mourning. To address Polgreen’s question, we must examine how queerness behaves when it is at a loss. How a community grieves can tell us a lot about who they are.
* * *
Parliament House is an exquisitely seedy gay motel and entertainment complex that, along with Pulse and Southern Nights, is one of the three main venues of the Orlando LGBTQ scene. The dance floor feels more like a sports arena than a disco: One side is dominated by terraced, bleacherlike seating that doubles as a display platform for go-go boys and visiting porn stars. The main bar flaunts a dazzling collection of mirror balls of different sizes, dangling above the liquor racks and hustling servers.
Exactly one week after the murders across town, I was sitting on the sidelines trying to jam a lime wedge into my can of Corona, wondering how Saturday night would feel during a weekend of funerals. The floor finally drew a small crowd of feet-shufflers around 11 p.m., when Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” hit the speakers, but things didn’t really get going until DJ Brianna Lee triggered Madonna’s “Living for Love”—and with it, an expression of queer grief that transformed a middling pop song into a hymn.
Two gay boys, Latino by appearance and dressed in shorts and T-shirts, one in a backward ball cap, took to the floor. The pair moved with an elegant aggression across the expanse of the space, coming together and apart in wide arcs as if connected by an invisible band of elastic. At moments they almost seemed to be fighting, stomping the ground and clapping with the rhythm. On each repeat of the line “I’m gonna carry on,” they launched into fist-pumping jumps, their entire bodies underlining each word. Toward the end of the track, one of the guys stopped and looked up. Swaying gently side to side, he made the sign of the cross and pointed to the ceiling as Madonna sang “Love’s gonna lift me up!” The strobe light caught his face—eyes shut tight, smile strained against anguish—for a moment, before a dervish of moves carried him to the other side of the room.
I had seen this kind of grieving on the dance floor before. After Sahara Davenport—a contender on Season 2 of RuPaul’s Drag Race and regular queen at my neighborhood gay spot—died suddenly in 2012, patrons and fellow queens gathered at the bar for a funeral. Instead of earnest eulogies or prayers for consolation, her drag sisters honored Sahara’s memory by striving to match her classically trained dance skills, cartwheel for cartwheel and kick for stilettoed high kick. At this service, we mourned with cries of “Werk!”
In either scenario, an interloper might assume that loss just isn’t something queers take seriously. But then, seriousness or reverence around death is itself a cultural practice—it’s just so widespread that it’s taken on the feel of the natural. These scenes of mourning suggest an alternative approach, one in which the working out of grief eschews solemnity in favor of exuberance.
Memorials in Orlando in the immediate wake of Pulse certainly had this flavor. According to Adam Conrad, an Orlando nightlife veteran, the benefit that Southern Nights held for Pulse employees on the following Wednesday turned into a massive drag therapy session. “I’ve never seen so many drag queens dancing their hearts out,” Conrad said. “They had something like 40 queens, from NYC, from Ohio, from Nashville, all over the place. … What got me was that the queens were crying, in their performance, and not breaking stride.”
Ms. Darcel’s show at P-House on Saturday was similarly exuberant. As entertainment director of the resort and a local drag legend, Darcel books talent from around the country and presides over a drag revue multiple nights a week. This evening, she praised folks for coming out despite fears of further violence, and then, after a costume change, she offered her take on a eulogy. Dressed in a glossy empire-waist number in the palette of Wild Berry Skittles and joined on stage by four male backup dancers in similarly prismatic sailor-cut ensembles, she lip-synched a version of Andra Day’s “Rise Up.” The dancers channeled each lyric with the intense conviction of a sign language interpreter at a Christian rock concert. The effect was incredibly campy and a touch ridiculous—and when it was over, there was not a dry eye or full wallet in the room.
“It may seem frivolous,” gay comedian Guy Branum wrote in a New York Times op-ed soon after Pulse, “but when society has denied you dignity, honesty and safety, frivolity is all you’ve got.” Branum was writing specifically about how Pride celebrations could go on this summer, and he defended the queer penchant for parading through tragedy. His word, frivolous, joins exuberant in describing the tone of queer practices of mourning. An even better one, though, might be excessive. Whichever you choose, the point is the same: Queer grief—like queer personhood—has a way of being too much.
I don’t mean to suggest that queer grieving styles are the only ones with the look of celebration. A number of cultures, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, have traditions that grieve energetically rather than with somber reverence. For example, artist Taryn Simon’s piece “An Occupation of Loss”—an installation at the Park Avenue Armory in which professional mourners from around the world perform within a sculptural evocation of grief—features a Cambodian elder and his two grandsons playing a distraught mix of woodwind, drum, and gong; Azerbaijani women slapping their chests and knees as they wail; and an Ecuadorian mourning song that, sung with accordion accompaniment in a waltz meter, feels more like a sailor’s tune than a typical lament.
But there is something particular about the too muchness that arises from grieving queerly, the way it can so strangely and powerfully blend campy exaggeration or melodramatic effusion with genuine expressions of pain. Drag queens with backup dancers or bisexual pop mastermind Sia’s breathtaking Pulse tribute video are obvious examples of this. But in the same category fall Orlando locals like Jerome, the gregarious home chef who spent the morning after Pulse compulsively baking fancy cakes, or Marco, who organized the construction, on a whim, of a massive 100-foot rainbow flag to block mourning families from Westboro-type protestors. It’s all a bit too much.
Extravagant use of fabric is prominent in the history of queer grief—at 54 tons and growing, the AIDS Memorial Quilt, first displayed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 1987, transformed the horror of the plague into a declaration of connection and endurance. Equally sprawling is Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, a brilliant, ecstatic melodrama about disease and love and history and everything else that had the queeny impertinence to cast a drag-dabbling faggot as prophet and to put one of the most beautiful monologues about death and repair in the English language in the mouth of a depressed, pill-popping Mormon. Even in response to an unmitigated grief chasm like the HIV epidemic, queer people have had a knack for building glittering Everests of something else in response.
And AIDS is hardly the only thing queer people have had to grieve. For decades, if not centuries, the LGBs among us found our same-sex love to be unspeakable. So Tchaikovsky composes his heart-rending and totally over-the-top finale to the “Pathétique” symphony, and Alison Bechdel spends seven years painstakingly writing and illustrating an elaborate “tragicomic” called Fun Home (later adapted, with appropriate gayness, into a Broadway musical) about, in part, her father’s doomed struggle with the closet. As things stand, transgender folks in many quarters must still navigate the grief that comes with having your very existence denied, often violently. The most affecting bit of Amazon’s Transparent so far might be a wonderfully bizarre flashback plot leading up to the Nazi-led destruction of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Weimar-era Institute of Sexual Research, the loss of which set back queer—and particularly transgender—scientific understanding by decades. Each of these art objects emerges from a queer working out of grief, and, subsequently, they each bear the signature of too much.
It would be tempting to reduce all this to something like Dolly Parton’s “laughter through tears is my favorite emotion” line in Steel Magnolias. But there’s more to it than that. Why should the queer people be dancing for their dead? Why should they be making over-the-top cakes and baroque works of art in the shadow of profound and ongoing loss?
The answer—the reason why queer modes of mourning seem to strive for the too much—emerges, I think, from the core of queer identity itself. To be queer is to find oneself to be literally excessive: too much for standard understandings of biological necessity, too much for heteronormative ideologies of gender and desire. And this realization can be nothing less than a kind of death. It’s a moment when we must face the fact that what society calls a normal life is impossible, that no matter how tolerant our surroundings or how normative-seeming our lifestyle, our relatively minuscule presence in the population means we will always be forced to view life through the veil of difference. Despite radical dreams to the contrary, the world will never truly be remade in our image. It’s not inaccurate to say that to come out is to go into mourning.
But then, difference—and the perspective that comes with it—is also a gift. Excess can be grounds for celebration. There it is, the ouroboros at the heart of queer consciousness: The thing that makes us special brings us terrible grief, the only honest remedy for which is to exuberantly embrace the cause. Queerness trains you to react to grief excessively, to mourn loss by asserting presence with that much more fervor. That’s why we dance—and sew and write and compose and lip-synch—so wildly around the void. And it’s why, when loss born of injustice visits us, queers have a reputation for acting up.
* * *
“You know, times are changing,” Ms. Darcel informed the audience in P-House’s Footlight Theatre later on the night I had watched the boys dance. “We’re gonna get angry, and we’re gonna make some changes. We’re gonna start at the grass-roots, and who knows where we’ll wind up? I figure we’re going to wind up in Washington, D.C. Because I will not let those kids die in vain. They won’t! There has to be something that’s productive come out of this.”
One thing that communal grief often produces is a desire for retaliation, whether physical or political. This is precisely what some “allies” of the LGBTQ community, most prominently Donald Trump, have advocated for in the wake of Pulse—the proposed target being Muslims, because shooter Omar Mateen practiced Islam. (A mosque that Mateen frequented southeast of Orlando was hit with an arson attack on Sept. 11, almost three months to the day after the massacre; the arsonist appears to have been motivated by Islamophobia.) But do “experiences of vulnerability and loss,” as philosopher Judith Butler has asked, “have to lead straightaway to … retribution?” If not revenge, what, politically, should queer people make of the grief unleashed at Pulse? Our own history provides some clues.
The pivotal Stonewall riots in New York City in June 1969 resulted in damaged property and left protesters and police with injuries. But even in the midst of that sizzling weekend, the mood wasn’t so much aggression as it was a giddy, punch-drunk expression of a group’s exhaustion with decades of grievous violations at the hands of the police. What’s more, queer excess was on full display. Never forget the frivolous queens who created an impromptu chorus line to greet the Tactical Patrol Force, singing, “We are the Stonewall girls / we wear our hair in curls / We don’t wear underwear / we show our pubic hair.” Or, as the queer historian Lillian Faderman recounts in her recent book, the exuberant Puerto Rican man who, when rudely interrupted by an officer while “striking campy poses,” hollered: “How’d you like a big Spanish dick up your little Irish ass?”
Stonewall quickly came to be viewed as the launching pad of the LGBTQ civil rights movement because, as Faderman and other scholars have shown, savvy activists instantly harnessed the events into a movement origin myth. They recognized that, at least for queers now steeped in the other civil rights movements of the previous decade, the image would be powerful: A peaceful queer gathering space is grievously invaded (just hours after Judy Garland’s funeral, no less), but this time, a gloriously excessive response rises to meet it. The raids begin to lessen, and the brassy show of defiance wins allies. Queer visibility just might work.
As it turns out, this model—channeling grief toward changing the system—shows up throughout queer history. Take the exclusion, often legally enforced, of queer representations from the majority of mainstream culture. It is surely a grievable thing to learn that people like you are too objectionable to be seen on the page or screen and that to create such images yourself could only be done in the most coded or demeaning of terms. This hurts, and yet, we didn’t burn down all the movie theaters or murder the publishing executives or even (at least not until later) use economic tactics to demand change. Instead, queer people invented an elaborate “camp” sensibility that allowed them to wrench queer identifications from straight culture without anyone’s permission. Faced with the grief of being told they shouldn’t be seen, queer people responded by coming up with a whole new way of looking.
The fight for marriage equality was another way of transforming grief into progress. In the past, if two people of the same sex managed, against considerable odds, to build a life together, there was no guarantee that their relationship would be honored at the most difficult times—in sickness and in death. The consequences are well-known by now: a man kept from his ailing partner by homophobic hospital policy; a woman denied the home she and her lover made together by hostile family members. Grief compounds grief. What to do? Well, clearly we just need to dispense with this idea that marriage has anything to do with the gender of the couple involved. If this sounds obvious in our post Obergefell v. Hodges world, recall that not long ago it struck even progressives as excessive.
Queer grief as political action can be seen at work in the transgender community today. Trans folks are currently born into a world that, on the whole, does not conceptualize sex and gender in a way that accommodates their experience, leading to unimaginable pain and often—when they try to resolve that pain by living openly—violence. (A study of LGBT homicides from 2012–2015 showed trans women of color were more likely than any other demographic group to be murdered, and a 2015 report showed that 41 percent of trans or gender-nonconforming people surveyed have attempted suicide.) The solution? Embark on a campaign to enrich (and, in some cases, merely correct with science) our culture’s facile understanding of sex and gender, challenging such “common sense” notions as the existence of a “male body” or that parents or doctors might understand a child’s experience of gender better than she does.
But nowhere has the political heft of queer practices of mourning been more apparent than during the AIDS crisis and the actions of groups like ACT UP. The ingenious, exuberant, excessive tactics these activists used to force action from the political and medical establishment are legendary. (Case in point: the draping of a giant condom over homophobic Sen. Jesse Helms’ house in 1991.) The documentary How to Survive a Plague includes footage from Oct. 11, 1992, when, during another display of the Quilt, a group of activists staged a funeral procession down the National Mall and toward the White House. On the way, they chanted: “Bring the dead to your door, we won’t take it anymore!” Police attempted to block their access to the fence around the grounds, but they would not be deterred. In the film, we see a smaller cadre break from the crowd and make it to the gate, where they produce urns, boxes, and plastic baggies—vessels containing the last remains of their loved ones. Small puffs of ash begin to explode over the wrought iron. A middle-aged man in glasses, tears streaming down his cheeks, clings to the metal as he releases a cloud of loss onto the pristine lawn. “I love you, Mike!” he cries out. “I love you, Mike!”
The poster advertising the action read “Bring Your Grief and Rage to a Political Funeral.” What that invitation elicited was queer grieving at its most intense and most effective: impassioned but nonviolent, directed toward vital systemic change, and excessive—brutally, righteously excessive—at a time when anything less would have been an insult to the dead.
In his own, twisted way, Omar Mateen extended another invitation. How would queers reply this time?
* * *
In a review of the recent book Homintern: How Gay Culture Liberated the Modern World, Mike Albo observes that “with each gay cultural peak there is always a puncturing moment.” Oscar Wilde’s sensational trial in 1895 chills the nascent queer underground of Victorian England. The rise of Nazism halts the sexual and gender exploration of Weimar Berlin. The McCarthy hearings put queer American artists on the defensive in the 1950s. And more recently, the AIDS epidemic guts the sexual liberation ethos of the 1970s. Since, let’s say, the advent of protease inhibitors in 1996 (which made a long life with HIV possible) and the murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998 (which spurred a still incomplete push for LGBT hate crimes legislation)—and certainly since Lawrence v. Texas in 2003—we have been climbing uphill. If 2015—with the achievement of marriage equality and overdue expansion of trans struggles into mainstream discourse—was a peak, Pulse was a major puncture moment. And for those millennial queers who, like me, came of age well after the worst of the AIDS crisis, it’s arguably the first one we’ve ever experienced.
As sources of grief on the community level, puncture moments demand a response—a turning to something else. Many of us began by doing small things. Folks who’d left their bar-hopping days in the past (or were never much for the scene in the first place) started showing up in our suddenly fragile-seeming havens—maybe Grindr wasn’t a suitable replacement for the gay bar after all? Other queers, like Orlandoan Jose Jordan, looked to their faith. “I’m done crying and I want to do something,” he told me. “To be able to say: ‘Churches may have rejected you in the past, but I know that God doesn’t reject you. I’m part of a community that knows that God doesn’t reject you, and we know places and resources that we can connect you with.’ That’s really what I want to do.”
Playwright Joseph Huff-Hannon, who at the time of the Pulse shooting was already working on a satirical musical called Machine Gun America (titled after the name of a real theme park outside Orlando), added a line to a scene about the “heroism” of open-carriers: “Not everybody can go out dancing at nightclubs without a care in the world!” Before I joined a vigil at the Stonewall Inn the night after the shooting, I slid on a rubber rainbow bracelet I had stuffed in a drawer last Pride. Invisibility, with its siren song of relative safety, now felt obscene.
Meanwhile, other people took a cue from queer history and aimed higher. Gays Against Guns made its debut in the New York Pride parade just two weeks after the Pulse attack. Co-founded by New Yorkers Kevin Hertzog, Brian Worth, and John Grauwiler, GAG takes inspiration (and some crossover membership) from ACT UP and Queer Nation, favoring the same effusive, visually striking protest style. Their parade appearance included homemade, glitter-speckled shirts reading “NRA: Prepare to GAG!”; “die-ins” in which protestors collapsed dramatically to the ground; and what the group calls “human beings”—silent individuals veiled in white who represent the slain. Grauwiler encapsulated the GAG ethos in a press release: “Gun violence has become a public-health crisis in the U.S. The NRA and their enablers in D.C. have blood on their hands and make us gag in disgust. We intend to have great fun in the weeks and months ahead haunting their collective bad conscience until they do the right thing or get kicked out of power.”
Those weeks and months have seen a steady proliferation of GAG chapters across the country and a ramping up of actions targeted at the National Rifle Association, gun-supporting politicians, and companies that profit from what the group calls “the chain of death.” True to the group’s heritage, the protests and “zaps” so far have often been fun and always maintained the electric feel of queer grief transforming into excessive activism. For an action against “NRA puppet” Rep. Lee Zeldin on Long Island, GAG commissioned a bloody-handed puppet of the congressman from Philadelphia puppet-maker Aaron Lathrop.
At a divestment-focused #DropTheGunStock protest at the Manhattan offices of BlackRock, a hedge fund invested in gun manufacturers like Smith & Wesson, the human beings and die-in were joined by buckets of popcorn dyed to appear blood-soaked. (The 2012 Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooter used a semi-automatic weapon made by Smith & Wesson.)
At an Aug. 9 planning meeting for GAG, it wasn’t lost on attendees that we were gathered in the same building—New York’s LGBT Community Center—in which ACT UP had organized some of the greatest guerrilla protests in memory. The main focus on this night was preparing for a gun violence coalition rally in D.C. that GAG would be joining on Aug. 27, part of a weekend celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington. After that ended, the group hoped to perform an action that, in the words of GAG media coordinator Tim Murphy, would be “a little more us.” This discussion led to, at one point, a spirited debate about which texture of ribbon would have the most pop as a stand-in for blood when draped down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. While that particular idea was ultimately abandoned, the debate—more set design than political jeremiad—was itself emblematic of queer activism’s too much–ness.
Not all gays are gagging when it comes to gun control. In the time since Pulse, leadership of the Pink Pistols, a group that advocates for arming LGBTQ people, has said that membership is growing. And when I recently posted a GAG-related image to my own Facebook feed, a gay conservative acquaintance posted a photo of himself at a shooting range and asked if I “honestly support disarming persecuted groups.” I don’t—but I’d also rather not have to be armed to go to happy hour.
However, at this point, three months out from the massacre, Lydia Polgreen’s question seems to have been answered: Queer activists have, by and large, chosen gun control as a new target. In addition to established groups like the Human Rights Campaign shifting partial focus to gun policy, GAG is joined by the Pride Fund to End Gun Violence, a queer political action committee that “supports candidates who will act on sensible gun policy reforms while championing LGBTQ safety and equality.” Its board of advisers includes Christine Leinonen (outspoken mother of victim Drew Leinonen), survivor Brandon Wolf, and the owner of Pulse, Barbara Poma.
Unfortunately, gun reform is a target that, in the United States, has proved extremely difficult to hit—many other activist groups have been whiffing for years. An invigorated queer interest in “common sense gun policy” will not on its own solve the issue entirely. But even so, can the lessons of queer mourning and subsequent history of activism bring something new and vital to the project?
At the Aug. 27 coalition rally in D.C.—a kickoff for National Action Network and the American Federation of Teacher’s “72 Days of Action on Gun Violence”—the GAG presence certainly added something to the mix, which otherwise comprised black, Latino, union, and other social justice groups, many of whom have been working on gun violence policy and prevention for decades. It could have been the carefully bedazzled poster that read simply, “FUCK GUNS,” or it could have been the chant, as we marched toward the NRA’s lobbying pied-à-terre, of “N-R-A, sashay away!” Grauwiler, speaking for what he called his “ragtag GAG,” stated that “for us, there was no choice but to craft our own unique and powerful expression” after Orlando. His refrain—“You have a GAG problem!”—directed at various facets of the gun-industrial complex, was a case in point. Only in queer activism can crass innuendo about oral sex serve equally well as a notice to powerful special interests. If you can get a stage of upright preachers, grave union reps, and victims’ family members to clap along in agreement, so much the better.
That “unique and powerful expression” carried over to the GAG-only action later in the afternoon, which began by getting the human beings in their mourning drag. “Come see me, I have your veils!” one GAG-er advised in the shadow of the MLK Memorial, while another navigated the 40 or so protesters with a box of bobby pins. Placards featuring images and names of the slain, including boyfriends and Pulse victims Drew Leinonen and Juan Guerrero, soon emerged. The disco ball—which, on its scepterlike PVC mount, would later lead the procession past the World War II Memorial, up the side of the reflecting pool, and ultimately to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial—rested for now against the wall of a flower bed.
Watching the scene, I recalled something Guy Branum, the gay comedian, had said to me: America’s social movements often take on the character of the spaces in which they are formed—and where, sometimes, the group has been most egregiously attacked. Black Americans, for example, had the Christian church and so carried the dignity and moral rectitude of that space into their activism. Queers had the gay bar. “In our organizational spaces, everybody has two vodka sodas in them,” Branum said.
As our procession, led by ghostly drag queens and disco sparkle, made its way toward the mass of tourists gawking at Abe’s feet, the import of these origins became clear. Gay bars are of necessity spaces in which the frivolous meets the serious—getting laid mingles with getting organized, working a look blends with working out an identity. That dynamic mirrors the queer marriage between grief and excess. Like many LGBTQ folks after Orlando, I’m new to gun policy activism. But it strikes me that perhaps there’s a weakness in only responding to acts of gun violence with dignity and earnest moral outrage—a way in which that nobility splashes back onto the guns themselves, further burnishing their value in the minds of devotees.
Here’s the truth: Guns are silly. People who fetishize them at the expense of human life are absurd. Murder is not a joke, but the idea that we’d be safer with even more firearms in our grocery stores, movie theaters, and nightclubs clearly is. Loss is difficult to laugh at, but the cult of violent individualism and toxic masculinity that produces it is patently hilarious. Gays will not “fix” gun control in America, but maybe the queer approach to grief and activism can offer an alternative strategy to join with those already in practice. Maybe our excessiveness can attract new attention to an issue that can (perversely) feel boring in its gridlock. Maybe our glitter can cast fresh and productive light on a problem that is often shrouded—and in some ways protected—in the shadow of death.
That’s a lot of maybes. But as I watched people watching us on Lincoln’s steps, I thought about what gag means in gay slang. It’s most often used when a person encounters something on the order of a paradigm shift—a drag look that expands the boundaries of the feminine or a bit of shady gossip with the power to undo nations. I’m gagged! Girl, didn’t you just gag for it? Why are you gagging so? Maybe, on sane gun policy, a good gag is exactly what this country needs.
When we died on the steps that Saturday, I thought about these things, and I thought about Drew and Juan. My partner was at the protest as well, and, after a few moments on the scorched stone, I reached over and took his hand, the way I have been hoping that Drew and Juan and the other couples might have done at Pulse that night. I thought about how one of Drew’s friends had recalled to me, just after his funeral, how cutting and devastating his sense of humor could be. “He knew how to read,” the friend said. Drew would like GAG. I thought about Pulse and all those people, people who had surely gagged for one thing or another over the course of the evening, and I cried.
Then, just like that, the action was over. My partner and I got up, said our goodbyes, and made our way toward the subway. We needed to clean up and find a gay bar. We needed to dance.