Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Finding space after Orlando

By MacKenzie Warren

MacKenzie Warren is just starting a postdoc at Michigan State University after completinghis PhD in Physics at University of Notre Dame. MacKenzie's research is in computational modeling of core-collapse supernovae, particularly the role of nuclear and neutrino processes in the explosion mechanism. The killings in Orlando affected all of us in the LGBTQ community; here is one astronomer's opinion.

A few weeks ago, I was at an astrophysics conference. I spent the week in a room with roughly 50 people brought together by common interests and shared identity. Just as a few weeks before that I had spent an evening at a gay bar with others who also sought refuge from the tense hum of nerves that comes from always being aware of who’s watching. Just as so many people had been drawn to Pulse in Orlando, looking for a place of affirmation.

In the early morning hours of Sunday, June 12th, 49 LGBTQ and allied people were killed, and many more were injured, in a shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. It was Latin night at the club and the vast majority of the victims were Latinx. The headline performers were trans women of color. The media widely declared this an attack against “all of us,” while failing to mention who the victims really were.

By Monday, June 13th, as the conference began, I had been grieved and angry and heartbroken and angry again. But never surprised. Most LGBTQ people and straight/cis people of color I spoke to were not surprised. Such violence is a daily reality. Various groups have been publicly pledging violence against queer people since the marriage equality decision was handed down and, in recent months, have begun threatening to shoot trans people in bathrooms. LGBTQ people of color are subject to the majority of violence and harassment against the LGBTQ community, let alone the insane amounts of non-LGBTQ related violence they face. I don’t know how anyone can be surprised anymore. On Tuesday, June 14th, Goddess Diamond, a black trans woman, became the 14th trans woman murdered in the US this year. No one declared that an attack against “all of us.”

The news and politics unfolded as the week continued. Before an investigation into the shooter’s motives could even begin, homophobia became an excuse for Islamophobia. The House Democrats were applauded for a monumental sit in for gun control in the name of Orlando, while House Republicans blocked a vote on LGBTQ employment protections, the Supreme Court affirmed a ruling that leaves millions of undocumented people vulnerable to deportation, and the father of a Pulse victim refused to claim his son’s body, because his son was gay.

At first, I worried about how to talk with other conference attendees. If the shooting came up, how could I discuss the vulnerability of LGBTQ people without making myself more vulnerable? How do I engage in academic discussions while bracing myself to have “polite” conversation about the value of queer and trans lives? Could I still talk freely about anything when one of the few safe spaces had been made deadly? Between the constant threat of sexual harassment that I faced pre-transition and the fluster of pronouns, bathrooms, and requirements to share hotel rooms that I deal with post-transition, conferences have never been safe spaces to me.

The conference went on as usual, but I did not. I couldn’t sleep. Lists of collaborators started resembling lists of victims, except the latter were longer. I was alienated by the cheery productivity of the other conference attendees and frustrated that I too, was expected to be left unchanged.

By the end of the conference, no one had mentioned the shooting. But neither had I.

With my silence, had I chosen to be a physicist above being a queer person? Would naming my grief have made the conference a little bit queer, or myself a little more unsafe? Do we shape the spaces that we are in or is it the other way around?

Can I be whole and present in a space without recognition of all of my identities? I can openly be a physicist in LGBTQ spaces, but rarely an openly queer/trans person in physics spaces. I can sit in rooms with people for a week and never be in the same space as them. It is a fuzzy duality that can rival anything in quantum mechanics. Astrophysics constantly rebuilds closets that I try my best to tear down. Is it possible to heal in a space where you cannot be whole?

It is not enough that marginalized people are occasionally given degrees and jobs in astrophysics and allowed to think about science in the same room as everyone else. It is not enough that we survive in this field. We need to thrive in these spaces, too. We need space to be Black, to be women, to be queer, to be trans. Why do we teach our female students to “lean in,” to behave as men to their best approximation, but never teach our male students to “lean out?” If LGBTQ safe-space trainings always optional, never mandatory, aren’t we making the safety of LGBTQ people optional?

There is a myth that marginalized people can always overcome by being resilient. That the LGBTQ community will win out over hatred and violence if we stand up to it for long enough. That women can be successful in a field like astrophysics if they “lean in” far enough. That people with disabilities can “overcome” them if they try hard enough. That with enough “self-care,” we can get ourselves through anything. But this is a myth. What you don’t see are the number of marginalized people who don’t overcome, despite their strength and resilience. You can’t fix a leaky pipeline by filling the leaks with the lives of people that are broken along the way.

We wouldn’t need “self-care” if we were in a space that takes care of us, of our complete selves. I look forward to the day that self-care is obsolete. It can’t come soon enough.

In closing, I ask you all to dedicate a few moments to the victims of the shooting. Read their names out loud. Remember that they are more than statistics of violence or a political argument. Remember that they too felt the same wonder when looking at the stars and that they too sought nothing more than to share a space with like-minded people.

Stanley Almodovar III, 23 years old
Amanda Alvear, 25 years old
Oscar A Aracena-Montero, 26 years old
Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33 years old
Antonio Davon Brown, 29 years old
Darryl Roman Burt II, 29 years old
Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28 years old
Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25 years old
Luis Daniel Conde, 39 years old
Cory James Connell, 21 years old
Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25 years old
Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32 years old
Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31 years old
Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25 years old
Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26 years old
Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22 years old
Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22 years old
Paul Terrell Henry, 41 years old
Frank Hernandez, 27 years old
Miguel Angel Honorato, 30 years old
Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40 years old
Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19 years old
Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30 years old
Anthony Luis Laureanodisla, 25 years old
Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32 years old
Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21 years old
Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49 years old
Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25 years old
Kimberly Morris, 37 years old
Akyra Monet Murray, 18 years old
Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20 years old
Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez, 25 years old
Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36 years old
Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32 years old
Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35 years old
Enrique L. Rios, Jr., 25 years old
Jean C. Lives Rodriguez, 27 years old
Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35 years old
Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24 years old
Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, 24 years old
Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34 years old
Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33 years old
Martin Benitez Torres, 33 years old
Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24 years old
Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37 years old
Luis S. Vielma, 22 years old
Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50 years old
Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37 years old
Jerald Arthur Wright, 31 years old