In the early hours of June 12, as we celebrated Shavu’ot, a massacre was erupting at Latin Night at Pulse in Orlando. Scores of mostly young Latinx queer people were brutally killed. Even more are surviving with lives and bodies and spirits shattered. Yet more who love them are forever scarred by the violence and hatred. And a sacred space has been desecrated, profaned, and rendered unapproachable. And with it, all of the similar sacred spaces, all over the world, where queer people, and especially queer people of color, have found celebration, safety, community, and dignity.
As I struggled to find my footing in the wake of the shooting, the words of Vincent Cervantes helped me to understand one piece of the magnitude of what has been lost. I’m sharing a long excerpt from his writing here because of how important it has been for me to listen to the voices of queer Latinx people during this time. And because among those voices, Vincent Cervantes is addressing a place of deep intersection between his sacred spaces as a gay Latino man and the kind of sacred space we are, and aspire to be, as Kehilla.
When I came out as gay, I found community and safety in Latin@ queer spaces. Through the rhythmic sounds of cumbia, merengue, reggaeton, and hip-hop that roused the core of my inner brown being, I found a space where I could dance through the traumatic history of growing up as femme brown boy, isolated in the borderlands between being called “joto” and “maricón” on one end and living in a white man’s world on the other. It was through Latin@ queer spaces that I came into my own critical understanding of my embodied reality—living at the intersections of racial and sexual minority.
These experiences became a springboard for critical engagement as I began to develop a theological vocabulary to describe what happens in those spaces. I learned to love myself. I learned to be a healer in my community.
Surely, gay nightclubs become religious spaces amidst the communitas of queer bodies inhabiting space together in kinship, but our people, Latin@s and Latin Americans, have a long history of creating ceremonial centers when our own homes became violent landscapes.
And just so, Latin@ queer spaces were always spaces of healing—migratory spaces we journeyed to, to be in solidarity with one another in our shared pain and suffering, but also in our shared joy and triumph.
We anointed one another with affirmation and laughter. We created fellowship and communion—because too many of us had traversed dangerous landscapes just to get there in the first place. The Spirit lived and carried through each and every one of us. We emerged from the shadows we worshipped in to survive and to be storytellers about our journeys. These are our sacred spaces.
I watch the media tripping over how to describe this tragedy, anxiously going back and forth between “terrorism” and “hate crime.” (When many of us know, all too well, that it is “terrorism” when the victims are white Americans—otherwise it’s simply a “hate crime.” But, then again, it can only be a hate crime if the perpetrators are white Americans, otherwise it’s “terrorism.”)
Somehow the story is more easily told when we don’t have to talk about race—because no one knows how to talk about when people of color attack other people of color. But when reports refer to an attack on a “gay nightclub,” the truth about the violence that happens to queer and trans people of color is avoided.
When thinking about the theological significance of these spaces for queer people, to not talk about racial experience is to fold black and brown bodies into a history we have been consistently been excluded from. And more than that, these are our ceremonial centers. These are our places of worship.
To not talk about the fact that this occurred during “Latin Night” is to deny the necessity of queer of color spaces. It is to deny queer of color magic. When queer of color spaces have been reduced to “special nights” to be celebrated in white-dominated spaces, we have to name that sacred geography. Because for many of us, these are the only spaces our community has where we can heal our hurts.
For some of us—queer, Latinx, both—The Pulse was filled with our people. People who are used to being targets because of how we look, or whom we love, or the pronouns we use, or what our names are. We need to name the racism, homophobia, and transphobia that pervade our society, and we need the queerness and brownness of the victims to be seen and acknowledged.
For some of us, The Pulse was filled with people we ally up to, whose struggles for liberation and justice are close to our hearts. We are standing with them and letting them know that they are not alone, that we will stay by their side for as long as it takes. And we are challenging ourselves to understand more deeply what being real allies demands of us—in both our internal work and in our commitment to action and advocacy.
For some of us, reports of the shooter’s religious and family background raised the specter of an Islamophobic backlash. We are saying out loud, again, that it is unconscionable to associate the shooter’s actions with Islam or with other Muslim people and communities. We are showing our Muslim siblings that we have their backs, and we’re looking out for them.
For some of us, the constant repetition in the media that this tragedy was “the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history” cut deeply as another assault on the lives and histories of Native Americans and African Americans, whose people have been ravaged by mass killings throughout U.S. history. We are again lifting up the narratives of communities whose stories have too long been marginalized in dominant U.S. culture and media.
We will continue to respond, individually and as a community, to all that is unfolding in the wake of this tragedy. Please be in touch with me or other Kehilla Spiritual Leaders if you’d like to have a conversation or spiritual counseling in response to the shooting. May the sacred space of our Kehilla be a source of energy, clarity, love and support as we walk this mourner’s path toward healing and justice.
Places to donate:
Articles to read:
Vincent Cervantes, Sacred Geography: A Queer Latino Theological Response to Orlando
L.A. Times, Worst Mass shootings in U.S. History
Sonja Mackenzie, Tips for Talking with Children About the Shooting in Orlando