We are Not Orlando: Spurious Community Building and the Failure to Name the Problem

We are all queer now.

Or at least, that is how it seems, if you’ve been following the media lately. The only acceptable response to the shootings in Orlando has – rapidly – become not horror, sorrow, shock or sympathy, but a declaration that you, the speaker, are part of the tragedy too. For once, I was impressed by Owen Jones, who insistently attempted to keep the discussion of the headlines on Sky News focussed on the political point: that this shooting was motivated by homophobia, and that homophobia is not a problem the West has solved. But almost everywhere else, and stunningly quickly, I saw people hurrying to concentrate on the personal, not the political. There is a hashtag, #WeAreOrlando. An article by Melissa Harris-Perry urged straight women to feel guilty that spaces ‘safe’ for them were not ‘safe’ for gay men (not that being a straight woman protected MP Jo Cox, shot at close range in her constituency on Thursday). A piece by Laurie Penny describes how the author’s own emotions built to catharsis at a vigil in London:

I don’t cry in front of other people, she explains. The tears clot in my heart and I have to go somewhere private to dig them out. But, somehow, the experience of coming together on a London street to think about forty-nine dead men and women in America provided catharsis. Embracing her housemate, Penny remembers: We cuddled, and she said “It’s OK to be us. It’s OK to be us.” And I said, “I know.”

Love wins, Penny concludes – though how, I’m not quite sure. How are we going to change things? What are we going to do?

The last straw, for me, was this poem, written by Carol Ann Duffy, about Orlando. I do understand that, as poet laureate and as a lesbian, she is probably more or less required to do this, and I can’t imagine writing poetry to order is particularly easy. But, by any stretch of the imagination, it’s a terrible poem – not just as a tribute to the dead, but as a message, too. The writer, the priest, the farmer, the teacher, the politician, the doctor, the scientist, the judge and the actress – so we are assured, in rhymed doggerel – are gay.

The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker
Our children, are gay.
And God is gay.

Ok, we get it. Everyone is gay, even ordinary people. Most of them, we note, are also male, except the actress and the doctor. Goodness, what did she do to be included in the pantheon? Duffy’s doctor is ‘calm’; her politician is neatly dressed in a suit and tie. It’s a list of safe establishment figures, of people neatly tucked away in the closet. This comes across – rather appallingly, in my view – as a list of people whose respectable occupations ought to persuade you it’s in your own interests to tolerate homosexuality.

None of them seem to bear much resemblance to the forty-nine people who died in Orlando, who also seem – if you’ll excuse me – rather different from Laurie Penny. Or me. Yet we are – once again – being pushed the idea that the only way to respond to this attack is to rewrite it in our own image, to write over it with images that look more like us, to clamour over it with the insistence that it’s not just them, it’s us, too. This is spurious community-building. It might make us feel better, but it doesn’t do anything, and it doesn’t respect the memory of the dead.

Yesterday, I came across this article (shared, if I remember rightly, by Dorothy Kim), about the Veracruz shooting, in a gay club in Veracruz, Mexico, on May 22nd. Didn’t read about it at the time? No, nor me. We weren’t encouraged to take that event and make it into a performance of personal emotion, to appropriate it as a way to demonstrate how virtuously outraged we are, how close we feel to the tragedy. And it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to work out why that was.

Meanwhile, one of the first things I heard when Jo Cox was shot yesterday, was an outburst of angry reactions against women who referred to this as ‘male violence’ or ‘violence against women’. And I’m disturbed by this dynamic. We declare ‘we are Orlando’; we declare that we, too, are the victims. We erase the differences between us and them, the differences that left them dead and us living. Yet, when it comes to naming perpetrators, we – like Owen Jones’s co-panelists on Sky News – become strangely defensive; strangely quiet. We don’t want to talk about the fact that homophobia and misogyny are rooted in a system of ongoing oppression that can’t be wished away by waving a rainbow flag.

There’s a spurious sense of community here, I think: or rather, a sense of community that is clearly genuinely felt, but which doesn’t meaningfully unite either in recognition of the victims of Orlando – who have been overshadowed, and their particular, individual experiences glossed over – or in opposition to the structural power that produced the conditions that made their murder possible, that made the murder of Jo Cox possible. At the most basic level, the victims of Orlando – the victims of Veracruz – and Jo Cox all died because someone decided their lives were expendable, worth less than the life of the shooter, less than the life of a man with a gun.

So, what can we do? I don’t think I have a good answer (and it wouldn’t be my place to have one, either). But there are things that I think can help. I read. I listen to people like Prof. Cath Andrews, who lives and works in Mexico, and often publicises incidents of violence against women and marginalised groups, which otherwise don’t make it into English-language media. Likewise, I listen to Dorothy Kim and Jonathan Hsy, both medievalists who relate history to modern structural problems, with a particular focus on marginalised groups. I listen to Karen Ingala Smith, who continues (against considerable aggression) to document the kind of violence Jo Cox faced, and to show that these are not one-off acts of madness, but patterns of violence against women. I listen to Carissa Harris, who describes how she teaches her students about the histories of sexuality, race and gender. This list of people is a personal list. That’s the point. Rather than pretending our responses are universal, we should be acknowledging that they are personal. They’re partial. By acknowledging that specificity, we can respect the individuality of the victims of hate crimes, and we can also – I believe – better identify the hidden structures of power and violence that characterise the perpetrators of these attacks. We can learn to see them, to name them – and ultimately, I hope, to fight them.


MP Jo Cox (centre)


In memoriam

13 thoughts on “We are Not Orlando: Spurious Community Building and the Failure to Name the Problem

  1. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this argument. But you’re wrong – solidarity along the lines of declaring we’re all gay now, or ‘Je suis charlie’ or changing your Facebook profile to superimpose the Belgium/French/Rainbow flag is valid response and an important one. I’ve seen a few too many arguments from smart intellectuals like you who are long on arguments as to why this “…might make us feel better, but it doesn’t do anything, and it doesn’t respect the memory of the dead”, but are apparently rather short on human empathy themselves.

    Why do I say this? Well in 1997 my son was in a pupil at Dunblane Primary School when a gunman wrecked havoc by killing and maiming, including several of his friends. Fortunately he wasn’t directly involved, but I went through the trauma of waiting outside the gate to find out if he was dead, and the after effect on myself, my family, friends and community. So unlike you, I actually know what Orlando feels like.

    The internet wasn’t the place then it is now of course, but the world wasn’t that dissimilar, and there was an analogous outpouring of grief from around the world. And I can tell you it helped. Random kindness, sympathy and support from strangers, no matter how far away they were, or how ridiculous you might think the connection was, certainly made me, and I know a lot of other people, feel as if they were supported, and consequently a whole lot better. It mattered.

    So unlike you I don’t sneer at Carol Ann Duffy for writing a terrible poem, nor do I make snide remarks about the inequality of grief for Venezuela, or immediately latch on to a tragedy to support some weird feminist agenda. Rather I believe that we can all be a community when tragedy like this strikes, and even trivia like Facebook flags do matter because actually *it’s not about you*.

    • I am so very sorry for your loss. I’m also sorry my post hurt you.

      But, the thing is, I don’t think it is ‘solidarity’ when it starts to appropriate the experiences of people who have died, or when – as in Duffy’s poem – it offers a more palatable and closeted image of homosexuality in place of the reality.

      My intention was to say that ‘it’s not about me’, which is also what you are saying. So maybe there’s common ground there?

      • Hurt? No, Irritated? Absolutely.

        “But, the thing is, I don’t think it is ‘solidarity’”

        Well, you’re wrong.

      • Kevin, I don’t think there’s anything bad at all about putting a rainbow flag on your profile. I think it’s a lovely gesture. I also think the vigil you describe sounds beautiful and very meaningful.

        I am not sure why you think I would want to attack those things? They seem to me a very different order of responses.

    • Weird feminist agenda….That shows how open this man is to having an intellectual conversation about the article above. In fact- just ignore him.

      • Well misappropriation of ‘having an intellectual conversation’ is sort of the point What irritates me about the decrying of the a public response on the basis that it’s all virtue signalling (taking sympathetic selfies as quixote puts it below), or wish fulfilment about non-existent community is that is dismisses what indeed can seem to be a superficial or trite response of the mass of humanity as invalid, and hence worthless. Or ‘spurious’ to quote

        Inevitably the writer of these articles believe they can see this because they’ve been granted a deeper understanding through whatever ‘ism they see as explaining the world. In effect it’s having the lenses of whatever philosophy you’ve adopted, obviously Feminism here but it could as well be Marxism, extreme Atheism or others, so firmly welded to your head that you can’t understand why someone might want to write a bad poem, or superimpose their Facebook profile with a Rainbow flag, or identify with the community affected – because to these authors the real explanation given by their philosophy is obvious and people *must* confront the tragedy though their interpretation for the response to have any value. Invariably then most people don’t they dismiss by asserting that their reaction is ‘spurious’. Or to use the dictionary definition:-

        not being what it purports to be; false or fake.
        synonyms: bogus, fake, not genuine, specious, false, factitious, counterfeit, fraudulent, trumped-up, sham, mock, feigned, pretended, contrived, fabricated, manufactured, fictitious, make-believe, invalid, fallacious, meretricious; More (of a line of reasoning) apparently but not actually valid.

        This is plain wrong. Of course there will always be a few individuals who use tragedy as a sort of Munchausen by Proxy, but the vast, overwhelming, majority of people are I believe are genuinely moved and do feel a sense of common humanity. Sure we can all be Parisians, or Gay, or whatever, and if some people are separated from that by their ideology then it’s their loss. There really is nothing bogus, fake, specious or spurious about the community built, albeit transient.

        A few days after the shooting their was an open evening vigil at Dunblane Cathedral. Although not a large building as cathedrals go it’s a substantial space with that sense of history you get from a structure that’s been around for centuries, The event as I remember it was long periods of silence punctuated by the occasional reading or piece of music. Not being religious I was nearly didn’t go, but I’m very glad I did. The place was packed, not just from Dunblane but some people had driven miles to attend. Of course the ideological cynics will say they all did this to virtue signal, but being there, and seeing more grief in one place than I ever hope to see again I’m convinced it was a genuine feeling of common humanity and for a period, community. Just one example, but there were many others.

  2. Kevin, for Heaven’s sake! Jeanne is saying the same thing as you: sympathy is good. What is not so good would be if, for instance, one of your neighbors at the awful event you had to live through thought it was appropriate to tell you while you waited, “My son goes to the other school down the road and is perfectly safe. I’m here to take selfies so that everybody knows how sympathetic I am.”

    There’s a difference. Jeanne’s point is that there’s been a good bit of look-at-me going on, even though no person of normal intelligence would make it as blatant as my example.

    To the main point though, which is what I actually wanted to comment on, there really is a gobsmacking depth and universality in the effort to not see the patterns of bigotry behind the crimes.

  3. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I read the poem somewhat differently, more as a counterblast to people who think gay people are solely fun-loving, nightclub-haunting party people, with their gay lifestyles and lack of stability. Gay people aren’t (just) those people over there in that nightclub, they are academics, teachers, journalists, actresses, etc. I hadn’t considered your point that by listing establishment figures she is reinforcing their closeting – there’s no suggestion to me that anyone except the politician isn’t ‘out’ – but if that was Duffy’s intent, it would have worked better if she’d included a wider range.

    Interestingly, we both seem to have read anyone in the poem without female pronouns as male – obviously authorial intent isn’t everything, but I’d like to know if Duffy thought of the writer, the framer, the teacher, the scientist, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker and our children (and God) as all male.

    • Yes, I read it as a counterblast too – that’s what I found offensive! It’s as if she’s saying ‘look, it’s ok, they’re not all screaming queens’. Which is true, but I really dislike it.

      • I’m only being grumpy about it, really. I do know she’s required to churn things out, and in the scheme of things it doesn’t much matter!

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