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An act of hatred in Orlando

Safety for LGBTI people remains elusive everywhere

Late last year my partner and I were travelling overseas for work. One night, with an early train booked for the next morning, we were out, and feeling lazy. We decided to take an Uber back to the apartment we were renting. I pulled out my phone, which told me I had received a message from a friend:

“You kids still in Paris? Mass shootings happening in the 10th. Stay safe.”

We were in Paris, and we were about to head back to just near the 10th arrondissement, where we were staying.

The New York Times website was reporting a little more, but not a lot – a few paragraphs of information. A sign that events were recent, and little was known.

We discussed how we would get back. We wanted an Uber, but there were none. We tried to get a taxi, but none would stop. Finally we realised we had to take the Metro, exposing ourselves to who knows what. This decision took a long time. While we were waiting for the train we heard shouting in the train opposite and froze – but it was just people in good spirits, or perhaps bad spirits, but excitable.

By now there was a map on the Times website showing the locations of the attacks, two of them I think. One was even closer to our apartment than we’d imagined, and now we debated whether to return there. Were the gunmen likely to be gone? Was that in fact the safest place to be? Or were we making stupid decisions out of fear and nerves?

But the decision was made for us. The Metro did not stop at our station, which was closed. When we were allowed to get off, we asked officials at the train station what was happening and they told us we couldn’t get back to our apartment even if we wanted to. We stayed in the first motel someone pointed us toward, desperate to get inside. Police were everywhere, sirens too. The final debate was about whether we could get on the train we’d booked the next morning, whether it was safe to go back to the apartment, but we had to: we needed our passports.

So go back to the apartment we did, while it was morning and still dark, in a taxi, running across the footpath, and then caught another taxi from the street, feeling scared while we waited, and then got on our Eurostar back to London. There were men in uniform with guns all over the station; we found this reassuring. And we left Paris.

I was thinking about this today for obvious reasons. For no reason at all, I also today listened to a recording of the author Brian Blanchfield talking about his new book Proxies. At one point Blanchfield talked about his love of this aphorism: “‘We’ is not the plural of ‘I’.”

This, he said, was not just grammatically true – it was also ethically true. “Whenever you’re speaking … there’s a kind of obnoxious, unanimous ‘we’.‘We lost a really great poet last week’. Oh, we did? Who are ‘we’? What do you mean?”

Moving from “I” to “we”, Blanchfield said, “shouldn’t ever be just multiplying yourself.”

Blanchfield’s interview was recorded a month ago, but his words had a particular power today, coming in the aftermath of a swarm of politicians making the case that the murder of 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando is an attack on all of us.

In the broadest sense, I suppose, it is. All of us in western democracies enjoy the freedom, at least legally, to walk the streets without being attacked. To meet our friends or lovers without fear of sudden violent death.

But if I’m being honest with myself I don’t often think about these freedoms, even after Paris. Asked to reflect on them I am abstractly pleased with their existence. And to the extent that I am made to feel uneasy in large public places as a result of what happened in Paris, or Orlando, or Martin Place, then it is true my freedoms have been assaulted.

But there are people who think much more often about their freedoms because, put simply, they don’t have them. Not in the same way I do. I am made uneasy when I hear about an act of terror. They are made uneasy when they hear about those acts; and when they hear about the LGBTI people killed for being who they are; or when they hear about women being killed by men, all the time; or when they hear about people targeted for being born a particular colour, or religion.

Because freedoms are not evenly distributed, people who find themselves under attack for the fact of who they are have always created ways to congregate. Freedom was given to me. But many other people – right here in western democracies – have had to fight for their freedom, have had to carve it out from a society not always willing to give. Orlando’s Pulse nightclub was one of those places of congregation.

So this is an attack on freedom, yes, but more particularly it is an attack on those in our society who have proved how truly awesome that freedom is by fighting for it, and by continuing to fight for it long past the point where all the freedoms which add up to equality should have begun to look like common sense.

It is an attack on those in our society who have had to fight far harder for their freedom than I will ever have to, in a venue that exists to celebrate that freedom, and perhaps too to forget about the need to celebrate it, to forget that the freedom which exists inside its walls does not always exist outside them.

So while our politicians are not, exactly, wrong to say “we”, they are wrong in so far as they make the mistake Blanchfield points to. The individuals subsumed within that two-letter word are very different from one another. The LGBTI community is feeling this in ways I can’t imagine, and will never be able to imagine.

We would be wrong as a community to point to the Owen Jones interview with Sky News or Donald Trump’s comments and condemn the failure of people overseas to give adequate prominence to the status of this attack as a hate crime, because it would excuse our own failure.  Virtually none of our newspapers put the fact at the centre of their coverage. Our own prime minister’s failure to mention that these were attacks on LGBTI people in his first statement was awful. One gay friend said it made him feel invisible. Turnbull did the right thing in changing his language later.

I should add that it is not just in a historical or theoretical sense that LGBTI people do not have the same freedoms as I do. I am free to marry my partner. My LGBTI friends are not. That is what our laws say.

I know that many people are against “politicising” events like this. But an event like this is political from the outset. Politicians cannot tell people what to think. But they can offer sincere leadership. In an excellent piece today Michael Koziol quotes gay Liberal MP Dean Smith: “Calling out prejudice and fear and intolerance should be the first task of people in public office.” As long as our parliament has not approved same-sex marriage than our leaders are sending the message that inequality is alright with them. 

It is clichéd by now to say we should fight the terrorists by defying them, by going out and showing we are free, that our values remain undiminished. Then by extension the best way to fight the terrorists is to prove that the values we claim to hold – equality and celebration of diversity – are genuinely held. And that we care enough about them to enshrine them in law.

That would be a thousand times more powerful than offering more thoughts and prayers.

That night in Paris was the most terrifying night I’ve experienced, and nothing really happened to me. There was a threat of violence in the air, and the knowledge that others had been attacked, and the accompanying knowledge that I too could be attacked. And at the end I could leave, and I did, and I was glad to do so.

I bring it up not to make some claim on the experience of terror, or acts of mass violence. My point is the direct opposite: it was easy for me to leave, and to arrive somewhere safe. But for many people in America, and in Australia, and particularly for LGBTI people, that safety remains elusive. That is why the attacks on Pulse, a space in which safety should have been a given, are so devastating. This was an attack on LGBTI people, targeted and hateful. The rest of us can only imagine what that must feel like – and, realistically, we will probably fail.

 

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About the author Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly was an adviser to prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. He is the Monthly’s politics editor.

@mrseankelly
 
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