News of a gay nightclub in Orlando being attacked by an armed gunman on June 12 immediately quelled my excitement for Loving Day – an annual celebration of the 1967 Supreme Court decision to federally legalize interracial marriage. Nine years before the court’s ruling, police officers acting off an anonymous tip had raided the home of interracial couple Mildred and Richard Loving, pulling them from bed and charging them with violating Virginia law. In court, the trial judge would invoke the natural and inviolable created order of “Almighty God” to condemn the Lovings to twenty five years of banishment from the state for publicly violating mores of sexual respectability.
The day before the shooting, I was riding through hundreds of miles of California desert with a group of young Japanese Americans on a cross-country trip to Manzanar, a concentration camp where more than ten thousand persons had been imprisoned during world war two. Once we arrived, we spent the day taking it all in, visiting the graves of those who died in camp, and laboring with gardening tools for hours under the silent sun, fighting back against nascent tumbleweeds.
In the camp’s museum, a large guestbook had been laid out for visitors to record their thoughts. I saw a lot of beauty and innocence in those pages, signatures in dozens of languages and notes of pained hope and healing. Then I flipped to a page that seized my attention. Someone in confident, inking scrawl, had written:
Make America Great Again!
Vote Donald Trump!
Let’s do this to the Muslims!
I started shaking in anger, remembering a similar incident from my first pilgrimage to this site two years ago. While eating dinner at a restaurant near camp, a waiter, an older white military veteran, had stormed up to me from behind and ripped my keffiyeh off my head, demanding that I keep it off, and calming only when another employee intervened to point out my Hebrew tattoo. Over the past few years, politicians and talking heads have favorably revisited the idea of resurrecting America’s concentration camps for Muslim and Arab Americans, just like we did to “those Japs.” But too many of our families remember the barbed wire and the machine guns to be silent while something like this happens again.
The home, a marriage bed, an incarceration center’s memorial guestbook, or a gay nightclub on Latin night – these are supposed to be spaces where wider currents of violent acts are repelled, not their epicenters. When such prejudice manifests in a place that is supposed to be sacred, it wounds twice over. The injury is visibly deepened as a vulnerable group is robbed of what little sense of safety they had to begin with.
Emerging from a familial background in which matters of sex and sexuality are often characterized by silence and a cultural context in which few of the popular labels around sexual minorities are indigenous, I have over this past year deeply struggled to articulate my own identities. Sometimes talking about being queer feels comparable to publicly discussing my personal struggles with mental health: I’m truly afraid to pin these stories and identities loudly to my chest, lest I give others the weapons that they might later use to wound me.
As a queer person who is in a committed relationship with someone of the opposite sex, I have often felt a fixed degree of separation from many of the “traditional” markers of The Gay Experience™. I am struck by the fact that when my partner and I hold hands in public, we do not experience the kind of revulsion, for instance, that my gay mom and her partner do when they act in the same way. I am much more easily able to camouflage, to blend in, and rendered that much more unseen.
But this relative hiddenness has not lessened the pit that opens in my stomach – around the dinner table, in church settings, on television, with friends and their spouses – when LGBTQ people are being boldly or subtly maligned. It has not reduced my fear that new or old friendships will evaporate if I begin to trouble easy assumptions about my sexuality. And this sense of invisibility has not mitigated the trauma of the Orlando shooting. I was comforted and challenged by someone who recently tweeted, “Bisexuality is real and you deserve to mourn, too.” The shooter did not stop to ask his victims whether they identified as L, G, B, T, or Q; that night, a proximity to brownness and queerness was enough to mark their bodies as utterly worthy of death.
If there was ever a time to reapply ourselves to the work of combatting the ideologies of death that affect Latinx, queer, and Muslim communities, it is now. Just as every myth and measured lie about black sloth and sexual predation fed into Dylan Roof’s racial terror in Charleston last summer, so too did every pulpit proclamation against the “abomination” of homosexuality and the threat of queer families help fuel the Pulse nightclub attack. While many “traditionalist” evangelicals have been quick to voice their sympathy for the slaughter’s victims, less acknowledged is that what the Orlando shooter did exceptionally well on Sunday was bring the doctrine of “hate the sin” to its ultimate, horrifying conclusion.
On the morning of the Pulse attack, I woke up in a Los Angeles hotel on the same street where our families had to line up with what little belongings they could carry, to be searched and trucked off to camp. Before America’s more than fifty Little Tokyos were forced into historic memory, they stood as vibrant communities of diasporic Nikkei identity, testaments to our migrant pride. Today, only three Japantowns exist. Only three scattered patches of streets, reduced from former glories, have managed to repel the near-constant incursions by outside business and political interests who dream of raising up more parking lots, high-rent housing, and yuppie kitsch in their place.
I am remembering more than anything this week that there are vast powers arrayed against each of us, forces trying to encroach upon the integrity of our whole selves. We are, each of us, a Little Tokyo. The world will try to pick and parcel us apart, claiming that we cannot possibly hold all parts of ourselves together – you cannot be both queer and a Muslim; a person of color and a Christian; attracted to both women, men, and people of other genders.
We are a people whose mere existence frightens the state’s enforcers of the status quo, those frustrated men who see in our multitudes miscegenation, violation to be extinguished. Their vicious acts of hatred continue to wound deeply, and there are not words to address them. But we will continue to share our hope and our lives, speaking out against single stories and silence. If we do not tell these stories, no one else will.