About a year ago, I had the privilege of being the graduation speaker at a special ceremony for the Filipino American students of UCLA. I was invited because I’m one of a handful of Filipino American college professors in the entire country, and I had written a book on Filipino Americans that was featured recently on NPR. I wrote my speech and punctuated it with a simple message:
Be who you think you’re supposed to be, unapologetically.
For a group of students who’d spent most of their lives trying to live out their parents’ immigrant dreams, I thought this was the perfect message. And for myself, a gay man who’d spent years struggling to come out to my own immigrant family, this message had special resonance.
At the time, I had no idea how difficult it would be to follow my own advice.
On June 12, 2016, the day of the ceremony, I woke up to the same nightmare as the rest of the country: a domestic terrorist had killed 49 people and injured 53 others at a gay nightclub in Orlando called Pulse. The attack occurred on “Latin night,” and nearly all the victims were queer people of color.
Although I had never been to Pulse, I knew what Pulse meant. My twenties and thirties were spent in LA partying at clubs like Pulse on “Latin nights.” These clubs were sacred spaces where I could embrace both my brownness and my queerness without compromise. In my immigrant family, I constantly felt pressure to be the perfect son, as if that would somehow win me back points I lost for being gay. In mainstream (i.e., white) gay clubs I often felt invisible. In these spaces, queer people of color usually only have three options: fetishized, undesirable, or criminal.
But for a few hours a week on Latin night, I could be messy (and messy, I was, as many of my friends can attest), without the fear that I’d somehow be shaming my communities or myself. I could learn the beautifully hard lessons about first crushes, first loves, first times, first heartbreaks—all the things I should’ve had the chance to stumble through in high school but couldn’t because I was gay. In her book Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay (my favorite writer) points out that to be messy is to be human. By this logic, Latin nights gave me permission to embrace my full humanity.
The idea that over one hundred people were gunned down by a terrorist with a semi-automatic rifle at the one place they might have felt most human not only horrified me; it paralyzed me. In the weeks after the Pulse shooting, although I might not have showed it, I felt terrified every time I walked into LGBT spaces.
Be who you think you’re supposed to be, unapologetically. Easier said than done.
For weeks, I could only think five minutes ahead at a time. I didn’t want to think beyond that. Just like when loved ones of my own pass away, I felt it was unfair that I had a future, while 49 other innocent people didn’t. Every time I saw photos of the victims, I saw the faces of the brown queer men and women I’d spent all those years partying with. As one of my friends put it, “That could’ve been us. That was an attack on our people.”
It was then that I realized: this was the first time, in my 34 years, that I’d ever seen queer people of color at the center of the national conversation.
In some respects, the response of the country was moving. People lined up in droves to donate blood. Memorials were held all over the country. Friends on Facebook who I could’ve sworn were homophobic were posting “We are Orlando” profile pics.
In other ways, the response of the country was maddening. GOP leaders failed to acknowledge that the attack happened to the LGBT community, in the hopes of painting it as an act of “radical Islam terror.” The New York Times ran a feature asking rich white celebrities about their first experience at a gay club, as if their narratives could shed any light on the lives of people who are brown and queer (and in some cases, undocumented). Time memorialized two of the victims with a headline talking about their dreams to get married.
Newsflash: Marriage is not usually the most important thing in the lives of queer and trans people of color—for many QTPOC, poverty, educational inequality, racism, and violence are much higher on their list of priorities. As a sociologist who’s researched LGBT communities of color for the past decade, I knew that these straightwashed, whitewashed, and airbrushed depictions essentially said nothing about the rich, complicated lives of queer people of color. I wanted to fight back.
My partner Joseph once told me that I fight better with my words than my hands After Pulse, I wanted to tell our stories, and not just the eulogy version of our stories. I wanted to share the good, the bad, and the ugly (i.e., the messiness) of queer brown lives. I wrote with more emotion and urgency, even though academics are encouraged to remain “objective” in their writing. I went on television, radio shows, and podcasts and called out folks who silence the queer voices in our community. In turn, I learned to call myself out on the times I was silent in the face of terrorism against African Americans, Muslim Americans, Syrian refugees, women, and poor people.
On a more personal level, I became more unapologetically brown and queer to the extent that my privilege—as a middle class, professional gay man of color—allowed. Of course, it took a village. Every time I saw other queer people of color living out loud, especially outside the context of “Latin night,” it helped tremendously. When I saw my Facebook newsfeed explode after Moonlight won Best Picture, it helped tremendously. Every time my partner grabbed my hand as we walked in “mixed” company, it helped tremendously.
I realized that living my life out loud and sharing our stories was the best thing I could do to honor the lives of those we lost in Orlando one year ago—because somewhere out there, there might be some brown queer kid that’s watching from a distance to know that it’s OK to start looking for their Pulse.