Can what we learned after Pulse help us support our Jewish friends after Pittsburgh?
During the early morning hours of June 12, 2016, a gunman entered the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Over a span of nearly four hours, the shooter terrorized approximately 320 predominantly queer Latinx patrons of the club. In the end, 49 people were killed. At the time, it was the largest civilian mass shooting in the history of the United States. Just six months later, Canada experienced a shooting in Quebec, when six men were murdered during the evening prayer services at a mosque in Quebec City. Most recently, on the morning of October 27, 2018, an armed man entered the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA and murdered 11 individuals, ranging in age from 54 to 97. They have been described as the very best of their community, the individuals who were always at services early, always the last to leave, and who dedicated their lives to making the lives of others in their community better. Much has been written about who each of these 11 people were, and I encourage you to read about their lives and to remember their names.
While all mass shootings are tragic and heartbreaking, there is something different about these three shootings that ties them together. They were all borne out of hate and prejudice, and they all targeted a very specific community. Pulse targeted the LGBTQ+ community, the shooting in Quebec targeted Muslims, and the Pittsburgh shooting targeted Jews. The Pittsburgh shooter entered the Synagogue proclaiming that “All Jews Must Die” and later, when being treated for the gunshot wounds he sustained from the police, he continued to hurl anti-Semitic slurs at the Jewish doctor attempting to save his life.
The day after the Pulse shooting Dr. Rhea Hoskin and I filed an ethics amendment for one of our ongoing studies so that we could collect the responses of LGBTQ+ people from around the world as they reacted to the news of the shooting. Hundreds of people answered our survey, from all around the world, and I hope that what we learned from their grief can help us be better friends, family and neighbours to the Jewish communities currently reacting to Pittsburgh.
Perhaps the story of 49 queers dancing at a gay bar doesn’t quite seem the same as 11 senior citizens preparing for Shabbat services; so let me tell you a little bit more about how the contrast here is only surface deep. Synagogues, mosques, and churches are considered sanctuaries: places of refuge and safety. Yet, historically, many houses of worship have rejected their LGBTQ+ members, making the traditional sanctuaries inaccessible. As a result, gay bars became the sanctuaries of the queer community. Gay bars were where people went to seek refuge from a hostile and homophobic world. They were the places where it was safe to hold your partner’s hand and where two women or two men could dance together on the dance floor and see their reflection in everyone else around them. Gay bars were where people went when they were kicked out of their homes by their parents, and when their religious leaders called them sinners. Thus, Pulse was every bit as much of a sanctuary for the queer Latinx community of Orlando as the Tree of Life Synagogue was for the Jewish community of Squirrel Hill. In other words, both of these shootings took place within sanctuaries where people sought refuge from the world, where they felt safe, and where they came together with their community to celebrate life, mourn the loss of life, and - at the most basic level - connect with humanity.
This notion, of having one’s place of refuge violated and turned into place of hate-fuelled murder, was one of the most common themes that the respondents in our Pulse survey mentioned. They reported feeling as though the loss was theirs, that it was personal, and that it could have just as easily been them. Many spoke of having lost ‘brothers and sisters,’ a phrase that has been commonly used by those responding to the Pittsburgh shooting as well. More than 84% of our Pulse respondents described the shooting as having an impact on how safe they felt as an LGBTQ+ person, even if they lived thousands of miles away. Jewish people around the world are now feeling the same way. They may have been at Shabbat services themselves at the very moment that this shooting took place. Their sense of being safe in the world has been shaken, and while many have already been feeling increasingly unsafe due to rising anti-Semitism, they now feel it with a level of certainty that they cannot ignore.
Some respondents to the Pulse survey were perplexed by their grief, wondering why they were having such a strong reaction to an event that technically did not involve them personally. Some went so far as to question whether they had the right to feel the grief that they felt, as though they were somehow trespassing on the grief of those who lost a loved one. Others spoke of how the event ‘burst their bubble’ or made them realize that they could be killed just for being who they are, or loving who they love. For many younger participants, the shooting was the first time that they really experienced this kind of connection between homophobia and their own potential mortality. On the other hand, older participants experienced the shooting as a reminder of past violence and a warning that they cannot become complacent. I can only imagine that similar differences may be occurring between the older and younger generations of the Jewish community, with the young perhaps naively coming face-to-face with the fatal cost of anti-Semitism for the first time and the older individuals being far too painfully aware of the long history of Jewish persecution and murder.
After Pulse, vigils were held all over the world, just as they are being held now for the Pittsburgh victims. In the days and weeks following the Pulse shooting, many LGBTQ+ individuals expressed a desire to surround themselves with others from the LGBTQ+ community. Often this desire was linked to feeling that their non-LGBTQ+ friends and family failed to understand the personal meaning and impact of the shooting. To those outside the LGBTQ+ community, Pulse was just another shooting, special perhaps only because, for a short duration in time, it was the largest shooting. The disconnect between how LGBTQ+ people felt and how their friends and family saw it as ‘just another shooting’ seemed to exacerbate respondents’ grief and feelings of isolation. I think these sentiments should give us the greatest pause and also guide us in how we respond to Pittsburgh.
Mass shootings have become far too commonplace, such that they are just background noise in the daily news cycle. No one can fully digest all of them or fully ‘feel’ all of them, but when a shooting targets a specific community, a minority community, we must take note and we must reach out. LGBTQ+ people all over the world felt alone and in danger after Pulse. They felt like the world moved on and they were hurt by the failure to acknowledge the role that homophobia unquestionably played in murdering 49 LGBTQ+ individuals. Our Jewish friends and family are feeling this way now. While they continue to grieve and feel unsafe, they are watching others move on to the next topic, or they are listening to the media debate whether it was ‘really’ an attack on Jews or if, perhaps, it was an attack on all religions, or an attack on America and an ‘American-way of life’. It was not. It was an attack on Jews, Jewish Faith, Jewish Culture, and specifically, the Jewish tradition of welcoming and safeguarding refugees. The drive to explain the motives behind this shooting in an overly inclusive way (i.e., it was an attack on all of us/all religions) diminishes the reality of anti-Semitism in today’s society, and in our very own backyards. More importantly, it needlessly adds to the grief and suffering of those within the targeted community.
When we live in a society that constantly excludes others and draws rigid boundaries between “us” and “them” over the smallest of social identities, we cannot just erase those lines when tragedy hits and pretend like those lines weren’t the catalyst for the tragedy in the first place. Thus, while people’s intentions may be well meaning when they say, “this was an attack on all of us,” we cannot claim victims as “us” when we did not fully claim them as such while they were living. As one participant after Pulse put it: “Never before had the queers been considered so American until the moment that 49 of them were dead.”
Pulse, Quebec, and Pittsburgh, while not identical, are all connected through the shared feelings of immeasurable loss and those feelings are stronger among the members of the affected communities, no matter how far away they may actually have been from the event. These feelings are only exacerbated when others fail to acknowledge the gravity of the situation and the specific prejudices implicated in each (i.e., Homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism).
We must acknowledge the toll that these prejudices take within our society and do all that we can to eradicate them. It may seem like a daunting task that is too big for any one person, but I’d like to challenge each member of this campus to take a step in the right direction. Over the next week, make a list of how you categorize others in the world. Who is on your “us” list and who is on your “them” list and then ask yourself why?* Even if it seems harmless, question if a certain category on your “them” list is worth having there if, ultimately, having them there keeps you in the habit of dividing the world by us and them rather than finding points of agreement and common ground. Challenge yourself to re-organize those lists so that your “us” list gets longer, and your “them” list begins to shrink. Don’t rejig the list after tragedy strikes, do it beforehand so you can be a part of preventing these tragedies from happening.
*If you are having trouble starting the list, often the identities that are important to us end up defining the ‘us’ list (your university, major, nationality, sexual identity, gender, residence, city/sports team, political party, or favourite pizza parlour – Kenny’s vs. the Wheel!). Make a list of your most important personal identities and then ask yourself how much you consider the opposite of each of those identities to be part of your ‘ingroup’ or ‘us’ and how much you think of people in those opposite categories as members of an outgroup, or ‘them.’
The following list names 66 individuals who were killed in the three shootings mentioned in this article. May their memories be a blessing.
Pulse Quebec Mosque
Stanley Almodovar III (23) Ibrahima Barry (39)
Amanda Alvear (25) Mamadou Tanou Barry (42)
Oscar A Arcena-Montero (26) Khaled Belkacemi (60)
Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala (33) Aboubaker Thabti (44)
Antonio Davon Brown (29) Abdelkrim Hassane (41)
Angel L. Candelario-Padro (28) Azzedine Soufiane (57)
Juan Chevez-Martinez (25)
Luis Daniel Conde (39) Pittsburgh Synagogue
Cory James Connell (21) Bernice Simon (84)
Tevin Eugene Crosby (25) Sylvan Simon (86)
Denoka Deidra Drayton (32) Melvin Wax (88)
Alejandro Barrios Martinez (21) Daniel Stein (71)
Brenda Lee Marquez McCool (49) Irving Younger (69)
Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez (25) Rose Mallinger (97)
Kimberly Morris (37) Jerry Rabinowitz (66)
Akyra Monet Murray (18) Joyce Fienberg (75)
Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo (20) Richard Gottfried (65)
Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez (25) Cecil Rosenthal (59)
Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera (36) David Rosenthal (54)
Joel Rayon Paniagua (32)
Jean Carlos Mendez Perez (35)
Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez (31)
Leroy Valentin Fernandez (25)
Mercedez Marisol Flores (26)
Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz (22)
Juan Ramon Guerrero (22)
Paul Terrell Henry (41)
Frank Hernandez (27)
Miguel Angel Honorato (30)
Javier Jorge-Reyes (40)
Jason Benjamin Josaphat (19)
Eddie Jamoldroy Justice (30)
Anthony Luis Laureanodisla (25)
Christopher Andrew Leinonen (32)
Enrique L. Rios, Jr. (25)
Jean C. Nives Rodriguez (27)
Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado (35)
Chrisopher Joseph Sanfeliz (24)
Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan (24)
Edward Sotomayor, Jr. (34)
Shane Evan Tomlinson (33)
Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega (24)
Juan P. Rivera Velazquez (37)
Luis S. Vielma (22)
Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez (50)
Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon (37)
Jerald Arthur Wright (31)