I wrote this last year for my newspaper column, shortly after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando that killed 49 mostly LatinX, LGBTQ young people. One year later, to #HonorThemWithAction, I thought I should post it here.
When I learned of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, my own son was in elementary school, and I was shaken to the core. He is in middle school now, and the Orlando massacre has shaken me again. The victims this time were not young children—but they were all someone’s children.
At 13 years old, my son is too old for me to shelter him from the news—he had first heard about Orlando online, when he saw the black ribbon Google put up in honor of the victims. He said all the kids on his bus the next day were talking about it. I found myself once more trying to explain to him why innocent people had been shot in our country.
I explained what I knew about what happened and asked him how he was feeling. He said it was awful that we lived in a world where someone could just walk into a nightclub and start shooting. He said, “But you don’t go to places like that,” and I had to tell him I did, once upon a time.
We talked about Stonewall, the evolution of LGBTQ equality, and the increase in acceptance over the past few decades. I said we live in an area where violent incidents are rare, although that is not true for everyone. We spoke of privilege and skin color and the fact that most of the victims were Latinx. He knew that some people would unfairly blame all Muslims for the act of one.
I told him I thought that security in public places, including schools, had gone up in the wake of 9/11 and recent school shootings. (I didn’t mention that I wasn’t sure it was enough.) We discussed the need for stronger gun control laws—and used his love of Nerf guns to explore why restricting access to real guns was so contentious.
I avoided talking about the spate of anti-LGBTQ bills passed or introduced around the country recently, wavering between full disclosure and a parent’s desire to protect her child from nightmares. It is enough for now that he knows there is anti-LGBTQ sentiment in our world. I want him aware, but not anxiety-ridden.
Did I succeed? Time will tell.
I, too, learned early on about hate and massacres. I grew up in a Jewish family, minimally observant but very aware of our culture and of the millions who died in the Holocaust. I knew there were people who killed others simply for being who they were. It saddens me no end to have to discuss hate and violence in today’s world—on whatever scale, for whatever reason—with my son.
We have the privilege of being White-skinned, however, and I know that the threat of violence is far stronger for people of color in the United States. While a ban on assault weapons is vital, it also remains necessary to continue addressing racism and the many other systemic ills of our society, including homophobia and transphobia, which can overlap with racism to tragic results. Fourteen transgender people, almost all people of color, were reported murdered in the first six months of 2016, the Advocate reported.
How can we hope to change things, though, when it seems we haven’t learned from the past and the next tragedy is just around the corner?
My own answer is to find inspiration in my son, whose very existence was in part motivated by hope in the face of tragedy. My spouse had always wanted children. I hadn’t been opposed to them, but a few career shifts since college had kept me focused on establishing myself in my latest job—in a building right next to the World Trade Center. Every day, I would take the train to the station underneath WTC and walk across to my office next door on the top floor. Two business days before September 11, however, I switched to a new position in our New Jersey office.
Things might easily have been different, and I began to reflect on unseized opportunities and the swiftness of our lives. That, and the family joy I experienced over a relative’s new child, gave me the added push I needed. My spouse and I began to talk seriously about children in the months that followed, and about a year later, she was pregnant with my egg. Yes, it gave us pause, wanting to bring a child into a world of unpredictable violence. But when we lose our faith in the future, those who wish to cause harm have already won.
We have to have faith now that we can build a future for our children that lets them grow up safe and loved and able to love whom they will. We have to believe in a future of human connection across the intersecting lines of race and sexual orientation and gender and all the other aspects of our identities. A future in which kindness and understanding outweigh oppression and disenfranchisement. A future where access to guns is more strictly controlled. We must then work to make that future happen—in our homes, our communities, our country, and our world. Easy? No. But I think of my son’s somber, worried face when we discussed Orlando, and I know we have to try.