Coming Out After the Pulse Nightclub Shooting
Originally Published: March 6, 2019
Revised: March 6, 2019
On June 12, 2016, a man entered a bustling gay nightclub in Orlando with a semi-automatic rifle, killed 49 clubgoers and injured 53 others. It was the deadliest anti-LGBTQ hate crime America had ever seen, and it had taken place in my state.
It was the week I was going to come out as gay. I prepared to share my identity with family and friends, a moment many queer youth see as a (sometimes dreaded) life milestone.
The Pulse nightclub shooting served as a wake-up call to many. To some, it was a call to action for gun reform. To others, it was a moment to recognize queer oppression. To me, it was a big fluorescent sign screaming, “Turn back!”
My outlook on coming out with my identity changed after the Pulse nightclub shooting, but I ended up stronger.
My plan was to tell my parents and brother one night that week. The next day, I would tell my close friends.
It had been over a year since the shooting, and although I still didn’t feel safe, I knew I had to somehow embrace my identity head-on.
The morning of June 12, I opened my phone to see the shocking headlines. The terms “LGBTQ,” “queer” and “gay” had never appeared in my mainstream timeline the way they did that morning. The same goes for the word “shooting.”
At first, I was in shock.
I didn’t know how to react. It felt like the last of my innocence was gone.
Witnessing Homophobia in a New Way
In the summer of 2016, I was between the seventh and eighth grade. My day-to-day environment was a privilege in comparison to that of most queer youth: I attended a middle school of the arts, a community where the LGBTQ student life was prominent and public.
After the Pulse shooting, I no longer had that protective shield. Comment sections on social media posts in solidarity with the victims were also filled with intolerance, scrutiny and even death threats. I overheard people in public muttering slurs against the LGBTQ community. I had never seen so much hate toward the people I identified with. Some people who I knew expressed homophobia.
One Foot Out of the Closet
After the tragedy in Orlando, I saw my queerness as a target Sharpied on my forehead.
I felt unsafe. I was afraid to share my identity with the people closest to me. It wasn’t just a matter of bravery anymore; it felt like a matter of personal safety.
I started researching anti-LGBTQ hate crimes. I plunged into an obsession that harmed my mental health and made me feel ashamed. I even said homophobic comments and jokes in an attempt to prove my straightness to my friends.
Eventually, I couldn’t handle living a lie anymore. It had been over a year since the shooting, and although I still didn’t feel safe, I knew I had to somehow embrace my identity head-on.
So in the middle of freshman year, I decided to come out.
Let’s be clear: my life did not get easier being out.
I started checking over my shoulder everywhere I went. I felt uncomfortable using the bathrooms at school. Every move I made was calculated with a focus on my safety.
But I also became stronger. An entire community had revealed itself to me, and a lot of opportunities became available. I went to my first Pride parade. I performed in my school’s LGBTQ student showcase. I was proud of my identity.
My journey came full circle when I got to know a Pulse survivor through activism efforts. Brandon Wolf lost his best friend, Christopher Andrew “Drew” Leinonen, and Drew’s boyfriend, Juan Guerrero, that night.
“I found my strength in a new purpose: share the best of Drew and Juan with the world,” Wolf said. “We overcome fear with love, with the confident understanding that fear always loses in the end.”
Wolf became a sort of mentor and role model to me as I watched him take social media, television and magazine covers by storm. He inspired me to take action to counter homophobia.
On June 12, 2018, the two-year anniversary of the Pulse shooting, I co-organized a die-in protest outside of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. Decorated in rainbow ribbons and pride flags, we read the names of the 49 victims and laid down for 12 minutes to mimic the carnage of the shooting.
The feeling of empowerment that came with advocating for my safety gave me a new sense of hope. Everyone is capable of being a champion for their own rights.
This doesn’t mean you need to come out to be powerful. Many people are in unsafe or uncomfortable situations preventing them from doing so. However, after everything I’ve experienced, I look forward to a future where it could be safe for anyone to come out—whenever they are ready—without having to be concerned about their safety.
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