When I heard about the Orlando massacre, my first thought was “I will not get to grieve this. I will not get to mourn these lives.” The next two days, I spent many hours on the phone with reporters resisting questions that assumed a binary opposition between my queerness and my Islam. But I had something to look forward to: a vigil outside Stonewall Inn, an iconic symbol in New York City of the gay rights movement, on Monday evening.
As I walked to the landmark, I let myself relax—thinking this would be my moment of catharsis. I hoped that I would get to shed welled-up tears and stand in solidarity with others who understood this massacre for what it was—a political moment. But a few hours into joining the 4000+ crowd, I realized my initial instincts were more correct – I would not get to grieve these lives.
Upon arriving, I found myself in a sea of well-dressed upper middle class gays—mostly cis men, the kind that litter Human Rights Campaign ads and scream things like “Love Wins.” I suddenly felt so visible in my Muslimness, so naked in my identifiable Arabness. I was conscious of my enormous Arabic tattoo, my eyes, my skin, my hair. Lingering gazes felt hostile, but I brushed them off as a symptom of my own paranoia.
A contingent of four people shared a cardboard sign that said “No to Homophobia, No to Islamophobia.” I was relieved to see them, even finding a familiar face below the sign. Soon, they tried starting a chant.
“We’re here. We’re queer. Don’t give in to racist fear.”
It did not catch on. I thought “well, it’s not a movement crowd.” It takes a certain training to pick up on a chant; it can feel awkward to rally-novices. Besides, this was a notably whiter, richer crowd than the rallies that had trained people like me—from anti-war to Free Palestine to Occupy to #BlackLivesMatter.
Then another chant broke out: “We’re here. We’re queer. Don’t fuck with us.” That one caught on. Apparently people could chant, just not about racism.
The anti-racist chanters did not give up, and tried to re-initiate their chant, without success. A woman from the group began addressing the crowd, giving an impromptu speech about the exploitation of queer deaths for political gain. I would later find out she was socialist lesbian feminist, Sherry Wolf, who is quite famous on the Left.
“You see how this is being used, people,” she said, admonishing politicians for advancing their aims using a queer community they otherwise do not support. Across the barricades, in the park on the corner of Christopher and 4th Street, a few Latinx (a degendered term for identifying folks from the Latino/a community) folks responded loudly with cheers and applause. But the crowd around her, around us, was silent. I heard a man whisper to his partner, “babe, she’s not the speaker.” His partner responded sarcastically, “well, she’s certainly speaking.”
By the time the formal proceedings began, I was among a handful of queer people of color and our allies. We shared our shock and dismay over the course of the evening. We marveled as the crowd cheered for Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill De Blasio when they stopped to sign the memorial outside Stonewall.
Cuomo took the stage, to much applause from the crowd around us. We chanted “Pass ENDA,” the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Even the promise of employment non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation did not move the crowd. Instead, they responded enthusiastically to Cuomo’s promises to “do what we did after 9/11.” As the applause broke out, I flashed back to memories of the FBI raiding mosques, homes—including my own—and Muslim charity organizations. If the crowd remembered how the state had imprisoned thousands of Muslims after 9/11, it certainly did not show it or did not care. If anyone remembered that the global “War on Terror” had taken hundreds of thousands of lives, it certainly did not seem to bother them.
Politician after politician took the stage and talked, not about homophobia, but about gun control. In the same breath, they lauded the NYPD for “protecting New Yorkers.” Indeed, the police seemed at home in front of Stonewall, carrying the same assault rifles that had been used two days earlier to kill the people we had come to mourn. A group of NYPD counterterrorism officers with canines, stood in the middle of the street talking to each other in relaxed voices. They were one with the crowd.
In the crowd, all around us, were the flimsy politics of those who thought sexuality was just one hurdle in the fight against an otherwise-just society. The majority of Stonewall attendees were enamored with the rich, powerful people who had hijacked our grief, and would not hear of any disruptions. We tried, at various points, to heckle the men in suits and rally the folks around us to engage in actual chanting. My friend shouted “Fuck the NYPD” during De Blasio’s speech. She received contemptuous glares from the audience, with one man simply saying “No.” Another man, standing next to her, said “They’re the only people protecting us.” She responded, “Do you know where you are? You’re at Stonewall.” Another voice interjected, “That was a long time ago.”
At one point, the crowd finally grew tired of the parade of platitudes from politicians. Chants of “Say Their Names” and “No More Bullshit” interrupted a speech from a mayoral staffer enough times she was forced to move on.
A white, young man near us responded in anger to the crowd’s chants.
“Of course they’re going to read the fucking names. Let people finish.” he said. “You have to give respect to get respect.”
Apparently occupying a stage at a rally is enough to earn you respect.
“They don’t deserve my respect,” I responded.
“Then don’t expect theirs.” He said.
“I don’t want their respect. I want my rights.” I said.
Another voice in the crowd interrupted our conversation, “It’s not the time for that.”
When my friend pointed out that a white liberal was silencing us, our old respect-obsessed friend said, “that’s racist.”
Before it became mainstream, the fight for gay liberation was part of a broader movement for a better society. Stonewall itself was a riot against police brutality toward working class transwomen, lesbians, and gay men.* But, now, we are standing in front of a New Stonewall.
According to the logic of the New Stonewall, police oppression of queers is in the past. Our oppression is compartmentalized from our political goals. If we just ask nicely and give them the respect they apparently deserve, people in power will listen to us. Based on this thinking, the fight for job non-discrimination is separate from the fight against transphobia is separate from the fight against gentrification is separate from the fight against police brutality is separate from racism is separate from the deaths of forty-nine, mostly Latinx, folks at the hands of a raging, gun-obsessed homophobe.
But, this New Stonewall is not for people like me. I am not interested in a partial humanization doled out by elites. I do not care when Cuomo humanizes me as a queer person only to criminalize me as a Palestinian. I do not want the NYPD’s protection while I dance, only to get their harassment while I pray. I do not want De Blasio to embrace my choice to love, while his real estate friends push me out of my home.
My experiences of homophobia, Islamophobia, and the crushing weight of living under capitalism cannot be conveniently separated out into “different issues.” They are all one and part of my life.
My oppressions often take the same forms—an angry glance on the subway, a slur shouted out the window of a passing car, my own quickening heartbeat in the face of the police, a job inquiry gone unanswered. They also have one source, one in which my body, language, and sexuality are threatening to capitalism and its faithful guard dog, the state; and where our collective queer bodies and stories and lives are cut into parts and sold to win elections and wage profitable wars.
We need to reclaim the radical potential of gay liberation from the New Stonewall by connecting Islamo- and queerphobia to the systems that fuel them and other injustices. Until then, we have even more than forty-nine lives to grieve. We have the death of a movement to mourn.
*UPDATED 6/16/16: This post has been revised to note that police brutality against gay men also contributed to the Stonewall riot.