Celebrating the best in gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender literature, the Lambda Awards are annually and appropriately bestowed in June, during Gay Pride Month. Always a gleeful affair, no one had a inkling on June 6 that less than a week later, a deranged gunman would open fire in a gay nightclub, causing enough carnage to make it the deadliest shooting in United States history. Here, Chinelo Okparanta, winner in the fiction category for Under the Udala Trees, reflects on the tragedy, and offers a bit of much needed light to combat this dark time.
In Whitefield, New Hampshire, the roads have merged into the sky—base, murky, an asphalt gray in the heavens, equally as on the earth. It is morning, 10:42 to be exact, and outside my window, the mountains are hidden by fog and rain, so that everything is dreamy and bubble-like, and dark. I am sitting on my bed, going over student manuscripts for my week-long summer fiction workshop when a friend’s text arrives:
I'm so angry about this. I want to say so many things but I don't want to regret what I say so I'm waiting. I feel rage. Did you hear?
No, what happened? Is everything ok?
The shooting in Orlando.
For the 24 hours since my arrival I have felt myself blanketed, protected from the world beyond the mountains and fog and rain. But now Bryan’s texts cause me to turn on the television, and the world in all its color and brightness and high definition comes back into focus. I scroll through the channels and settle on the first news station I see.
A shaky video footage filmed by one of the men who miraculously fled the scene comes on. Before me, on the television, is a paved road and fluorescent-bright street lamps. The neon-like red and green luster of traffic lights is enhanced by the darkness of night. Then come the repeated bursts of gunshots. Police cars have lined the road, and their light bars flash and flash. Sirens squeal. The man filming the footage exclaims, “Look at that! They are shooting back and forth...Oh my God! We barely made it out!” And now the video zooms in, scans the sky. The tiny white dot that is a helicopter above is accompanied by sound of propeller and engine. Back on the ground, a host of emergency medical technicians and police officers scurry around people in stretchers. Who did the shooting? Was it some sort of international terrorist? Was it someone domestic? What was the motivation? At first the only information available is simply that at least twenty people are dead and 42 injured. Hours later, the number of the dead will increase. It will double up—and more—upon itself.
By the following day, Monday, news stations have presumed to clarify the details, even though no answer can ever be enough. It is an LGBT nightclub, the reports say. It appears, too, that the shooter himself was gay.
Just days earlier, I was in New York City, celebrating the win of a Lambda award for my novel, Under the Udala Trees, a story about a lesbian woman who struggles to come to terms with her sexuality amidst an unaccepting culture. On the day I accepted my Lambda award, sunlight streamed its sharp rays all through the city, but now in New Hampshire, the wind whistles and whips, and I can’t help thinking: What are the odds of being killed by an anti-gay, gay Islamic terrorist in a gay night club in Orlando, Florida? No one could have ever thought to calculate that probability, and yet, there it is.
It is the issue of statistics. Like in a plane crash. The odds of being killed on a single airline flight are one in 29.4 million. Improbable, sure. But what happens when the plane makes like a meteorite, tumbles hard onto the earth, and the dead is your loved one? This is what happens: All statistics melt away. Hypothesis becomes reality. In the face of life’s tragedies, statistics ceases to be relevant, becomes, instead, crass, cold, inhumane, significantly distasteful.
Monday afternoon, the story of Eddie Justice breaks me viscerally. Even if I don’t know him personally, his photo on the screen, the text messages between him and his mother—the combination of both—transports me to this real-life place, a place beyond all the statistics, and it is as if I once knew Eddie Justice. In my mind’s eye, I see Eddie Justice as he could have been while he lived: Justice as a small child, in class, at a desk, reciting after his teacher. Justice running around in a playground. Justice on a school eve, eating dinner at a table with his mother. Justice as a young man, swaying on the dance floor of Pulse nightclub on that fateful evening. Justice afraid for his life. Justice running to the bathroom for safety. Justice hiding out in the bathroom stall, texting his mother, trying hard to hang on to life. I am reminded of my novel excerpt, of a similar scene in which my characters also hide for safety in an eerily similar nightclub setting. “…screaming and cries and a man’s thundering voice…. I saw the walls of the earth collapsing around us, and we, Samson-like in our decline, crumbling along with the walls. So was this how we would meet our end? An image of Mama came to my mind, Mama weeping before my dead body, Mama at my grave, mourning over me….”
It was a different event that inspired that scene in my novel: Years past, in 2008, members of the LGBT-welcoming House of Rainbow Metropolitan church in Lagos were attacked, beaten just by virtue of their belonging to the LGBT community. That event was an ocean away in Nigeria; this one is here in the US.
Watching the report on Eddie Justice, I wonder about this thing called homophobia, its ability to cross oceans. Homophobia crossed the Atlantic when Western missionaries brought it to much of Africa. It has crossed oceans from West to East, back and forth, transcending, even, boundaries of religion. But so, also, has acceptance, so much so that these days there seems to be a precarious balance, a tug of war around the world between intolerance and acceptance.
I wonder about this small word that is “hate.” I reconsider the notions of humanity, and of mortality. Because, surely, even the most homophobic, hate-filled person must be in some way aware of his or her own mortality. Even the most homophobic and hate-filled among us must have imagined his or her own death. I've imagined it. I've seen the plane crashing, and I am calling my mother on the phone from mid-air as we spiral toward the earth, telling my mother that I love her. I've imagined myself in a hospital bed, a terminal disease. Surely, even the most homophobic, hate-filled person must have imagined the death of a loved one. Even that person must know the pain of this imagination. Now, imagine the pain exponentially increased, because it is your reality. Eddie Justice is your loved one: you are his mother. You are terrified because your son will die. You are Eddie Justice. You are terrified because you will die.
If you can imagine that pain, how could you possibly be the cause of it? And if you are the cause of it, what has happened to your empathy?
On my bed in New Hampshire, I open my computer browser and re-read Eddie Justice's texts to his mother, and I cry, painful, jerk-full tears because Eddie Justice is dead, and yet, I see his face in my mind’s eye. Eddie Justice is dead, and yet his words—his pleas—echo in me.
Because so many others are dead alongside Eddie Justice, and yet I see their faces, and I feel their deaths in me.
All of this is just a week after the Lambda Awards ceremony—a night of celebration, of a community commemorating its voices and its stories. In New Hampshire, I can’t help but feel the disconnect. We have come a long way, haven’t we? And yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same. A small bubble of acceptance does not equal the larger-scale acceptance of the world. From a more personal angle, I wonder how can I continue celebrating my award when the community that my writing sought to uplift is falling apart.
That evening, after watching and reading Eddie Justice’s story, I wipe my eyes, and I fan my face so that I don't look like I've been crying. Because I have students to meet, I have to be strong. But inside, I am feeble and trembling, and I am wondering: Is this is what happens when a society continues to rely on outdated, senseless doctrines? Are we rendered feeble and trembling? Do we grow to loathe ourselves? Does that self-loathe translate to the loathing of others? What seems clear to me is that self-loathing effaces our ability to empathize. Is this how villains come to be? Isn’t it true that sometimes villains are created out of victims, that the line of separation can be thin, often as small as one degree?
I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, and with the mantra that “We are no part of the world.” In the Kingdom Hall, the elders drilled it into our heads that everything of the world was bad, despicable to Jehovah, and so I believed it too. Growing up, I’d see fellow classmates and think pityingly—condescendingly—of them, how unfortunate it was that they would perish in Gehenna and not form part of the 144,000 to be saved by God, of which, surely, I would be a part. Never mind that secretly, I wanted to be part of the world. I wanted to eat the candies from the birthday parties that were held in the classrooms of my elementary school in Port Harcourt. I wanted to eat birthday cake alongside my classmates. I wanted to have my birthday celebrated too, to have the class sing “Happy birthday” to me. During Christmas, I wanted to receive gifts from Father Christmas and sing carols and eat festive food. When we moved to the United States, I wanted to go trick-or-treating with the neighborhood kids. I remember feeling dejected that instead of celebrating Easter in bright colors along with all the other children, my siblings and I were forced to sit in the Kingdom Hall listening to morose, lengthy commemorations of Jesus’s death. Why celebrate death instead of life?
I hated myself for wanting to be a part of the world, and, the more I longed to partake in these small, innocuous pleasures of the world, the more I hated myself for the longing, and the more fervently I preached against those things of the world—against those unassuming members of the world. In a different narrative, I could have become extremist in my hate of myself, and, likewise, my preaching against the world could easily have taken a turn for the extreme.
I put myself in the shoes of the Orlando shooter, which is a terrifying thing to do. Still, I do it. And, I wonder: Is this the same with him, perhaps, what happens when a person has degenerated so much out of self-loathing, when a surfeit of self-loathing renders our empathy tarnished and worn and effectively gone? Is this what happens when the self-loather becomes like the wind, and in one fell swoop, develops claws and grips and cuts into our flesh, and stops our hearts?
It is in this moment that I think of Lambda. I thank God for Lambda. Because it seems to me that this is what organizations like Lambda do: they encourage us to love ourselves, encourage us to celebrate ourselves. They promote empathy. Unlike the Kingdom Hall of my youth, organizations like Lambda encourage us to live. They support us in our celebration of life.
As I walk out of my room to meet my students, I am filled with the thought that if the shooter had been taught to love and celebrate himself alongside the world, maybe none of this would have happened. The music at Pulse would only have kept on playing, and everyone would only have continued to sway, to twirl, to pirouette, to laugh the night away, on that beautiful night in the city of Orlando.
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