Teaching the Pulse Massacre

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Julio Capó, Jr. is Assistant Professor in the History Department and Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he recently received the College Outstanding Teaching Award. His first book, Welcome to Fairyland, chronicles Miami’s transnational queer past from 1890 to 1940, and is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press.

The tragic shooting at Pulse, a popular gay nightclub in Orlando, requires that we look to our past for potential answers, lessons learned, and steps for how to best move forward. Despite what some commentators have said, this was unequivocally an attack on LGBT and queer communities; particularly those of color. This fact cannot be understood as a footnote to this disaster. It must be interpreted as indistinctly central to its formulation.

Many of our younger students, especially those who do not identify as queer or transgender, have come of age when a narrative of linear progress has shaped much of their understanding on the lives of LGBTQ folk. They may be familiar with highly publicized victories like the 2010 repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the 1993 policy that prohibited lesbians, gays, and bisexuals from serving openly in the military forces. Even more so, the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that brought marriage equality to the whole nation has left some of them with the impression that, “It gets better”—a nod to a popular Internet campaign founded in 2010—if you just give it enough time.

This liberal progress narrative fails to capture how, as several have long noted and as Pulse makes clear, life does not always get better for many still left vulnerable to such violence and discrimination. Of course, decades of activism and advocacy have vastly improved the lives of many LGBTQ people, and these perspectives are critically important. We must, however, explain to our students how those histories—as well as the Pulse massacre—fit into a much more nuanced and checkered tradition of postwar liberalism. We are tasked with teaching the tragedy as a manifestation of continued contestation and as part of a longer history of violent state-building and colonial projects.

When we teach the modern U.S. history survey, a cursory mention of the 1969 Stonewall riot in New York City will not suffice. We must emphasize how attacks on gender and sexual difference have been at the core of much of the violence and discrimination in the United States’ history. For instance, in my classes’ lengthy discussions on the social and cultural politics of HIV/AIDS, many students are often surprised to learn how violence and discrimination against queer people greatly intensified in the face of the disease. Many also express both shock and anger upon learning how infection rates continue to disproportionately affect transgender and communities of color in the United States.

Contingent representing several Latin American countries, with float like giant shoe, annual Seattle LGBT Pride parade, Capitol Hill, Seattle, Washington, 1995.

Indeed, we must stress how this violence has been constructed through intersectional formations of race, ethnicity, class, nation, age, and ability. Even as we move beyond a Stonewall-centric narrative in the U.S. history survey, when we do teach that event and the coming of gay liberation, we must debunk modern retellings and make clear that queer and transgender people of color like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson were then—as they were before and after—decisive players in the movement.

In this way, we can more fully understand the roots of the hatred that claimed the lives of the 49 people at Pulse who gathered that evening to dance, drink, meet, experiment, break loose, and celebrate their desires and identities free of shame and violence. After all, places like Pulse have long served as much needed sanctuaries, sites that offered at least a veil of safety against the hostility, bigotry, judgment, and closet of the outside world. Several have even noted, for instance, how the devastating news of their deaths may have served as a public outing for some of the queer folk, particularly those of color, the killer gunned down that night.

Even as we explore how LGBTQ communities built “safe spaces” to better shield themselves from this violence, discrimination, and isolation, we must present that perspective as part of a larger discussion on the multiple and contested definitions of “security” and “safety.” For example, at the height of the HIV/AIDS panic in the United States, many people forcefully argued that guns made them safer in these difficult times. After all, by then, the state had launched its aggressive “war on drugs” and increased its attacks on crime and poverty—or racialized and mythologized versions of those social demons. By 1987, the Florida legislature passed a law that allowed qualifying citizens to carry a concealed weapon. Ideas of safety and security were once again turned on their heads. It was that law, among several other policies, that literally armed Floridians with greater power to surveillance, patrol, and use violence to uphold particular community standards. In 2012, just outside of Orlando, a man carrying such a concealed weapon gunned down an unarmed African American teenager named Trayvon Martin at a residential complex in the name of community “safety.” Incidentally, in the wake of that tragedy, a powerful movement with rich queer origins—#BlackLivesMatter—emerged and helped give voice to so many other silenced people.

We must also teach the Pulse shooting through translational readings that identify the violent ghosts of U.S. colonialism. It is not incidental that the vast majority of the victims that night were Latino. Twenty-three of them were Puerto Rican. Many were part of the community sometimes vulgarly referred to as the Orlando area’s “Disney-Ricans” or “Mickey-Ricans,” epithets many Puerto Ricans reject. Scholars have shown how, since the United States occupied the island in 1898, Puerto Rico has been turned into a sort of social policy laboratory, experimenting with the birth control pill and neoliberalism. While Puerto Ricans are Latinos with documented status, having received U.S. citizenship in 1917, they are frequently displaced and forced to leave their homes. Most recently, they have sought refuge in the Orlando area—which now houses nearly half a million Puerto Ricans, nudging Florida in the direction of overthrowing New York as the state with the highest number of that population in the country—in order to flee a $72 billion debt that has deep roots in colonial policy.

Similarly, we must resist oversimplifying these history lessons by painting broad strokes that attribute the causes of this tragedy to a one-dimensional and engrained manifestation of homophobia linked to Latino and Latin American cultures. This is suggested, for example, in reports lamenting how several of Pulse’s victims feared coming out to their friends and families. If such stories find blame in machismo, it is critical that they also break down what such a term entails and the many colonial and imperialist forces that have historically helped define and give shape to these constructions of masculinity and femininity.

Nor should narratives of tolerance and acceptance toward gender and sexually non-conforming people be presented as distinct surrogates for U.S. exceptionalism. The experiences of queer immigrants and migrants have demonstrated, for instance, the high level of violence at American borders. A handful of transnational studies have also revealed how, for many queer transients, settling in the United States may not be the main objective or the most ideal of circumstances. Just the same, the United States by no means led the international community in the campaign for marriage equality—an issue too infrequently read as a victory for queer immigrants and bi-national couples. By the time the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina had beat them to it.

When we build our syllabi, we are tasked with presenting a much more nuanced narrative of the past systems of inequality that made Pulse not only possible, but seemingly inevitable.

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2 Comments

  1. I appreciate your end goal here, but I think trying to academically analyze this attack for “lessons learned” only a few months (this coming academic year, I assume) after is a mistake. For all the ridiculing people like to do of “triggering” and safe spaces, at Florida universities this might LITERALLY be a situation where students know individual(s) who were murdered. Expecting them to sit quietly for an hour while they listen to the history that led up to their friends being murdered is cruel. Can we give it a few years, maybe? At least in Florida?

    • Julio Capo, Jr. on

      Thanks for this. Of course. I’m suggesting something very different here, however. Students will have many questions, concerns, fears, anxieties, and will want or need help (like so many of us) making sense of what happened. I’m offering a few ways for us to make the historical processes that collided at Pulse a part of our regular curriculum. Resounding silences are, I’d argue, part of the problem at root here and what we need to combat. This isn’t meant to be a singular one hour lecture. It’s meant to note the very real necessity of integrating queer histories and lived experiences into our every day lectures.

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