A man walks into a bar.
Except he wasn’t just a man, was he? And it wasn’t just a bar. Muslim, gay, American: a Muslim man walks into a gay bar in America, and everyone knows how it ended. The Orlando Shooting, we call it, before the sun has risen.
Grief means so many things when it’s public. It’s never simple.
There’s the first response, almost a routine: oh no, not again. There’s always the panicked worry- nobody I know, is it? And then details filter through, little grains of information that lodge inside us, growing larger and larger, getting covered with all the layers of our own assumptions and preconceptions until I’m not sure we could see those tiny truths if we tried.
And some of us want to say- no- what about the thousands of other Muslim men in gay bars in America that night? And some of us want to say that we knew it would happen, that it was only a matter of time before some fundie with a gun took a break from abortion clinics and shot up the queers. Some of us want to shout that yes, homophobia is everywhere in their Muslim communities. More of us want to shout that no, you will not use homophobia to excuse your hatred of Muslims. Others will talk about how exclusion itself is to blame, turning one isolated kid against another, shutting us off from one another from the beginning. Still others went hoarse years ago, exhausted from saying over and over and over and over again that it’s guns, it’s always guns. More wonder how many people have drowned in the sea this week alone, and then we hate ourselves because we only wonder about people drowning in the sea when other people in the West are killed by someone whose name sounds a lot like theirs did.
And in the centre, fifty families grieve.
A man walks into a bar, and we want a simple answer. Is it those scary brown people with their unfamiliar names, who want to kill us all? Is it the economic hell that people from right here have been unleashing on the world for decades? Or the colonial hell that started centuries ago? Were those people in that bar asking for it, taunting God with their wicked ways? I wonder how much lighter that man’s skin would have needed to be for us to invoke mental health to explain it all?
And we’re so tired of it. Tired of these preconceptions we use to turn people into things.
Yes, it’s about religion. Yes, Islam has a problem with homophobia. No, this is not an excuse to hate Muslims- not unless you’ll hate Christians and Jewish people too, since the same damn story excuses the lot of them. But yes, Islam is used as an excuse to hate LGBTQIA people. Yes. And yes, the West has an Islamophobia problem. No, this doesn’t mean we can’t criticise Muslims. But when you’ve been the bullies for decades, you’d better be damn sure you’ve thought your criticisms through before you open your mouth. And it means that we- non-Muslim westerners- need to listen far more often than we speak.
Abrahamic religion turns a person into a thing and love into a sin: a sodomite committing an abomination. Westerners turn a billion people into a monster: the Islamic world. As if we were aliens to one another, not neighbours. As if we were never people, but always things.
Yes, it’s about exclusion. Of course it is. It’s about the decisions we make that shut us off from one another. And yes, it’s about economic and social policies that treat people as if we were commodities or numbers on a spreadsheet. Of course. Of course it all starts when you see people as things.
And yes, it’s about guns. Of course it’s about guns. And it’s about how we treat mentally ill people, because how you treat people who don’t quite fit in is always what it’s about. And those people in the bar couldn’t taunt a God that never existed in the first place, but if you have been told all your life that that’s what queer people are doing, then yes it’s about the idea that gods are real and should never be taunted. And yes, yes it’s about walling ourselves off into groups who never really get close enough to understand one another, because how else could you see love as two-fingers to a deity?
And yes, oh, yes, it’s about the people who died in the sea this week. And it’s about how we only talk about them at times like these, because if you saw everyone around you ignoring thousands of people left in the sea to drown? And if those people looked like you and their names sounded like yours, why wouldn’t you hate the others for ignoring them? More people, turned into things. More deaths we dismiss when they don’t suit us, and use or celebrate when they do.
And yes, it’s about every time we’ve turned a corner and I let go of someone’s hand. It’s about the kids on the train last night- “are youse lesbians?!”, because any sign of affection or comfort are suspect. It’s about walking into somewhere safe and catching her hand again. What I’ve heard over and again this last day- gay clubs not just bars. They’re sanctuaries. It seems strange to call a bar a sacred space, doesn’t it? But these spaces are where we drop our guard. Stop looking over our shoulder. Where we don’t have to make endless calculations on whether honesty, in this moment, is worth the risk. In a way, any safe space is a sanctuary, and any sanctuary is in some sense sacred. A man didn’t just walk into a bar. He walked into a den of evil. He walked into a sanctuary.
And later this week (or has it happened already?) someone won’t just walk up to a mosque. Because they will. Of course they will. They’ll walk up to mosques with spray paint and with bacon and bricks, if we’re lucky. Worse, if we’re not. And they’ll use one man’s wrecking of a sanctuary to defile another. Because the people in that bar will be humans to them, but the people in the mosque merely things. They’ll walk into a den of evil. They’ll walk into a sanctuary.
Because no room is just a room. No gun is just a gun.
And it’s about the small human voice within me. The one that knows that the women in her scarf or the man with his beard and brown eyes feel the same when they walk down the street as I do when I didn’t let go of someone’s hand. And although each of our communities are flawed and screwed up in a thousand ways, I know how they feel when they walk through the door of their sanctuary. I know how they feel when those windows are smashed.
It’s about every grain of truth, every pearl of our own preconceptions. Every single time we reduce a human being to a set of adjectives. It’s about all of them. It’s about more than any of them. It can be about the kernel of empathy that’s the only thing that’ll get us out of this. If we start with humanity and work our way out through the adjectives.
And it’s about knowing that whatever we do, fifty more families will still grieve.