They Keep Killing People Like Me

candles toronto

They’re killing people like me.

That’s the thought that crossed my mind on Sunday morning as I began to see reports about the massacre at the LGBT club in Orlando. The feeling was stunning – and familiar.

Like all Jewish children born into the shadow of the Holocaust in the 1950s, I had to come to grips with that idea early. After all, what separated me from the millions of people slaughtered simply because they were Jewish like me? An ocean. A handful of years. Not much, really.

In 1970, that feeling found me again, when armed troops fired on college students demonstrating against the Vietnam war on their own campus at Kent State. National Guardsmen killed four students and wounded nine others.

Photo: John Filo

Photo: John Filo

I was only 16, but I hoped to go to college soon. I knew I would be exactly the kind of student who would have been out on that hilly field, chanting and shouting and waving signs against the war. And the government – my government – would have ordered its soldiers to drop on one knee and shoot people like me.

Ten days later, in Mississippi, it happened again. Local police killed two students and wounded twelve others. But I didn’t have that “they’re killing my people” feeling, because I didn’t learn about the Jackson State massacre for years. Why? They were African American students at an historically black college. Their deaths didn’t get anywhere near the media attention of the four white students in Ohio.

After Stonewall

Five years after Stonewall, I came out as a lesbian into the embrace of a vibrant women’s movement. In Chicago in the 1970s there were plenty of places I could go to be my angry, idealistic, lesbian-feminist self. There were coffeehouses where we listened to music, back rooms where we held our endless meetings, chilly basements where we drafted our newsletters on clacking typewriters, cramped kitchens where we imagined our liberated future.

But I also needed the bars, although I wasn’t a drinker. Because sometimes you just want to be together. Be safe. Be recognized. Just be. It may seem strange, even before Orlando, to think of bars as places of refuge. My straight women friends talk about – and organize about – how they get harassed and accosted in bars. But the lesbian bars of my youth shared the one element most conducive to women’s safety: no men.

We’re all alone

I remember slow dancing with my girlfriend as Rita Coolidge sang “We’re All Alone.” It was a summer evening, before the crowds descended, and the quiet bar on Chicago’s north side looked shabby in the fading daylight. We didn’t care. We were young, our souls aflame with romance and revolution, and Rita Coolidge was telling us to “Let it out, let it all begin. Learn how to pretend.”

Of course, how to pretend was one thing lesbians of my generation did not need to learn. Most of us had been pretending all our lives. And when we stepped out of that bar, we would once again have to pull on the false self we showed to the unwelcoming world.

The killing continued

Still, they kept killing people like me. Sometimes they killed with silence, like the gigantic national shrug that met the AIDS crisis. I believe that shrug launched the united LGBTQ movement, when lesbians stepped up to take care of our dying brothers because no one else gave a damn. Before that, the gay men I knew had been pushing for civil rights while the lesbians fought for women’s liberation, and we collaborated only briefly to confront shared foes.

The movement shifted but the killing continued. When a man who was enraged to see two women together murdered Rebecca Wight and injured her partner Claudia Brenner along the Appalachian Trail in 1988. When a gunman slaughtered 14 women engineering students in Montreal in 1989, screaming “I hate feminists!” and the media speculated on what his motive could possibly be. When Matthew Shepherd was battered, trussed and left to die in 1998. When Sakia Gunn was stabbed to death in New Jersey in 2003 because she and her girlfriend turned down her killer’s proposition. When right-wing extremists in legislatures and pulpits created the conditions in which killings can keep on happening.

Photo: Dreams Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Film Project.

Photo: Dreams Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Film Project.

Not again

The gut punch of the Orlando massacre is not new. It’s not again. Not again this grief, this anger, this fear. Not again watching politicians twist our pain to their own purposes.

After decades spent in social justice movements, I carry in my bones the history of how we got here. They keep killing people like us. So we are the ones who must join with others to rise up and create a world where no one needs to keep a running tally of who is, and is not, like us. As Marge Piercy wrote, “It starts when you say ‘we’ and know who you mean, and each day you mean one more.”

flag in candle jar