For some, the ubiquity and high frequency of mass shootings in the United States is nothing less than shocking. However, many teens feel less disgusted and awed and more downright apathetic toward these tragedies. And it is hardly our fault. This is a generation born on the cusp of 9/11, a generation that turned on the news only to hear of the Sandy Hook killings right before getting on the bus to go to school, a generation that watched as politicians waved off these tragedies, using the aged hand of the second amendment. The violence we were bred in has become normal.
But that normalcy dissipates once we realize just how lucky we are, once we realize just how scary it is to experience the cliche that is “a brush with death.”
That is what my friends and I experienced on the morning of June 12, as we woke up to the news of the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando. What we expected to be a normal day had suddenly taken a turn for the worst. Forty-nine members of our vibrant community had been snatched away from us. As a group of openly queer people of color, we knew a similar attack could have occurred — and still can occur — in any of the spaces we occupy.
All of a sudden, mass shootings were not an idea but a reality. Instead of feeling nothing, I felt a pain unlike anything I had previously experienced. For two days, I functioned with hurt in my heart. I watched my friends burst into tears at the sight of unrelenting, heartbreaking updates of the tragedy. I felt fear swallow me whole.
For the first time in my life, I was confronted with the fact that I am a target.
Furthermore, the violation of a supposed safe space has left us feeling vulnerable. Though our initial urge was to hide, we knew we had to be active. We wanted to donate blood, we wanted to help cover funeral costs, we wanted to support families and friends of the victims. But as poor kids living in Atlanta, that was not an option. We felt we owed the Pulse nightclub victims something, some form of homage.
A day after the news broke, something clicked. What happened at Pulse can be called many things: a tragedy, a massacre, but, if nothing else, it is a catalyst — a catalyst for change.
It is my greatest hope that the fear the LGBTQIA+ community feels after Pulse will not force us into the shadows, but sharpen us as it does with wild animals. I hope that this threat prompts us to bare our teeth, to sharpen our claws, to scowl at those who dare intimidate us.
It is time for us to be unabashed. It is time for us to live twofold: once for ourselves and once for Juan Ramon Guerrero or Kimberly Morris or Anthony Luis Laureano Disla or any of the other victims.
It is my greatest hope that closeted teens are not so terrified that they continue to deny themselves. They deserve to be whole. It is my deepest wish that we realize that if this does not stop us, nothing can. Queer is invincible.
To queer youth: Continue to occupy public space; the highest form of protest is to unapologetically live where you were never supposed to exist. Disaster is now your constant companion, but freedom will never let you leave its sight. You are constantly becoming. Do not be afraid to take your time.
To those who hate us: You have already lost.
Alimah Dawkins, a recent high school graduate in Atlanta, will attend Sarah Lawrence College in the fall.
This op-ed was originally published in VOXATL.com, a nonprofit youth media organization in Atlanta. (Youth Today’s managing editor is the founder of and a consultant with VOX.)
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