The day after the shooting in Orlando that left 49 predominantly queer Latinx people dead, I attended a vigil at the historic Stonewall Inn in memory of the lives lost and to mourn collectively with my community. As the vigil took place only 36 hours after most of us learned of the tragedy, our emotions were still raw as we desperately sought solace in the very neighborhood where our fight began. The vigil at Stonewall was supposed to be a place where we could openly weep for the dead and contend with the sobering reminder that the queer fight for recognition and acceptance is far from over, despite the countless wedding bells that have rung since the Obergefell ruling legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. But that vigil didn’t happen.
No, the nearly two-hour long event publicized as a time to “remember the lives lost and to stand with the survivors of the shooting” was hardly that. Mourning and scared, my queer siblings and I attended the vigil expecting moments of silence and commemorations of those lost; angry, we hoped for a condemnation of the racism and Islamophobia that operates in queer communities and society as a whole, which serves to oppress brown and black bodies and erase their histories and identities.
Instead, what we got from the event organized by the Stonewall Democrats was a plain old American political rally—not a vigil. The main speakers for the event, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, had little to say about the victims, their lives, and their families. Rather, their speeches were filled with vacuous platitudes of exceptionalism like “New York is different and New York is special,” paired with commercialized pleas to attend the Pride Parade (actually, Governor, it is a march—and there’s a big difference).
Similarly, the presidential candidates have also hijacked the tragedy for their own political ends, with press releases and tweets of political rhetoric circulating before anyone had the chance to grieve. Few are surprised that Donald Trump doubled down on his commitment to ban Muslim immigration, but Hillary Clinton’s use of “radical Islamism” demonstrates a significant strategic repositioning away from her progressive colleagues, making her stance nearly indistinguishable from that of moderate Republicans as she joins the rallying cry for greater national security to stymie the “Islamic threat.” Neither of the candidates adequately recognized the mass shooting in Orlando as the targeted violence against queer brown bodies. This failure is a consequence of the degeneration of American politics into a moral vacuum that further oppresses and silences marginalized groups.
Back at the vigil, after multiple political speeches delivered by straight white men, Nick Jonas, another straight white cisgender male, took the stage (conveniently a few days after his album dropped) to express his condolences. Later, Mayor de Blasio stumbled his way through a statement in Spanish that no Latinxs in the audience could understand. At that point, the anger and grief felt by many in the crowd was tangible. Their simple request, chanted a countless and tiring number of times, was “Say Their Names.” Say their names so we could finally grieve. Say their names so we could understand the fragility of life. Say their names so we could affirm their Latinx heritage.
That fleeting moment at the intersection of Christopher Street and Waverly Place illustrated the American political system’s downfall. Rumbling chants arose from the back with the simple request to “say their names,” but the politicians only spoke louder, clinging to the script of national security, American exceptionalism, and the idea that the shooting was an attack on all of us. No matter how loud the queer people of color pleaded, Nick Jonas still had the microphone—with it, he held onto the privilege to speak and be heard.
And with the chants ignored, politics continued as it always does. Republicans argue this is about terrorism. Democrats argue this is about gun control. By co-opting and streamlining the shooting in Orlando into grand narratives, both parties ignore the toxic recipe of racism, homophobia, and Islamophobia that influenced the killer and made queer brown bodies the target. It is not good politics to speak out for the minority of the minorities, so mum’s the word.
What American politics needs is a vigil: a real one and not the political rally held at Stonewall. We must call out those politicians who have lost their way and are blind to the sight of a grieving mother. We must say their names and tell their stories because we have no other choice. Without laying American politics as it is today to rest, progress in the lives of the marginalized cannot be made, and the lives of the dead cannot be remembered and celebrated. In order for vigils to remain a place for grieving, loving, and coming together as a community, American politics must change, it must lament tragedy and not politicize it, and new people must hold the microphone and have their voices heard.