Michael Stevens: Orlando shooting personalises fear many gay people feel

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Giovanna Lopez, who says she knew several victims of the Orlando nightclub shootings, lays flowers for her friends at the historic Stonewall Inn in New York. AP photo / Kathy Willens
Giovanna Lopez, who says she knew several victims of the Orlando nightclub shootings, lays flowers for her friends at the historic Stonewall Inn in New York. AP photo / Kathy Willens

As a gay man I look at the tragedy that has occurred in Orlando and am struck dumb with grief.

This was a pre-meditated attack, an act of unbridled hatred, against people simply because, like me, they were born different. This is as stupid as killing people for being left-handed or having green eyes.

I've been trying to understand why it has shaken me and so many of my friends so deeply.
It is because we are so used to living with fear, we are so used to the little put-downs so often described as "jokes". So many of us were bullied at school and rejected by our families that we don't trust the world around us easily.

We know that we are inviting verbal abuse and the danger of physical attack if we walk around holding our loved one's hand or kissing in public. We know to check and not behave in a way that is "too gay" if we're out on the street at night, especially if you're on your own.

We know we are at risk, and what this foul act of terror in Orlando has done is take that fear and make it concrete.

For many of us, our clubs and bars are the only places we can be ourselves. They are safe spaces away from families, from fellow employees and others who might laugh and jeer. They are often the only places we can relax and show who we are and openly show our love for partners; these are spaces where we can hug, kiss, and just act like the rest of the world does every day.

New Zealand is often seen as a better place than many others in the world to be part of the Rainbow community, and in many ways it is. Nearly all legal impediments have been removed, we have seen some stellar leadership from public figures who have been out and proud.

But we know that around a third of New Zealanders are uncomfortable working with people from the LGBTI world who are out. We know that we are far more likely to attempt suicide and successfully complete it than other segments of society.

We know what it is like to live with fear. And we also know the effort it takes to constantly be brave, as so many of us are. We know the energy required to be ourselves in a world that is often oblivious to our existence. And it can be good when the world is oblivious to us, because then we are not targets.

But why should we or any group have to live our lives in the shadows? Why we should we be afraid to be who we are?

The grief and rage I feel inside me about this is real, and is based on the direct sense of kinship I feel with all those slaughtered and wounded. I know it could have been me. And yes, I think it could happen in New Zealand.

This was a crime of pure naked hatred, and we know what it is to be hated. We are hated for being gay, for being lesbian, for being transgender or bisexual, for being different.

So the next time you make a joke about something being "so gay" just think of what happened last night in Florida. Think of where these comments can go. They not only hurt us, they legitimise the violence we encounter. They feed the hatred so many of us live with, and give strength to the ignorant and evil that persecute us.

Michael Stevens is a programmme director at Rainbow Tick.

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