constellational thinker. critical scholar. transformative educator.

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Thinking Constellationally: An Intersectional, Integrative Analysis of the Orlando Massacre

I am tired.  I am still tired.  Tired alongside so many of my siblings, of my kin.  In my last post, I talked about my hopefulness for change, for the future, for our safety feeling like it was tissue paper rather than iron clad.  Now, I want to make some flowers out of that paper – vibrant colorful flowers we can begin to plant to grow some new hope and doing it in such a way that I/we become the lovers, the leaders we need to make our communities a little more just and a little more caring.  As Grace Lee Boggs (2012) said, “we are the leaders we’ve been looking for.”

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Early Sunday evening represents a confluence of so many issues that continue to plague our collective human conscience.  I know many of them are constantly on my mind: terrorism and who is labeled as a terrorist; the continued erasure of the continued violence upon people of color, especially transgender women of color; the centrality of Whiteness in LGBTQ+ concerns and caring; the role of love as a verb to heal ourselves and each other; how we continue to center conversations about safety on individual victims and perpetrators rather than addressing the systems.

Early Sunday evening represents a starry night sky, full of individual stars that seem disconnected and separate.  To honor the 49 lives we lost that night, to honor the (critically) injured, to truly make a sustained effort and outcome for change, we’ve got to see the constellation that early Sunday evening represents.

In March, I was grateful to speak at the TEDxMSU conference, discussing what I and others have called “constellational thinking.”  Constellational thinking is how we begin to make connections between the social, environmental, and economic justice issues of our time as grounded in a socio-historical, interconnected context.  For instance, we cannot possibly address issues of climate change without seriously addressing issues of war.  The U.S. Department of Defense remains one of the world’s top emitters of carbon.  Constellational thinking forces us to make the connections where they seemingly do not exist.  We must use constellational thinking to address the confluence of issues that arises from the Orlando massacre.

We’ve got to be thinking constellationally about how terrorism, and the definition of a terrorist, is often unequally applied to different groups of people.  The label of terrorism seems to easily fall on those who are brown, who are read as Middle-Eastern, and those who veil.  As Terrell Jermaine Starr (2016) suggested, “Muslims who commit mass acts of violence are easily and immediately deemed terrorists.  White people who do the same thing are not.”  Once again, a word we see as race-neutral becomes racially coded, a way to brand “the other” who is harming “us.”  The dominant discourse around what happened in Orlando and Charleston, respectively is as follows: Omar Mateen was labeled an “Islamic terrorist” early on.  Dylann Roof was a “troubled kid” who probably was “mentally unstable.”  The ways in which terror and hate have been limited to certain people is similar to what Mogul, Ritchie, and Whitlock (2011) described as cultural criminalization, where crusades to crack down and “get tough on crime” have an established target.  In this case, the target of the crusade has been Islam and Muslims collectively.  Yet, we continue to not discuss how a majority of mass shootings in the United States continue to be perpetrated by non-Muslim, White men.  We don’t discuss how a hyper-, hegemonic masculinity remains at the center of much of the violence in our culture.  We also continue to not discuss how Mateen worked for G4S, “a global ‘security’ firm, also known as a privately contracted army that has ‘a force three times the size of the British military.’”  His working for G4S in many ways reinforced his socialization around hypermasculinity in their ways of easily dehumanizing people in the name of “security.”  While I discuss safety and security implications for queer/trans folk below, it is important to point out here how his working for G4S is yet another overlapping ideology that must be interrogated and addressed.  How can we, as Dr. Z Nicolazzo suggested, condemn Mateen as bad when the ideologies and systems that informed his worldview are U.S. American born-and-bred?  Once again, the dominant discourse around violence, who perpetuates violence, and how they are labeled is as follows: If a person of color, particularly a black or brown person, is caught committing acts of violence, they are labeled a terrorist.  If a White man/person is caught committing acts of violence, they must be mentally ill.  And there will be no discussion of gender at all in the process.  Let’s be clear.  This was an act of terror and hate.  AND, we need to apply the labels of terrorism and hate equitably across incidents, to name these incidents for what they are.

The ways in which these murderers, these terrorists, have been labeled has not been the only way Whiteness has shown up in the story of the Orlando massacre.  There are a large number of reports that refuse to name this act of hate, this act of terror, as something that targeted LGBTQ+ folks.  Even those who do acknowledge and name this as a violent act against a group of people, they are mainly naming this as an attack against LGBTQ+ people.  Whether intentional or unintentional, there continues to be a pervasive, present erasure of how most of the victims were Latinx, Afro-Latinx, and Black folks who were attending Latin night at Pulse.  While some may think this is semantics, that we still lost 49 lives no matter what and so it’s not important what their “lifestyle was” or “how they identify,” I am here to tell you that it does matter.  It matters because violence and discussions surrounding violence are often rooted in binary ways.  Straight versus queer.  White versus color.  Individual versus individual.  We must name that this act of violence took away 49 queer/trans people of color.  That queer/trans people of color continue to be disproportional victims of violence in our society by a long shot.

Even queer folks continue to erase the race/ethnicity of those involved in this massacre, which is endemic of the larger movement for “equality.”  Indeed, to promote a gay rights agenda rather than a queer liberation framework, mainstream well-funded organizations continue to use strategies that normalize LGBTQ+ folks.  Indeed, one of the main reasons marriage equality became a reality in this country is because “love is love,” same-sex/gender love had to be seen the same as heterosexual/straight love.  Not only have these campaigns around normalcy been focused on normalizing queer folks in terms of how much we are alike to cis-heterosexual folks, it has also meant being seen as White.  As Farrow (2004) noted, “in order to be mainstream in America, one has to be seen as white.”  Certainly, many of the original issues of the queer liberation movement – prison reform, poverty, ending violence against women/femme folks, support for working families – have disappeared over time to appeal to donors and an agenda focused on getting others to accept us.  How can we have meaningful discussions about the violence enacted upon queer people of color, particularly transgender women of color, if our movement continues to center White gay cisgender men?  How can we name this as an act of racialized heterosexist violence if our most well-funded, most visible organizations do not explicitly name racial justice as a goal of the movement?  Until we begin to center our most marginalized in our advocacy work, people of color will continue to be perpetrators of violence, never victims. Again, constellational thinking helps us to make the connections between which groups of people are easily named as terrorists and perpetrators of violence while simultaneously erasing those same people as the folks who often receive the most violence.  As numerous reports have found, transgender women of color continue to be eradicated at astronomical rates.

More news has come forth in the past days that we have lost yet another one of our sisters – Goddess Diamond.  She represents the 14th trans person killed in the US this year, the same number of recorded murders in all of 2013 in the US.  Once again, the outrage for this widespread violence is largely absent.  Despite the ever-increasing mainstream visibility of transgender persons like Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Kate Bornstein, and Chelsea Manning among others; despite the limited #LoveWins rhetoric of organizations like the Human Rights Campaign; despite four Black actors winning the top four Tony Awards this year, violence continues to be enacted on LGBTQ(POC) at incredibly high levels, particularly transgender women of color.  This cannot be stated enough.  We must have sustained outrage at all forms of violence.  This is hard to do because helplessness and hopelessness creep into our minds and hearts in times of grief, when everything seems insurmountable.  But we must maintain hope, and by extension sustain action dedicated to dismantling the systems that keep violence in place and reject the idea that legal inclusion alone will save our lives.

Visibility has never meant acceptance; never meant the absence of violence.  Legal inclusion has never mean the absence of violence in the lives of marginalized peoples.  Despite beliefs that passage of hate crime legislation has made us safer, it continues to not.  Hate crime legislation has several fallacies and drawbacks, many of which should be taken up and read by a wider audience (see: Against Equality and Queer (In)justice).  Of some of the main arguments against hate crime legislation, two mainly rise to the surface for the purpose of this analysis.  First, as Mogul, Ritchie, and Whitlock (2011) pointed out, hate crime laws “fail to address the larger social forces influencing individual acts of violence, and instead focus on harsher punishment of individuals rather than prevention, there is no proactive ‘protection’ in hate crime laws, despite the claims of supporters.”  We must break up our abusive relationship with the idea that violence on people of color, LGBTQ+ folks, persons with disabilities is violence perpetrated by strangers upon strangers when violence; as Aponte (2008) noted, these folks “aren’t disproportionately victimized simply because some individuals hate them: that hatred is backed up, reinforced, and executed by an entire system of institutionalized power that allow us and in fact encourages such acts of violence.”  And as Spade (2014) expanded, “[i]f we deal with the complexity of how common violence is, and let go of a system built on a fantasy of monstrous strangers, we might actually begin to focus on how to prevent violence and heal from it.”  The Audre Lorde Project (2016), in naming what is happening in Orlando, further explained:

The fact that only the race of the perpetrator and not the victims is being discussed is telling. Besides erasing the lived reality of Muslim LGBTSTGNC [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Two Spirit, and Gender Non Conforming] people, Black Muslims, and LGBTSTGNC people of color more generally, this promotes the xenophobic stereotype that Muslim people and immigrants are more ‘homophobic,’ and become ‘radicalized’ elsewhere. The culprit becomes the figure of the ‘Islamic terrorist,’ and the heroes become the politicians, the police, and the military. We reject this deliberately racist framing. Individual perpetrators are part of a much larger system of militarization and colonization. We recognize that terrorism is not imported, it is home grown in a culture that is deeply anti-Black, anti-immigrant, and anti-queer.

Indeed, as activists focused on ending sexual violence will tell you, violence comes not from strangers, but often people we know and that our solutions and discussions should be victim-centered rather than perpetrator-centered.  These systems of institutionalized powers and forces that promote violence against minoritized folks continue to see us abject and disposable, as folks undeserving of life.  Rather than focusing on being outraged at these systems via individuals who commit mass shootings, we must address these systems, these ideologies that continue to enable people to end our lives based in “historical patterns of dominance and subordination” (Mogul, Ritchie, & Whitlock, 2011).  We must interrogate the White supremacist capitalist cisheteropatriarchal culture we live in, understand how it allows for much of this violence, figure out how we are complicit in it, and then dismantle it.  That’s not easy. That sounds very academic and distant.  Yet it is what we are called to do.  We can continue to look to activists based in the Black Lives Matter movement and those based in sexual assault prevention as examples of how to address individual, institutional, and systemic forms of violence and think of safety as a community measure rather than an individual measure where one is only safe if they take certain actions (i.e. wear modest clothing, not wear hoodies down the street at night).  (SN: it should also be noted there are crossover activists in both movements and that one does not choose between one or the other).

Before we continue, let’s see the interconnected stars so far: the ways in which cultural criminalization are employed see people of color as perpetrators of mass violence/terrorists and white folks as troubled folks who need more mental health attention, which is connected to one of the reasons in which the races and ethnicities of the Orlando victims continues to be erased solely for an LGBTQ+ narrative rather than an LGBTQ+ people of color narrative.  Well-meaning, mainstream narratives of LGBTQ+ folks as “normal” people mean they must be white and act in ways that are respectable to a cishetero gaze.  The erasure of the victims’ races/ethnicities contributes to the continued systemic erasure of the violence perpetrated against queer/trans folks of color, especially transgender women of color.  In addition, these horrific violent events are not random; they are enforced by a hypermasculine system that decides which bodies are worthy of life and which bodies are not.  When we see these events enforced by particular systems and ideologies, we can begin to understand that safety is not individual taking every precaution they can take to keep themselves safe but rather a community that must take action to keep one another safe.

Let’s continue.

In the wake of the Orlando shootings, calls have already been made for a larger police presence at Pride events which will have the largest effect on those minoritized by their racial, nation, and gender identities.  For instance, NY Governor Andrew Cuomo wants folks at New York City’s Pride to have “the safest” Pride parade ever.  As Walker (2016) pointed out, safe generally means “more police, more security, and more rigorous screening for entry into events.”  In an age of ever-increasing visible police brutality, a larger police presence at an event like Pride will continue to have a chilling effect on folks who are undocumented, who are of color, who are trans/gender nonconforming.  While some will point to the L.A. County Sheriff Department’s discovery of an Indiana man with weapons on the way to LA Pride as a positive example of police presence at Pride, police are now reporting despite weapons possession, they cannot conclusively say what the man’s intentions were.  When we recall the Compton Cafeteria & Stonewall riots led by trans women of color, the riots were about pushing back against the police raids, pushing back against systemic queer/transphobia that they sought to enforce; and that is still the fight to be had today, the pushing back against these systems.  As the Audre Lorde Project (2016) stated,

Our allies are pledging to keep us safe as we assemble for Pride this month. But we ask: safety for whom? They call for increased policing, but never for affordable housing. Hate crimes legislation has been shown to fuel mass incarceration and disproportionately criminalize Black and People of Color survivors of violence. The Christopher Street Pier, a sacred space for LGBTSTGNC youth and poor people of color, is barricaded shut by NYPD during Pride. Calls for gun control never seem to include demands for demilitarization of the police.

We must develop community-based alternatives to policing and militarization.  As Mogul, Ritchie, & Whitlock (2011) contend, “[d]eveloping alternative, concrete, and successful responses to violence against queers is nothing less than a Herculean task, requiring substantial transformation of our relationships and communities.”  Though for many of us this world is hard to imagine – one that is absent of the policing we currently have – there are organizations committed to addressing this task such as Community United Against Violence (CUAV), the Audre Lorde Project’s Safe Neighborhood Campaign, and Creative Interventions.  These approaches are locally created and still not perfect yet they are beginning to address the Herculean task.

Just because we have “won rights” and “history is on our side” does not mean that systems read history, that they follow social change that has targeted and promoted the inclusion of certain individuals into legal systems.  Indeed, as Spade (2015) pointed out:

We must stop believing that what the law says about itself is true and that what the law says about us is what matters.  Our goal cannot be to get the law to say ‘good’ instead of ‘bad’ things about people who are marginalized, criminalized, impoverished, exploited, and exiled.  Law reform and an investment in winning ‘rights’ has proved to legitimize and shore up the very arrangements that produce the harm we seek to eradicate.

And this harm we seek to eradicate is focused on ideologies that advocate for our eradication, for our physical erasure from the material world.  Violence does not need to be based in maliciousness; it can be absent of feeling, it can even have good intentions but horrible impact.  These ideologies start early and are pervasive throughout our culture, being reinforced in multiple areas of life.  As Quinlan (2016) pointed out, in the United States, queer/transphobic hate begins at an early age.  In schools, by silencing queer/trans teachers, by pushing back against inclusive sex education (if there is even a sex education curriculum to begin with), by accusing queer/trans student organizations of promoting “gay agendas,” by protesting inclusive, all-gender restrooms, by enforcing dress codes that promote cis-binary understandings of gender, by having exclusionary dance/prom practices, the communication to students about queer/trans peoples’ lives and concerns is that these issues “are not worth their consideration and at worst, are offensive.”  I would extend this list to unchecked microaggressions against marginalized communities, uninterrupted joking that (un)intentionally demeans and degrades minoritized folks, and even intra-community racism, body policing, and genderism.  As Mire (2016) stated, Omar Mateen, like many others, was a U.S.-born citizen who became a product of “a culture that places a premium on being ‘out’ if you’re gay but does not work hard enough to ensure that the world is safe for those same people.”  What Mire goes on to explain is that coming out is not “a cure-all for the travails of a queer life,” which include suicidepovertyhomelessness, and health-panic policies.  As Dr. D-L Stewart phrased it, “ideological bullets lead to material bullets.”  By promoting a #LoveIsLove and #LoveWins rhetoric that is predicated on people being “out and proud,” without interrogating and addressing the larger systems and ideologies that continue to enact violence on queer/trans people, while seeking inclusion in definitions of marriage, military service, and hate crime legislation, we continue to not tackle what continues to kill us and our marginalized kin on a daily basis, we continue to allow hate to win and love to lose.  

And what continues to hurt so much, what continues to elicit such deep pain in our queer/trans hearts, is that this hit our home.  As I have stated elsewhere,

This hit too close to home.  And a complicated, interconnected home.  Orlando is where both my blood and non-blood family call home.  Queer nightclubs and bars have continued to be home for me and my communities, a place where we can unapologetically be ourselves.  A place where we, especially my QTPOC kin, have organized, have liberated one another, have celebrated.  Today, our home, the safe place where we go to not be questioned, was defiled and disgraced and made to feel so unsafe [again].

An image has gone around Facebook, asking folks to identify the first queer/trans nightclub/bar folks have gone to in their lives.  This image has resonated with so many of us.  Because for so many of us, not all of us, those first bars or clubs were the spaces we could escape from the hurt, from the systems and people that do not want us.  For some of us, that feeling of empowerment, of being ourselves, of having a sense of self-worth “followed us home” and stayed with us outside of the four walls and the thumpa thumpa.  Even those who have seen queer/trans clubs as safe spaces (i.e. straight, femme, cisgender women) realize that “safety is an illusion of [their] relative privilege. Not even gay public space is safe space to be gay.”  This pain continues to be deep, as Nichols (2016) has already so eloquently stated, our community “will be mourning for a long, long time” and that we are “reminded that this world is not designed for our survival, and that these systems of power have the potential to form a human being that into someone who hates us.”

And what extends my pain just a bit more, what makes this incident really just…cut so deep that it feels like it will never fully heal…is for those who have been fed the rhetoric to be themselves, to live out and proud, cannot even practice that nor find an escape in these clubs and bars like so many of us have.  Though these incidents, these shootings of queer/trans spaces like in New Orleans, this shooting is in the #LoveWins era, where we see study after study find interpersonal acceptance of queer/trans people, where this mass murder was highly visible in mainstream media.  If our identities and “love” should go mainstream and open as many encourage, then we must be met by systemic change that allows us to live in public and in private. However, the era of love as a noun must come to an end; the era of love as a verb must be rebirthed as it began in the 1960’s.

What this thinking leads me to conclude is that we must have a multifaceted approach that seeks to end the marginalization and violence against all of us – a constant constellational praxis.  This approach must be intersectional, emphasizing that we do not gain rights one group at a time but rather liberation for all of us all at once.  This approach must be integrative, utilizing multiple frames and lenses of analysis, not a detached framework that can only examine one thing, one issue at a time.  Whatever this approach is, we must be prepared to name the systems and ideologies that seek to commit violence against many of us very explicitly.  Despite popular opinion, for instance, avoiding discussions around race has yet to make racism go away.  We might as well practice the inverse – let’s have direct conversations in how policies and systems continue to perpetuate/dismantle the White supremacist capitalist cisheteropatriarchal culture we live in.  In addition, this approach will require an understanding of love and hope as verbs rather than nouns – things that we must actively do.  This must be a sustained love, a sustained hopefulness.  As Freire (1970) stated in Pedagogy of Hope,

The idea that hope alone will transform the world, and action undertaken in that kind of naiveté, is an excellent route to hopelessness, pessimism, and fatalism.  But the attempt to do without hope, in the struggle to improve the world, as if that struggle could be reduced to calculated acts alone, or a purely scientific approach, is a frivolous illusion.

In addition, as we seek an approach that leaves no one behind, we have to continue to love on each other as we have in the past seven days.  We have to sustain our mourning, to remember who and what we trying to change the system for and with, so that we will not lose one more of our human kin.  Finally, we must center our efforts for change on those most marginalized.  While not a new concept, individuals and organizations continue to take a checklist approach to the work.  We must center these folks not only in our fundraiser sound bytes or on our organizations’ windows; we must also center them in our budgets and our agendas and meetings with legislators, activists, and organizers.

I was talking with one of my best friends on Sunday.  He was offering me support and ended a text with this: “Just hoping that MLK was right about the arc of the universe…”  I thought about that quote.  For those who do not know it, Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”  I thought about it for a minute and responded and we came to a new understanding of that quote, one that I am going to hold with me for the rest of my life – the arc of the moral universe does bend towards justice because the collective actions of communities and peoples are the force that bends the arc toward justice.

Now, more than ever, we need people to push harder and bend the arc in ways that benefit all of us, not just some of us.  That bend the arc in ways that integrate all of our needs, rather than the checklist approach.  That bend the arc in a way that loves on all of us collectively, rather than for our own individual benefit.  That bend the arc in a way where we are committed to reflective action, rather than seeing dialogue and action as separate entities.

And as we bend the arc, we must do it together.  We must do it being in connection with one another.  As Grace Lee Boggs wrote “…movements are born of critical connections rather than critical mass” (p. 17).  We must not wait for a charismatic leader to save us or a demagogue to damn us.  We are the leaders we have been looking for – we must now actualize ourselves and each other in a way that sees love as a verb, that connects us to each other in genuine ways, and that forces us to examine how we are each part of the problem.  Then, and only then, do we recognize that we must each become part of the solution and begin to bend the moral universe collectively in the era of #LoveAsAVerb.

Alex Lange