(More Than) Prayers For Orlando

Photo by Bosque Redondo, 1866. A Navajo two-spirit couple is seen in this historic photo from the collection of the Museum of New Mexico.

Photo by Bosque Redondo, 1866.
A Navajo two-spirit couple is seen in this historic photo from the collection of the Museum of New Mexico.

(More Than) Prayers For Orlando: Taking Accountability For Our Own Role In Anti-Gay Violence.

I’ve told this story many times before. I have a lot of karma to pay, so I’ll probably tell it many more times. When we were children, we used to play a game called “smear the queer.” It was a game where someone would throw a football in the air and all of us boys (it was primarily boys) would scramble to catch the ball. Whoever caught the ball would then run for his life because they were about to get tackled grotesquely. That person was the “queer”; they were about to get smeared. I tell my son about this to show him that I do/have done stupid things in my life and things that I’m embarrassed about. When I told him a few weeks ago he asked me, “Why did you want to catch the ball?”

I don’t know son. Good question.

From what I understand, it was a very common game. I’ve told this story across the country and inevitably men tell me that when they were boys they played the same thing.

I’m a child of the 1960s and 1970s, I was married before the ’70s were officially closed out, in ’79. Way back then, gay wasn’t widely used, and it was not being used as an all purpose insult slur. Back then, queer, faggot, homo and dyke were the specific go tos when looking for something nasty to say about us icky types. Well, those are the ones I remember the most anyway. Oh, there was the ever present bull dyke, too, for when dyke just wasn’t enough. Things change, but they don’t change all that much, either. Implicit in all this, of course, is the always present need to humans to other, the need to be part of a group that can feel superior to that group over there.

I also remember when I was in 8th grade a fight happened in the locker room after football practice. Someone called one of the kids a “fag.” Everybody in the locker room laughed until the kid got so upset/frustrated/angry that he struck the other kid. The kid who was getting teased split the other kid’s nose and both kids got suspended. I wasn’t an active participant as I wasn’t really “cool” enough to pick on anybody. I was a passive participant laughing and watching. I tell my son that story to tell him that we have an obligation to speak up when someone’s getting picked on. I give him this story as an example of when I did not do that.

This is where childhood, and life in general, gets sticky for most of us. Growing up, I didn’t participate in such cruelty, and I remember more than once standing up, but I also remember the times I didn’t. The times I was afraid. The times I didn’t put my own cares on hold for one minute to make someone else a priority. We all need to remember that even the tiniest acts can be crucial, they can literally be the difference between life and death for someone. Small kindnesses, momentary thoughtfulness, a respite of welcome inclusion, those things can cast a very long shadow.

There’s a danger anytime somebody does something singularly horrible and evil. Many times, the person who did that singularly horrible and evil thing suddenly becomes the face of evil. When that happens, it has the effect of lowering our standards down to where pretty much everyone else gets a free pass, or at least the scrutiny is not as tough for others. Thereafter, that face of evil becomes a point of reference and behaviors and actions that otherwise might be seen as outrageous are not nearly as offensive as they might be before the face of evil came around.

I can’t add very much here. Gyasi Ross has this so very right. When a huge evil looms, everyone else gets breathing room, and with a nervous laugh, tell themselves, it’s not like I’m that bad. Whew. We are that bad, though. Every tiny bad act, every act of omission, every name, every blind eye keeps dripping, dripping, dripping, until there’s a flood, preparatory ground for a huge evil.

Similarly, Omar Mateen has become the face of evil in regards to anti-gay violence for viciously massacring 49 people in an Orlando gay club. His actions were so heinous that even people who routinely say hurtful and hateful things about homosexuality have made him a whipping boy and condemned his actions. Good–he obviously should be held accountable! But that doesn’t make those people who say hateful things good—it just makes what Mateen did worse. His actions do not absolve the “smaller” indignities against the LGBTQ community; we still have to take into account all of the people who create an environment that makes Omar Mateen possible and even likely. We still have to acknowledge the accountability of all the little conversations and indignities that forces some LGBTQ members to hide in a closet of shame and fear.

Like when I was a child and we played a game called “smear the queer.” Like when I was a child and I sat quietly by as a kid was insulted. I think about “What if the kid in the locker room was gay? What if any kids in the locker room were gay? Of course they’re not going to be comfortable in that situation. Of course they’re going to hide the fact that they’re gay!” The first step in a revolution is love; the second step is accountability and realizing our role in a problem.

That means that I have to see how I contributed to that. For my part I’ve apologized and I apologize again. But those experiences made me realize that it’s not just the folks who commit these acts of anti-gay violence who have blood on their hands; it’s all of us who create an environment that shames gays (or anybody really, but this is specifically about anti-gay violence). I can’t say that we all have blood on our hands, but a whole bunch of us do and we need to recognize our role in these things and not merely point at the faces of evil, the worst of the worst.

And…what could I do? I was a little kid. I accept that. Yet, I know that I can start to fix that by teaching my son—as young as he is—to accept and tolerate and to love. There is no such thing as “too young” to teach tolerance and respect. We teach them by having honest conversations about Orlando, or Matthew Shepard or about our own past and evolving perspectives. We talk about tolerance, and we talk about intolerance. Honestly. Adults who have intolerant attitudes like Donald Trump or Omar Mateen start as children who are taught intolerance. Conversely, adults who are tolerant, respectful and loving begin as children who are shown and taught tolerance, respect and love.

It’s not just about the worst of the worst—the face of evil. It’s also about us, the “regular people” who help create the environments that allow those faces of evil to fester. We have the power to change those environments.

I also apologize. And apologize again. As often as I need to, and I will do everything I possibly can to see that continued apologies are not needed.

Gyasi Ross’s full column is at ICTMN.


  1. says

    My locker room days were long ago, but I remember them as a time when “gay” was thrown as if it was a meaningless insult preparatory to random bullying. My memories are of the random abuse that budding sociopaths collectively gear themselves up to. In a corner of a locker room some of the frosh/soph football players were looking for an excuse to whack other students with rolled up wet towels, so the cry that went up was “fag!” But I never believed that it was that -- it was just an excuse to persecute someone. The towel left a long stinging welt across my lower back and my hand came out of my locker, already accellerating my gym sock, which had a combination lock in the end. I got him right on the wrist and the subsequent inquest determined that “boys will be boys” and that when a nerd is cornered by 3 football players it’s necessary to level the playing field. The only satisfaction I got from the incident was that when the same budding sociopaths started the same routine against a different target 2 days later, they stopped when I warned them to. I guess I was a budding sociopath, too. And boys will be boys.

    Ross is right -- we contribute to these things and, when they happen early, we don’t do the right thing because we don’t even know what it is, at that point.

    I don’t like to assume that there’s an evolutionary component that is behind these behaviors but I started hating humans around that time in high school. I was reading too much history and it’s nothing but war war war and horror with occasional flashes of art. Then surrounded by high school boys -- well -- testosterone does appear to encourage random aggression. I saw it over and over, it didn’t matter really if the target was gay, or a different color: it just mattered that they had found a target who was going to cry instead of fighting back. By the time I was a senior I already thought of them as future politicians and executives. And some of them are, today.

  2. says


    Ross is right – we contribute to these things and, when they happen early, we don’t do the right thing because we don’t even know what it is, at that point.

    Yes, that’s a huge problem, one that I think is changing, but it’s changing slowly, because it’s only parents who are accepting and open-minded who can teach their children to be the same, and unfortunately, parents have to battle a lot of outside influence.

    I’ll just add that when it comes to vicious behaviour, girls are right there too. It’s an affliction of childhood, I think, because kids are cruel. That’s why it’s so damn important to teach them.

  3. says

    Whenever I remember how randomly and pointlessly cruel kids are, I go into a tailspin. It’s not meanness with a purpose -- it’s pulling the wings off flies because we can.

    Sometimes I imagine that civilization is a thin veneer of learned behavior and nothing else, and that the sexukar humanists are wrong: human children left to their own devices are horrible violent monsters and if they aren’t trained to pretend to be decent, they’ll kill you and eat you if you turn your back on them.

  4. says


    they’ll kill you and eat you if you turn your back on them.

    Lord of the Flies. Is that required reading anymore?

  5. says

    That’s what I have nightmares about. I know that some of those kids are leading companies now, and have hundreds of lives in their hands. How do we trust people who’ll randomly and pointlessly engage in physical abuse? Fuck, I know, let’s make fratboys president and give them nuclear weapons. WTF, humans?

  6. johnson catman says

    Lord of the Flies was exactly what I was thinking when reading Marcus @3.

    I remember my sister’s high school days and how some popular girls were very mean to her in some ways. I had already gone to college by that time, but I heard about it indirectly. She did not share that with me. I think she was embarrassed to mention it to me. It involved cheerleading. I was never involved in sports at school, so I was not on either end of that kind of abuse. The point is that I thought girls could be so much more hurtful than boys. Boys abuse was usually physical and was brief, whereas the girls abuse was usually psychological causing prolonged agony. No one should be subject to either kind.

  7. says

    I don’t know that there’s that much of a divide. Boys and girls can be vicious, and unrelentingly cruel. Some boys spend their time bullying and taunting for years on end. There’s no ‘brief’ there. Also, I think when it comes to cruelty, it’s one place the gender divide is actually disappearing. Girls are more comfortable with physical violence, and boys are more comfortable with emotional, verbal, and psychological abuse.

  8. says

    I dont think boy-led abuse is necessarily brief. The kid who used to do A/V at my school came in for consistently targeted abuse. It was not that he was gay or anything -- the abusers simply made fun of him for being gay anyway. The school administration did nothing because boys will be boys. I.e: horrible malicious shits. The football players were the worst abusers and, because: football! They were protected somewhat because thugs will be thugs.

    I was amazed that apparently we are supposed to forgive and forget that sort of thing. Why would I want to go to a high school reunion? “Oh yeah, the dog poo you threw me into washed out of my favorite jacket after a while. All is forgiven.”

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