The heartbreaking news of Orlando came to me via a short and impassioned question early that Sunday morning from a fellow parent in our LGBTQ community at my children’s elementary school in Berkeley, Calif. The prior week had seen all 475 children, teachers, and staff at the school united in a celebratory Pride parade — dancing, face paints, music, and posters aplenty proclaimed the children’s message that “Love Makes a Family.”
Our school community had created a safe space for our children and families. And now we were facing the sheer devastation that 49 of our primarily Latino LGBTQ brothers and sisters had been shot dead in the sanctity of that queer adult safe haven, the gay bar, on Latin night. Shocked and distraught, came the question — after such joy and unity, how do we talk about this?
At a time when 49 parents are mourning the loss of their beloved LGBTQ children at the hands of this hateful homophobic act; at a time when pundits are using this tragedy to boost their political base; when Islamophobia is being justified through the complex intersections of racism and religious extremism; and when mainstream media outlets, the president, and presidential candidates are complicit in narratives of terrorism to explain away the complexities of homophobia — how do we talk about this?
How do LGBTQ parents, many of whom emerged from years of guidance and love, and indeed came to a sense of ourselves in such sacred queer spaces as Pulse, guide our children through awareness of the horrors of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia while successfully fulfilling our daily charge to protect, nurture and provide stability to our children? How do we look our children in the eye and tell them that 49 primarily LGBTQ people of color were killed because of a deadly combination of homophobia, racism, and violence sustained by egregious public policy? How, indeed, do we talk about this?
This tragedy is a reminder of the tenuousness of our queer lives, and, for LGBTQ parents, how homophobia in its everyday and extreme forms affects our children. Our queerness is not our kids’, but it is part of their lives and it certainly defines the most mundane experiences of micro-aggressions they experience in the humdrum of their everyday lives, as well as their sense of vulnerability in a homophobic and ever-more violent world.
Will they kill you too, Mama? Will we have to leave this country and live somewhere else? You’re my dad, so this wouldn’t happen to you. Ever. Right? Our children are coming to us with questions as they hear about the terror of lost lives in Orlando. How do we tell them that we are safe, when the world tells them otherwise? How do we tell them that they are safe, when we feel fragile and hurt?
Parents are the problem solvers, so I’m scared when my parents cry. Many children would agree with my 10-year-old daughter, who feels fear even at the sight of her parents’ tears. We may choose to shield our younger children from the horrors of this event, and we may choose to talk with them. Either way, our children will likely see on our faces the grief, hear in our voices the protectiveness, hear the hushed conversations with our queer community on the playground, and know in their hearts the weight of our grief. Yet perhaps the most difficult question of all to confront with our children is why haven’t we solved the problems that led to this shooting in the first place?
Rather than providing a how-to list for talking with children about tragedies (which has already been done here and here), I find that, as with the beauty of over 400 children firmly proclaiming that “love makes a family,” the answer lies in our actions. More than our words, our actions with our children will allow us to communicate perhaps the most important messages of equality and justice and our renewed call to action as an LGBTQ parent community that has too readily shed our queerness for the new normal of married parenting life.
When we told our two children about the tragedy, we hearkened back to the powerful actions of their school, supported by queer teachers and the local presence of the LGBTQ family organization Our Family Coalition. More than mere words, our children saw through the school’s actions, and heard through loud chants and the beautiful pulse of music and dancing, that love anchors them in their community, as well as in their family.
More than coming up with the exact right words in light of our children’s painful and impossible questions — “Why do people hate LGBTQ people so much? Why were they mostly Latino men?” — it will be what we do in the coming days, weeks, and years to comfort the grieving; to confront the intersections of homophobia, racism, misogyny, and political violence that led to this tragedy; and to collectively assert the beauty of our queer lives and families that will provide our children with the knowledge that our LGBTQ love and our LGBTQ families are perfect. Just as we are.
DR. SONJA MACKENZIE is a queer parent of two in Berkeley, Calif., and assistant professor of public health at Santa Clara University.