Saying Their Names

The young men and women who died have already become tokens for whoever claims them best. Which fraction of their identity will win out in public memory?

We are rarely granted the privilege of victimhood. We are instead accused of victimizing ourselves.

Melancho Blumenbunt, Niedergedrückt

On the night of June 11, Pulse nightclub, a popular gay club in Orlando, played a mix of reggaeton, bachata, merengue and salsa. It was the club’s Latin night—a misleading name. “Latin night” tends to imply themed potlucks at suburban school fundraisers and other celebrations of Latin culture by people who are not Latin-identified. But this Latin night, the one that became the site of the most fatal mass shooting in American history, was a party for LGBTQ brown and black people. Nearly every person who died or was wounded that night was Latinx. The last song forty-nine violently slaughtered people heard was a reggae song.

It took fewer than twelve hours for Donald Trump to blame the massacre on immigrants en masse, stating that since 2001, “hundreds of migrants and their children have been implicated in terrorism in the United States.” In addition to being an outright lie in a political season crowded with them, the statement omitted the fact that many of the dead were immigrants or children of immigrants themselves. His calls for President Obama to resign and for Hillary Clinton to leave the race because both refused to say the words “Radical Islam” reached all our ears and theirs as well. “There is no magic to the phrase radical Islam,” Obama responded. “It’s a political talking point.” Clinton echoed the logic. “Is Donald Trump suggesting that there are magic words that once uttered will stop terrorists from coming after us?”

On Sunday morning, we took in the first words the news reported: Orlando, gay club, Latin night. We posted facts about gun control. We prayed for the victims. The police chief called it an act of terror. It was an attack on all Americans, on all human beings. We prayed for ourselves. It was an attack on the LGBTQ community and their allies. Tel Aviv’s city hall was lit up in rainbow, as was 1 World Trade Center. Then the names began to stream in—slowly, then quickly, then slowly again. The Orlando city website could only list a name when the next of kin was contacted. I checked Facebook. Nobody was calling it, but after the tenth name, the twelfth, it was hard to ignore: they were all Hispanic. The media was saying little, but the names spoke for themselves—patronymic and matronymic, with or without the hyphen, of course the historical –ez. Fernandez, son of Fernando. Martinez, son of Martín. Gonzalez, son of Gonzalo. They were, as the logic to force compassion goes, somebody’s son or daughter.

Members of LGBTQ communities, people of color, and immigrants have a special and particular history with having our names named. Some people wonder how many of the victims were forcibly outed when their names went public. I suppose the assumption is that Latinx queers are closeted from their families, and maybe that’s true. But is the alternative to be memorialized as John Doe? Undocumented immigrants go by aliases when they apply for work. They go to great lengths to avoid announcing their presence: battered women do not report domestic abuse, our communities tremble at the US Census, many thought evacuation calls during Hurricane Sandy were a plot by ICE to get them out of their houses. When quoted in news articles, the phrase “who asked that her real name not be used” typically follows. Now their names are everywhere. Lady Gaga read them at a rally. Anderson Cooper cried when he read them on air. At Stonewall and across the country, people at candlelight vigils chanted “Say their names!” and did so, drowning out the scripted condolences of attending politicians.

In Orlando, the long history of our needing to renounce our names in order to survive has intersected with the radical history of naming the victims of mass slaughter. Naming names is meant to resist the reduction of people to statistics, to deny the belief of their killers that they were not, as individuals, worthy of life. It helps those who cannot really conceptualize large numbers—exempting none but mathematicians—feel the extent of unthinkable loss. The Vietnam Memorial bears nothing but the name of every fallen soldier. The AIDS Memorial Quilt marked the deaths of people whose bodies were turned away from funeral homes and parishes because of hatred and fear and ignorance. Perhaps the most famous project of this kind in modern history is the collection of Holocaust victim names housed in various Holocaust museums across the world. Most are collected in what are powerfully called Pages of Testimony, volunteered by survivors or witnesses. Others are taken from lists acquired during the Holocaust, often compiled by the Nazis: lists of ghetto and concentration camp prisoners, deportation lists, lists of confiscated property. It’s a kind of bloodletting, I suppose, to take those lists from killers’ hands and use them to help people remember and families heal. But Lord knows those names, too, have been claimed by men and women to do violence.

Freud famously argued that mourning is normal when something sad happens, but melancholia without something to mourn is pathological. The public will eventually cease to mourn—other tragedies, other narratives, will seize their fitful interest—while for others the sadness will persist. The queer theorist José Muñoz—Cuban, gay, and recently passed—took Freud’s argument one step further, arguing that for people of color and queer people, melancholia is not a pathology but an integral part of our lives. The melancholia comes from living lives so easily rendered symbolic. When the names of the Pulse shooting victims first started to appear, they were met with knee-jerk solidarity on the basis of shared humanity—people died and guns were used to kill them. When the names became a list, one on top of the other, nearly all of them Spanish, lives that had been read as political by default became martyred for some cause.

The young men and women who died have already become tokens for whoever claims them best. Which fraction of their identity will win out in public memory? The victims at Virginia Tech were remembered as students; at Newtown and Sandy Hook they were young children; in South Carolina, they were black men and women with their hands clasped in prayer. These forty-nine were largely brown gay men and women and transgender people inhabiting possibly the most pathologized and criminalized subject positions in the country, and every time they are called a victim in the news, I feel like we are getting away with something. We are rarely granted the privilege of victimhood. We are instead accused of victimizing ourselves.

It is becoming so easy to use the space of intersectionality into which these people fall to instrumentalize their deaths. Friends so respectful of POC agency that they would burn me to the ground for uppercasing bell hooks’ name in a sloppy moment, people who should know better, are using the relaxed standards for decency enacted in this moment of collective grief to use forty-nine dead persons to write at length about how the true killer here was US military imperialism in Latin America, the true killer here was the cis-white male dominated patriarchy.

There are those from whom I do not expect better. Two young undocumented valedictorians recently made the news for having revealed their status in their announcement of college-bound success. The mother of one of the girls’ classmates was outraged to discover this and was quoted by The New York Times as saying, “I have never thought about deporting a child who graduated from a U.S. high school and fought against the odds to be successful. Until this moment.” She unleashed a hashtag in support of Trump’s wall. After the Orlando shootings I found her on Facebook and saw her recently updated cover photo of a rainbow flag—an ally. On Monday, Trump denounced the terrorists whom he had previously merged with migrants because “they enslave women and they murder our gays.”

Right now, the families are memorializing their loved ones, scrambling for obituaries and funerary funds. Enrique Rios’ mother is running an online fundraising campaign to bring her son’s body from Orlando to her in New York so she can bury him. “All I would like is to have my son with me so he can [have] the funeral he deserves,” she says. “My son was a good kid.” Antigone defied Creon’s orders not to bury her brother Polynices; she dug her brother’s grave with her own hands in broad daylight, the noon sky beating, blazing down. When she was imprisoned for it, she killed herself as an act of defiance. Another heiress of Antigone, brown like me, traveled from Guánica in Puerto Rico on Monday to search for her nephew in Orlando. I hope attendees at his funeral will have to step over the gardenias and orchids overcrowding the hall. Read their names, look at their photos, raise hell, but let their families grieve.

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