When I moved from South Africa to Orlando, Florida, I’m going to be honest, it was a culture shock. I was surprised at how many white kids on the school bus said nigga out loud, all the time. I didn’t know much about US history so I thought the Confederate flag was just a flag people liked to have painted on the side of their car and tattooed on their arms.
I was also surprised because I saw my first ever lesbian couple IRL on my first day of high school. I kept telling myself that it was disgusting but I couldn’t look away. I don’t remember who those two girls were, I don’t think I could recognize them if I ever saw them again but they were integral to be a long journey of repression.
My senior year of high school, I had a teacher that was gay. I had heard about her, had seen her and was entirely too excited to meet her. I was excited to know a real lesbian. Not the girls at my school who dated girls but never wanted to be called gay because they were still figuring things out, like we’re all figuring things out. A lesbian that was engaged, to be married, to another lesbian. And she lived in Florida. And she was happy.
When we hear narratives about queer people in the news, it centers around places like New York, LA, San Francisco, all the coastal liberal cities where “elites” live, the places that don’t count as real America. But as romantic as it sounds, all the gay people in this country don’t live in the same four cities.
There are gay people in deep red states.
And I don’t mean closeted homophobes. I mean out proud gay people that refuse to leave their homes just because their neighbors think they’re sinners. The people that the New York Times skip over on their way to find neo nazis to write profiles about.
Having moved from Florida to California, I’m not going to pretend that being gay feels the same way. But I also only went to high school in Florida. People like Cynthia Hernandez, my old high school teacher, who was raised there, who completed all of her education there, who fell in love and got married there, sees no valid reason to let confederate flags chase her out.
“I like California,” said Hernandez. “I have friends that live in San Francisco, we visited them a couple years ago around the time we were getting married. But here’s home. I don’t feel like I’m settling for anything. I have a wife and dogs and a job. I’ve built a home here, regardless of Trump.”
The erasure of gay women in the world at large is an incessant problem but in this context specifically, queer people that live in red states are being dismissed after the election of a vice president that believes in gay conversion therapy to sell the idea that forgotten America, real America, has retaliated against the queer rich coastal elites who lived in bubbles. As if queer people in red states passively sat by and let it happen. As if they don’t even exist at all. The romanticization of poor whites in middle America by the media to force feed us sympathy for people who decidedly chose to put someone in the White House that works against own best interest has greatly contributed to this erasure of small-town queer culture.
“It’s so strange because when the Pulse shooting happened, people tried so hard to make it about anything but the fact that the victims were mostly gay. They’re trying so hard to erase our pain because they don’t want to really acknowledge us,” said Hernandez.
The importance of having queer voices in media becomes increasingly evident every day. We have shaped the way our stories are told in order to make the rest of the world understand us. Not to make them feel bad, not to guilt trip anyone, but to make clear the realities of queer people all over this country. It was Zora Neale Hurston that said that if you’re silent about your suffering, they’ll kill you and say that you enjoyed it. We have to reclaim our narratives, create canons that speak truth to power about how their misrepresentation of us is not only wrong but potentially lethal.
When people complain about identity politics on the left they fail to see that economic well being is contingent on social well being, they are intrinsically connected because you can’t separate the labor from the laborer. It doesn’t matter that the GI Bill helps create middle-class families if transgender people are being kicked out of the army. In Trump’s America, the personal has never been more political. Everything about our lives are radical acts of defiance. Especially for people who live in places where living as themselves isn’t easy. Being queer is hard anywhere, but when you also have to fight for your home to be more inclusive of your community, that’s an additional burden.
“It doesn’t feel hard being a woman of color in Orlando because like everyone I know is Latina,” said Hernandez. “But after the election, it was a reminder that there are so many people in this state, so many white people. All the poor white people that the news loves to talk about so much. They’re trying to analyze that demographic so much and sometimes human selfishness is all it is, human despise for the other.”
These are the stories we need to write, the forgotten America we need to remember. Black lesbians are being murdered, queer Latinx folks are fearing deportation, transgender people are being beaten to death, and all these lives are being wrangled in silence. All you hear is hoards of voices complaining about identity politics being useless and divisive.
So while we in California celebrate legislative successes that the rest of the country doesn’t, let’s remember to fight for our community in every small enclave in which it exists in the country. There are people who are financially suffering, in industries that are dying, yet still chose just as decisively as the rest of us did, not to bleed hatred into the White House on election day.