By Washington Castilhos
Empathy is a concept created in order to define one’s ability to put themselves in the place of another, to feel what the other is feeling. In the discipline of human rights, we tout that the use of empathy can promote the acceptance of differences and confronting of discrimination relating to gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and other determinants of social inequality. But, for this “Other”, empathy is not enough. It is necessary to interpret the position of where the “Other” is placed and understand the meaning behind certain subjectivities, comprehending that they have certain feelings that you, despite your empathy, do not have. This explains, for example, why many women were against the use, by men, of social media avatars on dates like March 8 – the avatar used this year in Brazil to celebrate their day was “For the legalization of abortion” – or during episodes such as the mobilization of the Internet after the gang rape video that went viral – that said “Fighting against rape culture” – because they stated that this was their moment, that it specifically concerned them. And, without the intention of reinforcing the old vision of men opposing women, it can be said that it would be rare to find a man who would understand or feel the precious significance of “being raped” in the same manner that women, or comprehend the bond that unites them.
In Brazil, during the week of the day of LGBTI Pride – commemorating the Stonewall riots in 1969 – a video of a famous cis-gendered actor interpreting a transwoman retaliating against an aggressor after being a victim of transphobic violence reached more than one million views. The characterization – justified in following interviews with the actor as a form of increasing visibility to discrimination suffered by trans people – brought questions. Trans activists challenged whether the segment should be represented by people who do not represent the people in question. As in the past with the black community who claimed the right to interpret their own narratives in cinema and refused to be represented by white and non-black actors and actresses donning blackface, the trans community want to occupy these spaces and take on trans roles. They claim that no cis man or cis woman, independent of their sexual orientation, should represent trans people, since only they are able to express their own pain, erasure, and isolation.
The Pulse massacre offers another example of how certain issues speak more directly to specific individuals. It is not that a wider audience can not be sensitized to the tragedy in the Orlando club, but, in order to understand and feel the gravity of what happened and the reaction it created, it is necessary to comprehend the significance of that space and the ownership of that space in helping create the identities and subjects of those who frequented there. The spaces of gay social scenes are not the most important topics of discussion after 49 assassinations, but, still, it seems that there is no questioning of the significance the club had in that LGBTI community that the murderer considered when choosing his “target”. He knew that killing as many as he could in that place would affect the entire community (although the episode targetted other social groups since the shooting occurred during a night celebrating Latinx culture – which in the US is considered an ethnic/racial identity).
In moments like this, it is important to deconstruct recurrent abolitionist discourses that identify and compare gay clubs to ghettos or “protected” areas as well as hasty assumptions, like that postulated by the journal, El País, two days after the tragedy, that affirm that, if there were greater acceptance and “normalization” in society, places like Pulse would not be necessary.
False, gay clubs will always be necessary, whether or not there exists greater acceptance in society in relation to queer displays in public. In an article published in the Cadernos Pagu (ed. 29, 2007), the social scientist Isadora Lins França points out that, since the mid-1990s, what was once considered the homossexual “ghettos” began transforming into a more solid market, composed of spaces mostly frequented by homosexuals, revealing the intention of expanding the frontiers of the “ghetto”. There were territories marked by their own social code, where, one way or another, there is a feeling of “ownership of the space, where people believed that there would be the group in which they would be belong, by the way people acted, the styles people wore, and the form people spoke to each other.
“Pulse was more than just a gay club – most gay bars are. In college, I didn’t know how to be me. Pulse helped me figure it out,” affirmed one frequenter, stating that the club helped her come out of the closet and embrace her identity as a lesbian.
Many attribute this feeling of strength and of gay self-discovery, expressed by the frequent customer of Pulse, as a legacy of what occurred in June 1969. But the reality is that the reign of secrecy – illustrated as the symbol of the “closet” – was not broken by Stonewall, affirms the writer Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Epistemology of the Closet (2007). According to American theorists in gender studies and queer theory, the “closet” never stopped being used as a device to regulate gay and lesbian lives.
“Even at an individual level, there are remarkably few of even the most openly gay people who are not deliberately in the closet with someone personally or economically or institutionally important to them. The gay closet is not a feature only of the lives of gay people. But for many gay people it is still the fundamental feature of social life; and there can be few gay people, however courageous and forthright by habit, however fortunate in the support of their immediate communities, in whose lives the closet is not still a shaping presence,” the author states.
It is the possibility of coming out of the closet and relieving their secret and their “control” of their social lives, even for a moment, that (still) makes spaces and territories like the Pulse club special places and important for gays, lesbians, transvestites, and transsexuals. It is not that the closet only concerns those who live their love lives in secret because they are interested in the same sex. It also concerns those who enjoy their right to live openly to the extent that it is a measure of regulation that guarantees other privileges, observes Sedgwick, consistent with the refusal of theorists in queer studies to focus on a minority. But, in the case of homossexuals, the closet rarely contains relationships, since the secret is always an isolating factor, a farce that can only be carried alone, highlights the researcher Richard Miskolci (UFSCar), in a commentary over Sedgwick’s work. Gay clubs, in their own way, collectivize and socializes the secret and the farce. They subvert the logic of the closet by challenging the devices used to regulate social lives by way of sexuality and the discursive strategies that try to define the “right” form to act and comprehend oneself. There, he who one day inexplicably began to feel attracted to a teacher or she who, as a teenager, had a crush on another girl begin to realize that they are not alone and find out that there are others who also one day experiment feeling the “love that dare not speak its name”, as written in the poem Two Loves (1894) by Lord Alfred Douglas.
In all of the ethnographic incursions within these spaces, what becomes more evident is that relationships founded there are reaffirmed by a logic of inclusion and, consequently, of belonging, for the fact that the people there are enrolled and ensnared within the same processes of repressing and controlling their sexuality, which helps comprehend how certain events – such as the massacre at Pulse or the Stonewall revolts – mobilize and speak more intimately to certain groups and individuals rather than others.