Reflecting on safe spaces and community after Orlando

Reflecting on safe spaces and community after Orlando

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“Safe space” is a phrase that comes up frequently in our work — so frequently, in fact, that I had not stopped to fully and truly consider its meaning for a long time. Until last week.

In the LGBTQ community, we think of safe spaces as places like bars, clubs and community centers, where people gather to be themselves, to express themselves, to be affectionate with one another, to seek friendship, support and love. The idea is that a safe space allows you to do any or all these things fearlessly and without judgment.

Other examples of space spaces would include therapy offices, meeting rooms where we hold support groups or community events like Pride, the Dyke March or the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference, to name just a few. A safe space offers us respite from an outside world that is too often hostile, unwelcoming or unsafe for LGBTQ people.

When these spaces are violated, it feels shocking.

The Pulse nightclub in Orlando was a safe space for LGBTQ individuals, allies and family members. On Saturday nights, it was a place where queer Latinx people could gather and celebrate community. 

Their sense of safety was shattered in terrifying fashion early on the morning of June 12. Forty-nine people were murdered. Ninety-five percent of the victims were Latinx, and about half of those were of Puerto-Rican descent. It is hard to overstate the impact this kind of tragedy can have not just on community members, but also on allies, observers and those close to them.

The very idea that these people — who were out to enjoy a good time with friends, dancing, socializing, celebrating during LGBTQ Pride month — were killed in such a sudden, violent way upends our sense of reality and security.

Since last week, there have been messages of support and solidarity pouring in to Orlando from all corners of the nation and the world. But we must acknowledge that the attack has robbed many of us of our feelings of safety — and that many LGBTQ individuals have never felt truly safe. 

Different types of trauma

In the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting, many in our communities are experiencing some form of trauma. Typically when we think of trauma, we think of the direct trauma this kind of event causes for victims, survivors and families. There is also a vicarious trauma that impacts people like first responders and counselors who work directly with victims. 

But in the wake of this attack, it is important to talk about community trauma, and how an event like this has a particular impact on LGBTQ people and especially LGBTQ people from Latinx and Puerto-Rican communities.

In the context of our 24/7 media and social-media culture, it is also the case that many of us who live far away from Orlando and may not personally be connected to the victims may still have acute feelings of grief, anger, depression or anxiety. That’s because damage of this scale radiates out: from the site of the attack to individuals and communities across the country and indeed the world. We feel connected to the victims. So many of us can imagine ourselves in their place. 

Feelings of trauma may be diffused, but they are still very real for people within the LGBTQ communities. 

Finding healthy ways to cope

If your feelings of fear, stress or anxiety seem to be greater than normal, if you find yourself unable to stop thinking about the events in Orlando, unable to enjoy activities you used to love, unable to focus at work or at home, here are some healthy coping mechanisms:

Don’t hesitate to express your feelings. Some of us prefer alone time to deal with feelings of grief, shock or pain — but resist the temptation to completely isolate yourself. 

Find support in group activities, whether that means an official support group or simply a good friend or group of friends who are willing to listen. 

Find a balance. It can be hard to escape incessant media coverage of events like this, and with most of us connected by phone to various streams of social media, we can be quickly overwhelmed. It’s important to pay attention to the news but also to set healthy limits in terms of consumption. Sometimes it’s helpful to watch in the company of other people, so you can reflect and discuss. 

Resist negative energies or messages, such as the ugly Islamophobic talk that has surfaced in some corners in the wake of the Orlando attack. Don’t give in to feelings of despair or anger. 

Take care of yourself by making time for basic needs like sleep, diet or connecting with friends. For many people, physical activity is a great release. Others find power and solace in writing. The same can be said for volunteering or giving back, particularly to a cause or organization that is directly involved with the LGBTQ communities in Orlando.  

Healing as a community

June is LGBTQ Pride Month, and in the face of this brutal attack, it may be difficult to feel the usual sense of celebration. But one thing we can all do is reaffirm our commitment to being part of a larger community, and to doing our part to keep it healthy, welcoming and strong. 

There are no easy answers, but we can all do a better job of supporting vulnerable members of our communities. Even spaces that are designed to be LGBTQ-friendly and welcoming are not experienced as safe/friendly by everyone. In order for our communities to heal and move forward, we have to recognize that and work to address it. 

If the attack in Orlando revealed how vulnerable we are, the vigil held at Philadelphia City Hall the following night, and the countless others held across the country and the world, were a moving reminder of the healing power of solidarity and community. 

May the memories of those 49 lost lives inspire us all to carry on our work with love, compassion and determination.

Mazzoni Center’s Open Door counseling program has made staff available to provide crisis counseling by phone (215-563-0663) or on a drop-in basis for anyone in the community who needs extra support at this time. In addition, the Open Door, in collaboration with the Therapy Center of Philadelphia, developed a brief resource list that can be shared with anyone seeking ongoing support (see www.mazzonicenter.org/resources). 


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