Safe at Home

For those of us who were adults on 9/11/2001,one of the most urgent tasks that day was checking on family. Were they alive in NY? Safe on the East Coast or anyplace with potential targets? That task stretched on for weeks, as we learned who was missing, who was displaced, who was grounded in Canada (in the hands of loving strangers who became like family), who was struggling to make their way home despite being called out in airports, train stations and bus depots for looking too much Like Them.

As we followed Mr. Rogers advice to “look for the helpers,” we claimed more members of our family. We claimed the first responders, and the relief workers and volunteers who followed. We claimed the heartbroken Muslim-Americans, and those who stood guard outside mosques and Islamic schools to protect them. At least, our side of the family did.

Some of us claimed Mark Bingham as a brother, or a son. And we understood that President Bush would not claim him for the American Family. We’d seen his side of the family disown and disregard its queer offspring for generations. So we swallowed that sadness, and hung onto our pride.

Fifteen years later, we’ve had no more major attacks on US soil from foreign terrorists. We have seen an increase in mass shootings, anti-Muslim hate crimes, and deadly force against people of color. Our terrorism, in keeping with American history, has been domestic – violence within the family, inside our shared home.

After the Orlando vigil in Seattle, I looked at the crowd of mostly young people, and felt old. When I was their age, I came to the gayborhood not to hit the clubs but to post up with a team of volunteers at closing time, to make sure everyone got home safe. We patrolled our own backyard, with no weapons but teamwork and training, because we did not trust the police to protect our family against the skinheads and others who came into our home to attack us.

I felt indebted to this Millenial crowd, too. Their generation has embraced the whole QUILTBAG community as no other before them has. As much as I owe to the generations before me, who kicked down doors, ACT-ed Up, lobbied, educated, and organized, these kids have a special place in my heart. They longed to dance at our weddings, wanting our happiness as much as their own. And that made us family.

Robyn Ochs at White House, 2009
Robyn Ochs at White House, 2009 

Looking at the lost and wounded faces around me, I ached to protect them, to suit up and stand between them and this endemic violence. The voice of a fictional Sheriff, Reese Conlon of the Provincetown series, spoke in my head. Explaining to her partner why she had to go out, injured and on official leave, to search the streets for the men stalking and bashing her town’s queer youth, she said, “They’re after our kids.”

What wouldn’t we do to protect our children from violence and hate? From racism and homophobia, and rape culture? Since we cannot shelter them, we must teach them to defend themselves. To have courage, and to not give in to despair even as they grieve. To dance in the eye of the hurricane. And we can do that, because we have been there. We cannot promise peace in their lifetimes, but we can offer them this:

You are all our kids, wherever you come from and whoever you aspire to be. Take heart in knowing that you come from good people, strong people. Our side of the family fights for peace, for justice, for equality. Our family begins too many generations back to recall, with ancestors who came here from every continent as well as the first peoples on this continent. We count among our grandparents and great-grands the likes of ML King, Jr, Ceasar Chavez, Chief Sealth, Bayard Rustin, Frances Perkins, Elizabeth Peratrovich, Harriet Tubman, and John Brown. We celebrate our cool aunts and uncles – Vi Hilbert, Audrey Lorde, Vandana Shiva, Harvey Milk, and so many more. We stand up (and sometimes party with) our favorite cousins – Robyn Ochs, CeCe McDonald, Hida Viloria, and others too numerous to count. All of their stories are your stories.

You are not alone in this violence-riddled, hate-speech stained world. We may be older now, and weary. But you remind us who we are, where we come from, and why we fight for what matters. So we will keep working to make this house a safe home. Because you are all our family, and we want your happiness as much as our own. We will not stop until everyone is safe at home.