Two Years Later, Pulse Still Pains our Pride

This is the Second Post in a series of posts that will run throughout the month of June. June has been Pride Month for many years. To honor that history, I will be talking about different aspects of why I am proud during Pride Month.
To read the first post on pride in Chosen Families, click here.

As long as I live I will never forget waking up on June 12, 2016. School was out so Humphrey and I were sleeping in, but when I woke up I had tons of text messages and news alerts on my phone. In the early hours of the morning, a cowardly gunman* walked into Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida and opened fire with semi-automatic weapons and went on a killing spree. Before taking his own life after a hostage standoff that lasted for several hours, the gunman killed 49 people. A club that I have been to twice before, now held the bodies of 49 people. 49 people whose only crime was dancing with their fellow members of the LGBTQ community. 49 people who were the brother of someone. Or the daughter of someone. Or the mother of someone. 49 people would not go home that morning.

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Two years later, the pain has not diminished. The sorrow and the hurt have been moved to the back burner, but they are still present. To be completely transparent, I have not fully processed my own feelings about it. It hurt too much to work through them at the time; but in an effort to honor the 49 beautiful people who were robbed of their dance that night, I dedicate this post to their memory. I will continue to feel proud this month, because they can no longer feel proud for themselves. Tonight’s post, I take pride in the bars and clubs of my community. Tonights post is pride in OUR places.

The Complex.

The Armory.

The Abbey.

The Castle.

Haven.

Sanctuary.

The Factory.

Olympus.

The Fortress.

Pulse.

If you look at all those names of Gay Bars past and present, what do they all have in common? What do all of those names say or symbolize to you? Every single name on that list projects one of two things: Strength and Safety. The reason for this is simple. Even in 2018, The United States of America is not always a welcoming place to members of the LGBTQ community. We are harassed. We are discriminated against. We yelled at. Spit on. Beaten. Raped. Killed. All of these things are done on a regular basis and have been done for years. Sometimes society cares (mostly when it is a white LGBTQ person). Sometimes society does not care. In an effort to make life the best we can for ourselves, the LGBTQ community did what it has always done. We rallied around ourselves. We provided each other with bars, dance halls, and night clubs. Places were we could simply BE.

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If you are a heterosexual cisgendered person, you will never know what I mean by that. Especially if you are also white. I don’t say either of those things to be exclusionary or inflammatory; if I could somehow connect my consciousness to yours so you could feel what it feels like I would. But this is not Avatar and James Cameron did not write the story of our lives. I wish you could feel the feeling I am talking about. Maybe then my community would not have struggled so long. But take comfort in NOT having to feel it. It is better that way. There is less sadness. Less Shame. Less Loss. Less Worry. When I thought about feelings to try and describe that feeling, those are the 4 words I would combine to describe it.

Sadness. Sadness in your gut when you see heterosexual couples sit on the same side of the booth at a diner or lay on a blanket at the park.

Shame. Shame in yourself for caring what other people think of your shorts and your tank top as you walk towards the club in November (Yes some of us do wear tank tops and short shorts in November. Deal. With. It.).

Loss. Loss of equality and protection when the word faggot is yelled at you from across the street or a passing car. Or God Forbid the loss of a friend who was simply killed for living while gay (For the record, my friend was Sean Kennedy and he was the first gay person my age I ever met who was confident in his own skin and nice to me. And he changed my life because of it).

Worry. Worry that creeps into every other thought that runs through your head because you are in public with your significant other and are terrified someone will see you and tell your family, your place of employment, or your friends.

In order to suppress those feelings – because for some people they never go away – we did the only thing we could and gave our bars and clubs names that project strength and safety. They became our churches when we didn’t have a Sanctuary to go to. They became our castles and retreats when the world would not protect us. They became the very beating hearts of the gay community. That is part of the reason Pulse was aptly named and part of the reason it devastated my community. The attack on Pulse was an attack on the heart of the gay community. For some queer people, gay bars are the only place they have ever truly felt safe. If we don’t have those spaces any more, what else do we have?

28167431_10160006809000048_3723469264959415588_nAsk any of your close family and friends who are part of the queer community about their first trip to the gay bar. I promise you that in addition to the name, they will remember their age, their outfit, their drink choice, and who they went with. I was barely 18 years old and my first bar was The Castle in Greenville, South Carolina. It was the most exhilarating feeling in the world- there was terror and excitement all at the same time. I must have had a terrified look on my face because a drag queen named Robin Redgrave came over to me, hugged me, and pushed me towards the bar so she could buy me a drink. I was half-way through the first sip when she saw the X on my hand and slapped the drink out of my hand (which she then finished herself). I had never felt so welcomed and at peace surrounded by so many gay people in my life; and all of it happened in a run down, leaky when the rain came building. The Castle wasn’t much, but it was mine. And that was all I needed.

Pulse affected me and still affects me more than I realized. I couldn’t watch the news without watching Anderson Cooper breakdown on live television as he read the names of my dead brothers and sisters. I couldn’t listen to the radio without hearing the first responders say their dreams will be haunted by the ringing of cellphones of the deceased as family members tried to check on their children. I couldn’t read the news online without seeing the story of a mother (Brenda McCool) who jumped in front of the gunman and used her body to shield her son from the bullets. To this day, I still cannot watch the video of Christopher Leinonen’s mother tearfully talking to the media as she waited for the news of her son.

To those around the world who rallied around us, you will never know how much that meant to us. In one of our darkest hours, you gave us the strength with your hugs, your love, your vigils, your memorials, and other messages of support. Because of you, we were able to grieve for our loss, but still remember that rainbow that comes tomorrow. To the celebrities who wrote songs in their memory, we thank you.

And to those of us who still wish harm to us, know that we found strength in our sorrow. And our love for each other will not be broken and if you doubt that, he a warning from every queer person’s fairy gaymother:

I did not go out for months following the Pulse shooting. A lot of us did not. We did not know if we should and we did not know if we could. Would it be disrespectful to those who were killed? Would we be safe? Would we be able to escape if something bad happened? We did not know how to answer those questions so many of us subconsciously chose not to go out. Further removed from our shut in status, this saddens me. Because it means for one brief moment we let that piece of shit who riddled our safe space win. Because not going out would have been a slap to the face of those who could no longer out. Because for one brief moment, we let the hate shine darker than the love. Time eased the pain, but we continue to worry about our safe spaces. Worry about our friends’ safety. Worry about our own safety.

To this day I do not go out as much as I used to. Partly because I am getting old and partly because gay clubs typically aren’t welcomed in city downtowns so they end up in building on the outskirts of town that only have one entrance/exit. But I make it a habit of going to safe place in our community at least once every couple of months. This month will be no different. This Saturday I will go and honor our PULSE with my people. Out in whatever outfit I want with my people. I will dance with my people. I will drink with my people. I will laugh with my people. I will feel safe with my people.

And with my people, I will remember why I go. I go to The Fortress because Edward, Stanley, Luis, and Juan cannot.

I go to Sanctuary because Eric, Peter, Kimberly, and Luis cannot.

I go to The Armory because Eddie, Darryl, Deonka, Alejandro, and Anthony cannot.

I go to Olympus because Jean, Franky, Amanda, Martin, and Daniel cannot.

I go to Haven because Mercedez, Xavier, Enrique, Ramon, and Simon cannot.

I go to the Factory because Oscar, Miguel, Javier, Jonathan, and Joel cannot.

I go to the Abbey because Jason, Cory, Juan, Luis, and Shane cannot.

I go to the Complex because Jerald, Leroy, Tevin, Jean, and Rodolfo cannot.

And I go to Pulse because Brenda, and Christopher, and Angel, and Frank, and Paul, and Antonio, and Joseph, and Akyra, and Geraldo cannot.

This post is for them. And when I do a shot and dance to Whitney, or Cyndi, or Beyonce, or Mariah, or Ariana, or Celine, or Adele – that will be for them to.

-WB

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Teaching in Terror: The Lives Lost to Gun Violence in Schools Since I Started Teaching

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The picture above was one of the happiest days of my life. In the picture along with me are 16 other people, many of whom I consider my friends to this day, were just about to receive our diplomas from Clemson University with a degree in secondary education. We were all so excited. Not all are teaching currently, but at that point we were thrilled with what the future held. We graduated in 2011 and it was not a great time to graduate with a teaching degree. That didn’t matter. We were just excited. This was one of the most emotionally draining articles I have written.

I grew up in a family full of educators that placed huge value on education. Educational success was seen as key that could open most doorways. Upon taking teacher cadets in high school, it quickly became the only career I considered as something I would do long term. I became a teacher to change lives. There is something indescribable about being able to show a 14 year old that they can accomplish something they previously thought was not possible. I have experienced more joy from some of the successes of my students than I have about my own successes. Likewise, I have cried more tears about some of the things my students face than I do about my own life’s hardships.

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I went into the educational field to spend my days that should be spent teaching about cultural diffusion, market economies, and the difference between a megalopolis and a megacity. I did not go into education to spend my days worrying weather or not my students would go home to their parents and if I would go home to my boston terrier.┬áI did not go into education to attend the funerals of my students or my colleagues. But at the rate we are going I have a greater chance of attending the funerals of my students ┬á(or my students attending my funeral) than of living long enough to see Greenville become a Megacity – even with its explosive growth.

America is a great nation. The perks of living her far outweigh the downsides. If you are one of those people who thinks we do not have flaws or that says “America is the greatest nation on earth.” or “America is better than any other nation to have ever existed.” you may want to stop reading now because this will just piss you off. America is not the greatest nation on earth. The greatest nation on Earth does not offer up thoughts and prayers after a classroom full of 6 and 7 years is riddled with bullets during show and tell. The greatest nation on earth does not vilify students who after walking over the bodies of their dead classmates decide that they should advocate for sensible gun control. If you do not agree with those past two statements then you are delusion as as the politicians that have been bought by the gun lobby.

I started my educational career as the replacement for a teacher in March. I have added up the days I have spent teaching since my first day as a teacher that March all the way up until today (Wednesday May 23, 2018). As of today I have been a teacher for 619 days. The pictures below are the are the victims of gun violence in the classroom since I have started my career in education. There are 120 pictures. One day out of every week since I have become a teacher, a student, teacher, or parents was gunned down on school grounds. What day should students play hooky? What day should teachers take a sick day to ensure this never happens again?

As I tried to find the pictures of the fatalities I had to take breaks. This post took days to finish because I couldn’t take that much sadness at once. So many of these kids would have been the best leaders of tomorrow. So many of these courageous teachers were found shielding the bodies of their students. So many parents have had their lives shattered. For at least a dozen of ┬áthese fatalities, a parent was dead within the next several years – some from suicide, others from drugs they became addicted to as they tried to survive their pain. I will continue to update this list as these tragedies continue to happen. I pray to God this list doesn’t get to long, but I know it will. The day we decided you needed a bullet proof vest for show and tell is the day we lost our nation’s soul. God have mercy on us all.

Marching, Bobby, and The Sound of Silence

This blog post is going to be quite verbose, but if you only ever read one of my postings the whole way through, I beg it be this one. In the short life of Sweet Tea and Small Talk this is the most important one I have yet to write.

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I had a two-sided sign. This was my humorous side. The other side was more serious – which is why I was holding that one facing the direction we walked.

Many of us have bucket lists full of amazing things that we want to do and or accomplish. Some of the things may be trivial to others and some of them probably appear on multiple people’s lists. I have been able to cross a couple of things off my list in my 29 trips around the sun – including swimming with dolphins and traveling abroad to some of the most beautiful places on Earth with friends, family, and even students. One thing that has been on my list since high school has been to be part of a protest movement. I have always gravitated towards those momentous events in our history as humans because they have fascinated me and being a part of a group that has faced systematic oppession multiple times throughout history, I have always felt a sense of community with people who participate in these movements.

I know how that might sound or look. I can already feel your head tilting and your eyes narrowing a bit. I do not by any means want to trivialize the March for our lives or any other movements that this country has seen. I do not want it to seem like I am protesting or marching just to be able to say I was there. I simply at the end of my life want to be able to mean it when I look my God in the face and say I have tried to love my neighbor as myself.

Many times while reading and learning about these heroes I have wondered had I been alive at that time would I have been a part of it myself. I am not foolish enough to think I could ever have led a movement – I am not brave enough or disciplined enough for that. But I do hope that I would have stood up for my fellow man and said “Enough! No More! This is not right! We Shall Overcome!” This is why it will be an honor and a privledge when I look back on my life to have been able to be a part of Greenville’s March for Our Lives march through Downtown Greenville. Our March was led by some amazing young people who were inspired by some other amazing young people from Parkland, Florida. The world is better because they are in it, and they are taking up the leadership role many were born for.

City Police for the event estimate that 2,000 people attended the Greenville, March for Our Lives. What is truly amazing about the event is it was led completely by students. Several college students and about a dozen amazing high schools (one of which goes to the school where I teach, and one who goes to the school where I used to teach) worked with local organizations and planned everything from the March down to who was speaking – shoutout to the young lady from Mauldin who had quite the message for our governor Henry McMaster. I have offically dubbed her Greenville’s own Emma Gonzalez. What has please me the most about the march was how positive and uplifting it was. Everyone was positive in spirt; the counter-protesters were ignored and although we were marching for a serious reason there was love and positivity in the atmosphere -especially as we sang “We Shall Overcome.” My eyes filled with tears at one point during Greenville City Councilwoman Lillian Brock Fleming’s speech. Here is a woman who literally sang that very song with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. urging my students and so many other student to pick up the torch and continue their movement into the future. It will go down in my life as a very sepcial moment, that was again, a honor and a privilege to be a part of. Our little march was even featured on MSNBC at one point during their coverage – #YeahTHATGreenville that we know and love!┬╣

The March in Greenville went off without a hitch and that is because of the courage, bravery, and determination of some amazing BAD ASS students. Students like Gonzalez. Students like David Hogg. Students like Cameron Kasky. Like Alex Wind. And Jaclyn Corin. And Matt Post. These bravery of these students is inspiring, but their willingness to openly accept the privilege that their skin color provides them is even more inspiring. Many of them freely admit that the affluent, upper middle class, and white backgrounds has led to increased media coverage of an issue that disproportionately affects communities of color every day. That is why it was so important to them to make sure communities of color were well represented in the speakers of the March. 11 year old Naomi Wadler spoke more eloquently than I could every hope to write in this blog about speaking for all of the girls of color who face down the barrel of a gun more than anyone. And when Jaclyn Corin brought out the granddaughter of Dr. King who said she had a dream that enough is enough my eyes that had been brimming with tears all day bowled over. Those were wonderful moments, but David and Emma hold my top moments for the day.

I love the moment in David Hogg’s speech where he boldly states something those of us on the right side of history already know. The people in power our shaking. And they shood be. If they get in our way we will get in theirs. And we will vote. Vote them right out of office and into the unemployment line.

It comes as no suprise that Emma Gonzalez spoke last. She has been the most visible and vocal spokesperson since this whole movement began. While many think she and Hogg and the others are capitalizing on this for fame (the NRA has disgustingly said they wish more of their friends had died) I truly believe they would give all of the attention back for an instance of normalcy in their last year of high school. A year that should be spent getting ready for prom and buying supplies for college. If you havent seen Emma Gonzalez’s speech you must watch it. She spoke for only 2 minutes. And then she filled the TV screen with 4 minutes and 20 seconds of dead air.

Why did she stand there in silence for almost 5 minutes? The answer is simple, and heartbreaking, and goosebumping-giving: 380 seconds. 6 minutes and 20 seconds. That is how long it took for the Stoneman shooter┬▓ to take the lives of 17 innocent people in yet another school. 6 minutes and 20 seconds and those 17 people “would never” again. Gonzalez last words should speak to every high school student in every school in every district in America: “Fight for your lives. Before it is someone else’s job.” As she walked defiantly away from the stage, I started crying once again. This time it was tears of joy. As long as these students keep going, I know they will be successful. I only pray that that don’t lose faith or give up the fight.

I was going to end the blog here, but I got to thinking about the power of the silence that Gonzalez provided us with for almost four-and-a-half minutes. It reminded me of one of the greatest songs of all time – in my opinion of course: Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence. Although the song has mysterious origins (Simon & Grafunkel have never truly said how it came to be) most people believe it was written in response to JFK’s assasination. It became a pivotal song during the 1960s counter culture movement and I love how haunting the lyrics are. It also plays a pivotal role in the 2006 Emilio Estevez-directed film┬áBobby, a film about the assasination of RFK, JFK’s younger brother.

If you have never seen it, the film is brilliantly done. There is no actor playing Bobby Kennedy. The film is more about the people who are touched by Bobby Kennedy’s assassination than the woulda-been President. The final few minutes as Bobby is shot by Sirhan Sirhan, as panic envelops the Ambassador Hotel, the scene is played out brilliantly by actors like Helen Hunt, Elijah Wood, Martin Sheen, Nick Canon, and Lindsay Lohan.

One of the parting thoughts I want to leave you with are the words of an actual speech that Bobby Kennedy gave on violence. While I cannot find the exact date of the speech is rings true now more than ever. Kennedy says he wants to:

…speak briefly to you about the menace of violence in America, which again stains our lands and everyone of our lives. It is not the concern of any one race. The victims of violence are black and white. Rich and poor. Young and old. Famous and unknown. They are most important of all, human beings, loved and needed by other human beings. Noone, no matter where he lives or what he does, can be certain who next will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on and on in this country of ours. Why? What has violence ever accomplished? What has violence ever created? Whenever any American’s life has been taken by another American unnecessarily, whether it is done in defiance of the law, or in the name of the law. Whether it is done by a gang in cold blood. Or in passion….. Whenever we tear at the fabric of our lives…. Whenever we do this, the whole nation is degraded. Yet we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence, that ignores our common hummanity….”

As I rewatched that scene over the weekend it left my eyes once again tear stained. Few families have as public a history with gun violence in this nation as the Kennedy family, and the prophetic nature of Robert Francis Kennedy’s words should strike us all over the head in today’s society. It speaks to the current issues we are failing to fix all too well: The rise of gangs. The rise of police brutality and police killing of innocent people. The rise of us losing our shared humanity and existence on this planet. We would all do well to reflect on Kennedy’s words in the coming weeks. This writer knows he will, and he hopes you will join him.

I want to leave you with one final thought that a lifelong church family friend (shoutout to Mama Wannamacher) left me with. They are not her words, and they are not my words. They are the words of the real environmentalist and activist and woman who would be so proud of the students who attend the high school named after her. They are the words of Marjory Stoneman Douglas: “Be a nuisance when it counts. Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join action. Be depressed, and discouraged, and disapppointed at failure & the disheartening effects of ignorance and bad politics – but do not ever give up!”

Join me friends. I don’t plan on giving up. I hope you wont either. Never Again, because Enough is ENOUGH.

Author’s Notes

┬╣Video Credits for the video showing us on MSNBC go to Meghan Byrd. She, unlike me, was actually smart enough to remember to record the coverage of the March. Thanks Meghan!

┬▓Any Time this writer makes postings related to mass shootings, he will never mention the perpertrator of those vile atrocities by names. I will play no part in furthering the infamy that they so desparately desire.