What happened in Orlando was an act of desecration no less than terror.
There has been no avoiding the stories, even for those of us who skimmed every last one at first, searching frantically for the names. The Americans murdered by an ISIS fanatic as they partied, reads one headline. Who Were The Victims Murdered as They Partied? echoes another. The Final Night of Partying. In news outlets around the world, the targets of the gunman’s wrath are “clubbers” and “late-night revelers.” By contrast, he is somberly described as having scriptures, theology, a house of worship. Although according to FBI sources, the assailant was confounded by the difference between Sunni and Shi’a Islam, he called himself a Muslim. For many, this makes his rampage on June 12th only the latest instance of religious extremism.
Downstream from a bloodbath, it seems worse than useless to focus on language. 49 innocents are dead, and you’re worried about words? But the way we frame events conditions our response to them emotionally, which is to say, politically. I want to interrupt the public discussion about religion in Orlando and wrest it away from the killer, in memory of those he slaughtered and maimed. I ask that we take a moment to talk about the religious lives of those Black, indigenous, and (Afro-)Latinx* “partygoers.” It is their experiences of the sacred that concern me here, their visions of goodness, beauty, and truth.
Conventional wisdom holds that dance venues like Pulse have served as safe spaces for LGBTQ people. Numerous first-person accounts—not least those of straight men and women—appeared after the massacre bearing detailed witness to this point. President Obama touched on it in his official remarks, saying, “The place where they were attacked is more than a nightclub; it is a place of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds, and to advocate for their civil rights.”
Obama failed to acknowledge “gay hotspots” as temporary sanctuary from the record number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and deportations that his administration has authorized. He was silent on the sexual assaults and other abuses indigenous and (Afro-)Latinx LGBTQ people continue to face in ICE detention centers and prisons. Yet his observation about Pulse does provide much-needed context. And it explains, in part, why gay bars and discos have historically attracted feats of atrocity.
But they have been much more than potential scenes of carnage. As theologian Vincent Cervantes testified in the immediate aftermath of the killings, after coming out he discovered that in nightclubs,
[Queer Latin@s and Latin Americans] anointed one another with affirmation and laughter. We created fellowship and communion—because too many of us had traversed dangerous landscapes just to get there in the first place…We emerged from the shadows we worshipped in to survive and to be storytellers about our journeys. These are our sacred spaces.
Speaking about the tragedy, comedian Larry Wilmore compared nightclubs to Black churches, and the literature on LGBTQ nightlife reveals the analogy to be more than skin deep. In a 2009 Souls article, anthropologist Jafari Sinclaire Allen lovingly recalls a mostly Black “dance floor congregation” taken to church by an inspired DJ. Music and motion are vital components of praise services in several Christian denominations with working-class African-American origins and constituencies, like the Pentecostal Holiness Church, the Church of God in Christ, and the Spiritual Church movement. Yet as artist-scholar E. Patrick Johnson and others have documented, the sights, sounds, and sensibilities of queer dance venues would be unrecognizable without their aesthetic and ethical contributions.
Drawing on concepts central to the academic study of religion, Allen vividly depicts a characteristic night out in terms of Durkheimian “collective effervescence” and the Turnerian communitas that proceeds from liminality. In The Fierce Tribe: Masculine Identity and Performance in the Circuit (2008), ethnographer Mickey Weems also examines the religious dimensions of clubbing and compares its rituals with those of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé. His approach may be particularly relevant for understanding what the experience offered to those at Pulse on June 12. A large number of the deceased had Caribbean roots; among them, Puerto Ricans were disproportionately represented.
Black Atlantic religions such as Candomblé, Dominican Vudú, and Haitian Vodou have traditionally been strongholds of agency and resistance. They compel adherents to sing, dance, and drum as a form of “social medicine” (to quote anthropologist Yvonne Daniel). They have also been among the modern traditions that value the participation of LGBTQ people and routinely grant them access to positions of leadership as healers, diviners, mentors, and virtuosos of sacred arts like altar-building and ceremonial cooking. As in the house system of Black and Latinx LGBTQ ballrooms, Afro-Diasporic communities of initiates have been organized into chosen families led by “mothers” and “fathers” whose affective claims rival those of biological kin.
It was in the nightclubs of 1950s New York that a religious culture arose to sustain the first significant concentration in the United States of Cuban and Puerto Rican practitioners from the Afro-Cuban Santería, or Lucumí, tradition. But the connection between the nightclub scene and Afro-Diasporic religions goes beyond the affiliation of its devotees. Sacred rhythms and ceremonial instrumentation with West and Central African precedents went on to shape the development of salsa, bachata, and merengue, among other genres favored at many a contemporary Latin night.
Prince remains the patron saint of the LGBTQ nightclub, having in his music genderfucked the erotic and declared it the most scenic route to the divine. After his passing, his sexiest anthems acquired the aura of hymns. In his lyrics, the beloved’s sweat, tears, saliva, and bathwater often assumed the properties of chrism, imparting grace and affirming the beatitude of intimacy in the midst of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. (The brother of Pulse’s co-owner Barbara Poma, John, died of AIDS in 1991; the bar’s name was meant to keep his heartbeat alive.) His songs could be glossed as celebrating rituals like exiting the closet and transitioning from one’s gender-assigned-at-birth to another more wholly and authentically felt.
Unfortunately, not all clubs are “welcoming and affirming” assemblies. Despite news stories extolling the tolerant, embracing atmosphere of LGBTQ bar culture, Black and/or Latinx transgender women remain marginalized outside of the voguing/ballroom scene. Meanwhile, their dance styles, speech patterns, gestures, and other innovations are appropriated by white men. “No fats, no femmes” and “no spice, no rice, no chocolate” dating policies (as bluntly stated on social media and hookup app profiles) can turn rejection based on anti-Latinx, -Asian, and -Black prejudice into a regular rite of passage. Mainstream clubs tend to ignore the way that oppressions intersect, particularly for the femme-identified and nonbinary. Occasional theme evenings, such as Pulse’s Latin night, have been a refuge within a refuge.
The #PulseOrlandoSyllabus currently in circulation contains resources for appreciating “the sacredness of Latin night at the Queer Club,” as novelist Justin Torres put it. The reading list challenges the stereotypes evident in even sympathetic reports about the shooting. It dares us to think differently about Black and Latinx realities. We can say little conclusively, except that pleas to refrain from politicizing the suffering are made in bad faith. The gunman stormed the bathrooms, the very sites converted into battlegrounds by the religious right. Under attack at home, in the street, and on the ballot, his victims were already veterans of the “culture wars” raging across the U.S.
Information is just beginning to emerge about their trajectories as parishioners, converts, and clergy members. Photographs and thumbnail biographies give narrow glimpses into their religious worlds, including Lucumí. As some of the injured are suddenly outed as both gay and undocumented, they may be praying in anguish to the Virgin of Guadalupe, la Santa Muerte, or Allah. Their beliefs and practices—still understudied within my field—deserve to be at the center of attention. What happened in Orlando was an act of desecration no less than terror, and for the bereaved, no counting of blessings will ever add up.
*Latinx has started to replace Latino/a and Latin@ as a gender-neutral way of designating those with heritage in Latin America and the Hispanophone Caribbean. It is intended to include nonbinary, gender-nonconforming, and intersex people.
**Be sure to check out Dave Krueger’s conversation with Elizabeth Pérez about her new book Religion in the Kitchen: Cooking, Talking, and the Making of Black Atlantic Traditions.
Images by Alisdare Hickson via Flickr.