Written by Kwolanne Felix.
On Sunday, November 20th, I unknowingly joined millions of Americans in their weekly tradition of attending a sacred space. I thought I was just volunteering at a Dance-A-Thon charity event for homeless LGBT+ youth. However, a few hours before, five LGBT people were gunned down in Colorado. This tragedy created a chain reaction that transformed what should have been a simple event, into a place of mourning, healing, reflection, and community. For me, that’s as close as I’ve gotten to a church in years.
As I prepared for my day of volunteering, I scrolled mindlessly through Instagram, to see the devastating news of the Club Q nightclub shooting in Colorado. My stomach dropped as I looked for more information, questioning if it was a hate crime. Even though the motives of the shooting hadn’t been confirmed yet, the pit in my stomach persisted. With the contemporary political “culture wars” from the far right that utilize homophobia and transphobia as a talking point, a hate crime seemed likely.
Sometimes, for LGBT people, grieving happens on the dance floor.
While I sat with the news of the shooting, I checked my email for any updates on the charity event. The email would never come, and I asked myself if I should cancel. The staff would understand, and no one would blame me for not having the courage to celebrate queerness on a day like this. How could I push back against the hate that discards queer youth, when that same hate is gunning us down in the middle of the night? Even though it was a Sunday, I realized that I had no one to pray to, no shrine to prostrate in front of, no church who would send me their blessings, and no God to demand eternal justice from. All I had was my queer community to mourn with. So, I went.
I headed over to the charity event to start my shift, as news coverage continued. I noticed the heavy presence of security, police cars driving up and down the block, and the line for the metal detectors. With all these signs of how the recent shooting has affected the space, I was surprised that my fellow LGBT+ volunteers didn’t talk about it. As details about the shooting were still floating in, and we all nervously checked our phones to confirm our suspicions of a hate crime, we avoided saying it out loud.
I found holiness in what some may call the most unholy of places.
From the perspective of outsiders, our lack of conversation on the shooting could seem cold and disconnected. Why were we going on and pushing through? We continued to work because even within the silence, the company of each other gives us an opportunity to grieve. Many of us are used to grieving about the pains of our identity and the losses in our community alone. After years in the closet and isolation, being with other queer people reminds me that I’m not alone. Even without words, I knew everyone was processing with me. In many ways, counteracting the ugliness of hate was the very reason for the event, as we raised money for queer youth who’ve been cast away by their families.
Queer people are no strangers to grief. Grief visited us all after the Orlando nightclub shooting, when we raise awareness for murdered trans women, and when we mourn our queer ancestors lost during the AIDS crisis. What they don’t tell you about coming out, is that grief comes with all the glitz and glam of being gay.
With the heaviness in my chest, I sat down to start checking in the guests. I couldn’t help but scan the room for escape options if something were to happen. I checked for closets that were nearby that I could barricade myself in. Even though the shooting happened hundreds of miles away, the question “Could we be next?” lingered. I took a moment to take in the beautiful faces of queer people around me. I imagined who the victims could have been, their faces, outfits, and friends; not too different from the faces I saw. I whispered a little prayer, hoping they’re safe and free from the hatred that threatens to burn us all.
While on the dancefloor I was a part of the bold and defiant queer tradition of sanctifying a space – by mourning our dead while celebrating our lives.
At the end of my shift, I made my way to the dance floor, even though a few guests couldn’t make it, the room was filled with warmth, music, and dance. The Executive Director stepped onto the stage and addressed the elephant in the room. He offered graceful words of condolences to the victims and their families and encouragement. While looking around at everyone attentively listening, with a sombreness in the room I realized that sometimes, for LGBT people, grieving happens on the dancefloor. The dance floor is one of the few places we have left.
Queer spaces were created because of centuries of systemic exclusion from many secular and spiritual spaces. Oftentimes they have to balance being a space for celebration, with being a space for grieving, and community healing. As we witness rising hate crimes across the nation our community spaces become even more sacred to us. While on the dancefloor I was a part of the bold and defiant queer tradition of sanctifying a space by mourning our dead while celebrating our lives.
On that Sunday morning, I found holiness in what some may call the most unholy of places. As someone who grew up religious, rarely is a sacred place filled with so much color, fishnets, and dancing, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I took the opportunity to dance and cry for those we lost, and celebrate our determination to persist.
May Raymond Green Vance, Kelly Loving, Daniel Aston, Derrick Rump, Ashley Paugh and all other LGBT+ people lost to hate all rest in power, love, and peace.
About the Author
Kwolanne Felix is a writer, student, and gender and environmental advocate. She is a senior at Columbia University studying History, with a focus on the African Diaspora. Beyond the classroom, she worked at the United Nations, the Malala Fund, and spoke at COP 27. She writes opinion pieces on nuanced and intersectional perspectives, and her writing and interviews have been featured in the New York Times, Good Morning America, and Ms. Magazine.
Follow on IG: @kwolanne