Lessons From Orlando

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Six Months Later, What Can We Learn from Orlando?

I arrived in Orlando on Tuesday morning, two days after the shooting. All of the mental health counselors and social workers started at the Unitarian church just outside of downtown. We had counseling rooms set up throughout the building, and a small sign that said “crisis counseling” perched on the front lawn. We waited for people to come to us, but they weren’t coming, and we quickly realized that we needed to go to them. Very rapidly, and almost without second thought, the concept of crisis counseling radically changed. It was no longer confined to a private room with a couch, it was everywhere. It was in the cabs and Ubers, in the nightclubs, at the hospitals, in the bathrooms and hotel lobbies, at the vigils and the funerals. It was on Grindr and Scruff and Facebook. We went to the places where we knew there were people in pain, and it worked. The people of Orlando simply needed us to find them, and to listen.

I heard LGBT and Latino communities calling out in anger and grief, but refusing to be torn apart or silenced. I listened as a religious community wondered how and why God could let this happen.

They talked about Pulse with a love that I can hardly communicate. It was a place where people could be completely themselves, they said. Where they came into their gay identities, and where they made the decision to come out. It was an establishment that welcomed everybody without question, where you could walk in by yourself and make a hundred friends by the end of the night. It was a safe space where you could close your eyes and dance.

In all of my conversations with the survivors, I couldn’t help but notice one consistent theme. Almost everyone I talked to identified as LGBTQ, and if there was time, I asked them about their experience of coming out. Unfortunately, most of them had stories of intolerant, religious families, and rejection. A small minority had stories of being accepted and loved from the moment they came out.

The few people that I talked to who were accepted from a young age were coping with this tragedy beautifully. Though devastated, they were reaching out to others, letting the negative emotions in, sharing them, and working through them. They had inspiring perspectives about accepting grief and using it to bring their community closer together, and living more fully for the loved ones they had lost. They hardly needed me.

The ones who were rejected by their loved ones, on the other hand, were collapsing. They didn’t know how to reach out to others or be vulnerable. They had much more trouble sharing their feelings and accepting support, their shock lasted longer, and they thought that they were going crazy. Early rejection had made them believe that no one could be trusted, and that they had to take care of themselves, but the emotions were too intense and they no longer could. Fortunately, it was with those people that I feel like I was able to really help, simply by being there for them, by listening, and by telling them that they were okay. The things that people should have been doing their whole lives, but hadn’t.

In meeting with these people who had experienced so much rejection, I couldn’t help but think of Omar Mateen, the man who committed this horrible crime, who also appears to have been a closeted gay man. News reports largely shied away from that detail, perhaps because it made the story harder to tell, but Omar was a regular at Pulse night club for several years and appears to have been active on several gay dating apps. If we can assume that he was gay or bisexual, then it is likely that his homophobic father and his religion rejected that part of him from a young age. And his bio shows that Omar faced rejection again and again throughout his life, both personally and professionally. He was an outcast who didn’t seem to fit in anywhere. Even when he tried to join the Puerto Rican gay community, he faced rejection there too.

How did he cope with that rejection?

Rejection is one of the most painful emotions known to man. fMRI studies show that when we get rejected, the same areas of the brain get activated as when we experience physical pain, and with good reason. Evolutionary psychologists believe that when we were hunter-gatherers, being ostracized from the tribe meant certain death, so rejection served as a final warning sign before being kicked out. It jolted us into action to change our behavior so we could stay in the tribe and survive. Research also shows that rejection creates intense waves of anger and aggression in all of us, and that even small rejections can cause people to take out their aggression on innocent bystanders.

So what happens when you face rejection for something that you can’t change? And what happens when you can’t share those intense emotions with anyone because that would mean means outing yourself and losing everything? And finally, if minor rejections can cause people to take out their aggression on innocent bystanders, what about incessant, major rejections?

Rejection is painful for everyone, but being rejected in isolation, for something that we cannot change, is overwhelming. I see this in my clients every day. It’s the kind of rejection makes us completely lose trust in the people around us. When we stop trusting, we stop sharing our pain, and we cut off from the pain to survive. In so doing, we lose the ability to cope and to heal, and our negative emotions lose their function. They have nothing to do but build up deep inside of us, until they become overwhelming. Many LGBT people take their own lives as a way of escaping those emotions. Others come to therapy and begin the long process of reconnection.

We say that he must have been psychotic or schizophrenic, but what if Omar Mateen wasn’t so different from you and me? What if he wasn’t so different from those LGBT people of Orlando who never received support and acceptance for who they were, who thought they were going crazy, who were collapsing under the weight of their emotions, and who desperately needed someone to find them and tell them that they were okay? What if instead of a mental health counselor finding him, a radical organization found him, and gave him the acceptance he was so desperate for, and channeled his overwhelming emotions into destruction?

My experience in Orlando made one thing very clear to me. With all the progress that the gay rights movement has made in recent years, the focus needs to go back to the source. The moment when LGBT individuals decide to come out, or not come out, and the acceptance or rejection that they receive around their gay identity in their adolescent years, is pivotal to their emotional development and their ability to deal with life’s inevitable challenges.

Yes, the right to marry was a huge step for our community, but how can we form healthy relationships if we can’t cope with negative emotions or share our pain? And yes, it’s about time we’re able to serve openly in the military, but how can we be effective soldiers if we can’t endure trauma and loss? This horrible shooting and its aftermath demonstrate that nothing is more important than the acceptance and safety of the younger members of our community during their most vulnerable period.

Nick Fager, MHC-LP
KIP Fellow

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