It is Sunday morning and I wake up to a flurry of text messages and Facebook notifications. My wife texts, “Have you seen the news?” I open Facebook and find dozens of posts about the horrific event that took place overnight at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. By the time I am reading about it, news outlets are reporting that around 50 people are dead and more than 50 others are injured. One lone shooter has been identified, a man possibly motivated by a kiss he witnessed between two men a few days before in Miami.
I am living in a studio apartment in the French Quarter in New Orleans, just a few blocks from the site of what had previously been considered the most deadly mass murder of LGBTQ folks in the United States. During the 1973 arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar, 32 people were killed. I am staying on the same block of Dauphine St. where a man who was perceived as gay, Joseph Balog, was stabbed to death in 1993. The history of queer-antagonistic violence is just below the surface in this neighborhood of gay bars and rainbow flags.
I am in New Orleans conducting research on sissy bounce, a term used to describe the cluster of queer rappers and performers who have seemingly taken over the local homegrown hip-hop genre. I will spend a few weeks interviewing artists, visiting archives, speaking with locals and, yes, attending bounce nights at local clubs. As a queer woman in a city that has frequently been described to me by locals as “dangerous,” working among a community of artists who have experienced violence and tragedy firsthand and going to bars late at night without any companions, I knew my spouse was already worried about my safety.
Because we live in a rape culture and because I was raised to not travel alone or drink too much or wear anything too revealing or do anything to put myself in a position where I could be targeted -- some of which are things that my fieldwork requires of me -- I sometimes worry about my safety. A friend who lives in New Orleans recently told me, “This city is full of lucky motherfuckers. You’re lucky, until you’re not.”
Anytime I go out into the field, I text updates to my wife back home.
- 11:56 p.m.: Waiting for Uber now
- 12:00 a.m.: On my way to the club
- 12:04 a.m.: At the club, waiting in line
- 2:50 a.m.: Waiting for Uber now
- 2:56 a.m.: In the car now
- 3:02 a.m.: In the apartment now
- 3:08 a.m.: Good night
The constant checking in reminds me that I have people who care about me, but it also reminds me of both my limitations as a queer woman scholar and my privileges as a white person moving through spaces populated by different groups of people.
I flash back to a conference that I attended between my first and second years as a Ph.D. student. After a long day of papers, I am at dinner with a group of ethnomusicologists, all of them women, when the topic of safety and gender comes up. A number of senior scholars I’m very excited to spend time with are at the table, and they share stories of close calls and dangerous situations that, because they are women, they endured while conducting fieldwork. These range from unwanted flirting to being shut out of performances to being cornered and threatened by unknown men.
The conversation shifts to experiences that took place not in the course of research but in familiar spaces, such as childhood homes and college campuses, including sexual assault. We are all stunned by the how common such experiences are across generations. Incidents occurred at home, abroad, in the 1980s, in the 1990s, a few years ago. It doesn’t really matter. Being a woman scholar is dangerous. Being a woman is dangerous.
Back to present day. I read article after article about the attack on the Orlando gay club, which took place during Latin night, where mostly queer and trans Latinx folks and other QTPOC -- queer and trans people of color -- are the victims. I think about the time that I spent in the archives during the previous week, poring over decades’ worth of gay, then gay and lesbian, then finally LGBT newsletters and periodicals, desperately searching for stories that were not about white cisgender men. Looking for faces that were not white. Looking for history that was not white. It’s not to be found in these archives.
I also think about a few days before, when I go alone to a black LGBT club with no sign out front in a “rough” neighborhood. (My local friend later asks me incredulously, “You went there? Alone!”) The DJ plays nonstop bounce tracks for appreciative dancers.
In response to my explanation that I’m going to bounce night, my Uber driver tells me that New Orleans is a very dangerous city. I wonder if he really thinks it is dangerous, if he thinks black people are dangerous, or if he thinks bounce music is dangerous. This seems to be a familiar trope among the white people I encounter. At the club, I sit alone at the bar, nodding along to the beat. No one speaks to me, except to apologize when they bump into me. I am grateful to be among other queer people and hope I am not intruding with my whiteness into a space that is not meant for me.
I remember when I was a college student in my home state of Michigan and how important gay bars became for me during those formative years while I was coming out. I think of nights spent on the dance floor, the joy at being in a whole building full of other queer folks. How freeing that was. How safe I felt, despite the drinking, despite the hookup culture around me, despite the part of town the bar was in. The gay bar made me brave. Brave enough to dance late into the night.
I read on Facebook pleas for increased gun control legislation in light of this most recent tragedy. I read posts by Native American and indigenous folks and their allies reminding us all that this was not the worst mass shooting in United States history. I read compassionate calls not to resort to Islamophobia in our grief or anger. I read the erasure of race in this conversation by both conservative and liberal politicians -- and even (though perhaps not surprisingly) by members of LGBT communities.
I also consider the alarming number of mass shootings that have taken place on college campuses in the last few years. I question my safety in these spaces where I spend so much of my time, but this is not a new concern, given the prevalence of rape and sexual assault on campuses. I will be applying for academic jobs in the fall, and I wonder whether or not I want to apply to positions in states that are enacting anti-LGBTQ legislation that targets trans people in public spaces, states where concealed weapons will be allowed on college campuses, states where the tenure system is being dismantled by anti-working class governments, or any number of places that seem to not want me or want to keep me safe. I wonder what jobs will be left if I limit my search by location. Where exactly could I feel safe?
Then I realize that the spaces that have meant the most to me as a queer academic have lost any feeling of safety. And then I ask myself what impact this loss of safety has had on my scholarship.
I come back to my current research and think about the act of dancing as queer resistance and survival. I think about my informants here in New Orleans who stress the relationship between dancing and bounce music. When you hear that beat, you can’t help but move. Many people, especially LGBTQ people of color, view bounce as a catalyst for dancing, which is a necessary form of self-care. Dancing can be a way to work through and shed the stress that accumulates from moving through a world that does not seem to want you. This is what I did as a college student in Michigan. This is what the patrons of Pulse were doing on that fateful June night.
In light of that realization, I resolve to continue my work here in New Orleans and do my best to amplify the voices of the most marginalized in our communities. I acknowledge both the access I have been granted and the limitations that have been imposed on me, and decide to work with, through and around them when possible.
I promise to continue dancing.
Lauron Kehrer is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester. Her current work focuses on the intersections of race, gender and sexuality in contemporary American hip-hop.
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