The sun is just beginning its daily ascent, navy skies fading to powder blue to grey. I am lying on something akin to a bed. A lumpy pillow presses against my face. I can feel the individual springs of the bed poking into my side. The room I’m in looks the same as it did 20 years ago. Even though it is the beginning of summer, the room is cold. A window is cracked open.
At first, I think I’m imaging things in the quiet of the morning. Kelly breathes rhythmically next to me. As I focus, the melody begins to crystalize and I realize what it is, the ezan, the Islamic call to prayer. Although I can’t understand the words, it is beautiful – haunting and melancholic. It reminds me of where I am. It is my first morning in Bosnia & Herzegovina in the capital city of Sarajevo. I had read that this city holds the highest population of Muslims in Europe, but I had not considered what that meant on a day-to-day level.
I find it fascinating the way religion colors my experience of a place. In overwhelmingly Buddhist Southeast Asia, my memories recall bright pops of orange from monks in their robes, taxi drivers buying flowers to hang on their rear-view mirrors, the smell of incense, and shrines in every restaurant and hotel, each unique, yet similar. In Catholic Rome, I think of visiting the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica, of echoing churches, of monochromatic nuns.
My time in Sarajevo will be defined and shaped by the Islamic call to prayer. The ezan in the morning that sometimes wakes me up, the one in the evening that reminds me to take a moment to watch the sun set.
I listen till the ezan ends, fading softly till there is only the call of songbirds left. I drift back off to sleep.
I am pouring over the news. The U.S. isn’t awake yet, the news isn’t covering it yet, but social media is plastered with tweets and videos of a shooting in Orlando at a gay club on Latinx night. I am horrified, transfixed. We spend a day in limbo, checking news reports. It takes hours for any official information to be released. By the time we go to bed, it’s estimated that 20 people are dead.
It’s only the next morning that we wake up to headlines of a body count of 50 – 49 queer victims of color and one Muslim shooter. “No,” Kelly says in shock. “That can’t be right. No.”
“Why did he have to be Muslim?” I say. The media wields his religion like a shield. They call it another Islamic terrorist attack. Is the shooter really an American? ISIS takes responsibility. Hillary Clinton says people on the terrorist watch list shouldn’t be allowed access to guns.
“None of this matters,” I think. It’s a red herring. If it was a white man, perhaps the media would be forced to report on what this is – a targeted terrorist attack on queer people. In fact, the man arrested at the L.A. Pride festival with a huge arsenal and intent to harm to queer people is white. His race is never mentioned because it doesn’t feed the U.S.’s “terrorist Muslim” propaganda.
The ezan rings out into the warm summer day. I remember where I am, in a majority Muslim city and it’s so clear to me that this shooting didn’t happen because the killer was Muslim. The shooting happened because the U.S. feeds its citizens a lethal diet of patriarchy, homophobia, toxic masculinity, and easy, immediate access to guns.
This shooting hits me in a new way. Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, the Aurora theater shooting, even the Clackamas Town Center shooting which happened only a handful of miles from my apartment, they were all tragic and scary, but not personal. They felt random. But this? This is personal. This killer targeted my people. This killer targeted my safety. This killer targeted me.
I am an American. I am a woman. I am queer. I am scared of the United States.
The Bosnian War ended 21 years ago. It was devastating for Bosnia and especially its capital city. The Siege of Sarajevo lasted longer than any siege on a city in modern warfare— 1,425 days. For nearly four years, the citizens of Sarajevo continued to live their lives amongst bombings and gunfire. While the city has been rebuilt, some of the buildings here still bear the ugly wounds of it. Holes the size of fists blasted into concrete. Skeletons of foundations poke out of the earth like jagged teeth. Landmines left behind litter the country and turn walking anywhere but paved roads into a game of Russian Roulette. These are constant reminders of Bosnia’s tortured, bloody, war-torn past.
Kelly’s mom is scared for us. She called to say she had spoken to a man who had been here during the Bosnian War and that it’s not safe, will never be safe.
My mom knows a Bosnian man. She says he is nice. That he said he hopes we enjoy his country. This eases her mind. Instead she worries about France. I excitedly announced that we were planning on spending December in the City of Light, skating on ice rinks, and listening to a midnight choir at Notre Dame on Christmas Eve. Her response was that she was afraid for my safety on public transportation, for my safety in a place where the world grieved when it was struck by an act of hate. To her, Paris is the City of Terrorism.
I don’t know how to tell her that I feel safer in Bosnia, in France, in Europe, than I do in my own country. It’s been almost a year since we left the U.S. on our international adventure. The longer we’ve been away, the more the U.S. crystalizes into a foreign concept. It doesn’t feel like the country we left behind. Other countries have issued travel warnings to LGTBQ+ people traveling to the U.S. The United States has always been my home, but it feels dangerous now. It feels other. The U.S. feels the same way Kelly’s mom is afraid of Bosnia, the way my mom is afraid of Paris.
When I think of the U.S. I don’t think of home. I think of Pulse. I think of bodies.
I am grieving for the queer people of color who died that night. I am grieving for the loss of safety. I am grieving that to my straight friends, this is “just another” shooting. They don’t to understand what this means for queer people, what this means for me. I am grieving for Muslims who will get blamed for this. I am grieving for queer Muslims that are consistently erased. I am grieving that the victims’ friends weren’t allowed to donate blood. I am grieving that this tragedy brought out deep-seated racism in the queer community.
Events like this make me want to go home to look for comfort, but I don’t know where home is anymore.
I think it’s important that queer people of color are not erased from this. I only have the perspective of someone who is white and I can only speak to my own experiences and feelings. Here are some good links discussing Pulse from the perspective of QPOC.