Pulse, Beat, Rhythm, Cry: Orlando and the queer and trans necropolitics of loss and mourning


“how to theorize and to politicize violence in the midst of violence, to indicate the wetness of water while submerged” –Jared Sexton

“We would sit there and ask, ‘Why do we suffer?’ As we got more involved into the movements, we said, ‘Why do we always got to take the brunt of this shit?’” –Sylvia Rivera

Audre Lorde said that anger holds information and power. In the wake of the Orlando shooting, we might extend this and say that grief holds information and power. Like so many, I’ve been feeling and sitting in anguish, mourning the collective loss of those precious queer and trans folks of color killed at Pulse. Several queer and trans people of color I know were asked the Monday after how their weekends were by seemingly oblivious straight people which speaks to the racialized antagonism, to channel Hortense Spillers, inscribed in queer and/or trans of color memory. Queer and trans people of color are not meant to be here and sometimes we survive but often our lives are violently stolen, our lights-as-life extinguished. I’m awash in a flood of sadness and anger, as we are once again confronted with violence, trauma and the accompanying grief, fracturing time itself. As Judith Butler reminds us: “We’re undone by each other. And if we're not, we're missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire… And so when we speak about my sexuality or my gender, as we do (and as we must), we mean something complicated by it. Neither of these is precisely a possession, but both are to be understood as modes of being dispossessed…” Dispossession is a queer feeling and a racialized relation, to be without the self-sovereignty that accompanies modalities of heteronormative belonging wrapped up in whiteness. As queer and/or trans people of color, already dispossessed, we yearn to be with one another; our search and seeking is a be-longing, an ontological cruising. In the absence of safety — as our lives are constantly under threat by police power — nightlife has always been about lines of flight. Yet in Orlando, like so many other places and times, violence ripped the very fabric of that queer and trans entanglement apart.

In the wake, I’ve been thinking about the necropolitics of loss and mourning.

In his pathbreaking 2003 essay “Necropolitics” Achille Mbembe writes about the capacity of the state to kill and looks at the underside of Foucault’s biopolitics — he foregrounds not the management of populations, but the rendering of racialized and colonized peoples as disposable. “War, after all, is as much a means of achieving sovereignty as a way of exercising the right to kill. Imagining politics as a form of war, we must ask: What place is given to life, death, and the human body (in particular the wounded or slain body)? How are they inscribed in the order of power?”. Mbembe shows how the political is always already a politics of death, a necropolitics rooted in the racial and colonial order of things. Extending this analysis through a queer of color critique, the editors of the anthology Queer Necropolitics, Jin Haritaworn, Adi Kuntsman, and Silvia Posocco show how queer and trans of color life is haunted and outlined by a horizon of premature death. The editors argue that queer necropolitics provides us with “an insurgent vocabulary that can help us make sense of the many forms of death that accompany and condition queer claims to life, visibility and protection.”

It's no accident that the person who attacked and murdered Latinx queer and trans folks gathered together at Pulse — a club-as-sanctuary whose name invokes the vibrant pulse of queer and trans worlding — worked for G4S, the third largest private corporation in the world which has been invested in mass deportation, Israeli occupation and the expansion of the prison industrial complex. It comes as no surprise that he was a fan of the NYPD, that anti-Muslim, anti-POC, anti-Black, anti-queer, anti-trans, anti-sex worker and necropolitical organization. This hate violence is linked to sovereign violence and now it's being figured through the lens of US imperialism and Islamophobia by opportunistic politicians because as James Baldwin wrote in his letter to Angela Davis, the American people measure their safety in chains and corpses.” 

The tragedy at Pulse happened in a context and cartography of U.S. colonial power relation to Puerto Rico. I’ve been thinking about the shockwaves that are reverberating from Orlando to Puerto Rico and how many of the queer & trans Puerto Ricans whose lives were violently ended at Pulse moved to Orlando from Ponce in Puerto Rico because the economic violence of U.S. colonialism and debt imperialism has made life less livable for those there. In the face of this loss of queer and trans of color life, the liberal response has been for gun control. Yet, because the state retains what Max Weber called a monopoly on legitimate violence, the calls for “gun control,” despite the best of anti-violent intent, do not include the military and the police, but instead the proposed legislation includes a watchlist that expands state surveillance. The calls for “gun control” should instead be calls for demilitarization and abolition of cages and borders, police, prisons, detention centers, institutionalization and the entire carceral-colonial continuum. Gun control has meant the control of black radical resistance — the NRA supported gun control when it came to the Black Panthers. “Gun control” in our anti-black and colonial present means the expansion of carceral control through surveillance (background checks), Islamophobia, racism, & saneism (who is fit and who is unfit/criminal/crazy) — meaning that legalized hate groups like the NYPD and G4S will remain necropolitical institutions and that their occupation and surveillance of poor and urban communities of color will actually intensify.

Anti queer/trans necropolitical violence is about stopping the pulse of queer and trans of color life/worlds and the club was a target because the club is a flashpoint for eroticopoliticized desire. Queer and/or trans nightlife has always been about survival and creating temporary autonomous and temporary fabulous zones that are as much affective — a structure of queer and trans feeling — as material in its electric choreography of bodies. The moments and movements of cruising utopia, contrasted by the dystopian field of violence in which we live, speaks to a higher frequency, a vibrancy: pulse. As Samuel Delany reflects in The Motion of Light of Water, “the first direct sense of political power comes from the apprehension of massed bodies. That I’d felt it and was frightened by it means that others had felt it too. The myth said that we, as isolated perverts, were only beings of desire, manifestations of the subject...but what this experience said was that there was a population — not of individual homosexuals, some of whom now and then encountered, or that those encounters could be human and fulfilling in their way — not of hundreds, not of thousands, but rather of millions of gay men, and that history had, actively and already, created for us whole galleries of institutions, good and bad, to accommodate our sex.”

In Disidentifications, José Muñoz moved beyond the Freudian dichotomization of melancholia-as-pathos versus mourning-as-relinquishing the lost object and provides a politicized take on queer of color necropolitics of loss. “Melancholia for blacks, queers, or any queers of color, is not a pathology but an integral part of everyday lives...it is this melancholia that is part of our process dealing with all the catastrophes that occur in the lives of people of color, lesbians and gay men...it is a mechanism that helps us (re)construct identity and take our dead with us to the various battles we must wage in their names — in our names.”

Our liberation struggles, like our lives, are woven together. Against the state’s weaponization of grief for Islamophobic ends, we heed Jose Munoz's call — to bring the dead with us and say not in their — nor our — names.