Excerpt from Brown and Gay in LA by Anthony Christian Ocampo
“We need to talk,” my partner Joe tells me the night after the 2016 election. “If something happens to us, we need to figure out what we’re gonna do.”
Between the two of us, Joe’s the lighthearted one, the one who never sweats the small stuff. I, on the other hand, am the overthinker, the worrier, the anxious one. Classic Virgo.
That night though, he’s the one who’s overcome with worry.
“What do you mean, ‘If something happens to us’?” I ask.
“If something happens to us,” he repeats, unwilling to say more.
“Like if someone tries to murder us?” I laugh. I laugh to diffuse tension. I laugh whenever he gets mad. It usually works, but not today.
“I’m serious,” he says. “If something happens to us, I want you to run.”
“No way. I’ll fight with you.”
Joe can’t mask his incredulity. “Babe, you can’t fight,” he says, gently enough so as not to bruise my ego.
He was right. I’d never thrown a punch in my life. Never liked roughhousing with my cousins. Always tapped out if ever friends tried to wrestle me.
“I need you to run,” Joe says. “I need you to tell the story of what happened. Besides, you fight better with your words.” We’ve been together for nearly a decade now; it’s the saddest, most loving thing he’s ever said to me.
I wonder sometimes whether we were being paranoid, but then I remember what happened in 2016. Hate crimes were on the rise, fueled by a presidential campaign built on racial resentment and xenophobia. There were too many violent incidents that felt too close to home to ignore. In June of that year, my graduate school alma mater went on lockdown, and several friends barricaded themselves in classrooms for hours because of a murder-suicide on campus. Eleven days later, I was scheduled to give a commencement speech a few buildings away from where the murder-suicide took place. The morning of the ceremony, I picked up my phone and learned that a mass shooter had killed fortynine people, mostly Latinx and queer, at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. They had attended Pulse’s Latin Night, the same kind of queer POC party I’d frequented in Los Angeles. The same kind of queer POC party where I’d met many of the men whose stories are featured in this book.
Joe and I had planned to attend the Los Angeles Pride celebration in West Hollywood after my speech, but we ultimately opted out because of the shooting. Minutes after we made this decision, a news alert popped up on our phones: the police had arrested a man—driving a car with guns, ammunition, and explosives in his trunk—on his way to West Hollywood. They later reported that the man was heading there but was not planning to attack the Pride celebration. Still, for Joe and me, this information did little to assuage the fear already firmly implanted.
The Monday after the shooting, I attended a vigil at Grand Park in Downtown Los Angeles for the Pulse victims. I got dressed and looked in the mirror. I saw that I was wearing a white shirt, and my morbid mind imagined it bloodied. I changed. For months, I would steer clear of light-colored clothing, just in case something happened. When I drove to Downtown, I circled the vigil a few times as I was looking for parking; instinct had me strategizing a good place to be standing if it came time to run. I worried that Grand Park would be next on the forever growing list of mass shootings: a college campus in Isla Vista, California; a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina; an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut; an office building in San Bernardino, California; and days prior, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
As a queer person of color, ambient terror wasn’t an entirely new feeling. I came out at the age of twenty-two, which means I have lived more years in the closet than I have out. The fear that took hold of my body for most of 2016 felt unique (it’s a fear, by the way, that many Black and Muslim Americans have faced for most of their lives). But it wasn’t totally unlike what I’d experienced before: the times I was called a faggot in school; the times I was made to feel “less than” in predominantly White spaces; the times I worried about being defriended or disowned if loved ones were to learn I was gay. Dress-rehearsing for tragedy felt normal.
Whenever I’m afraid, I look to others who aren’t. For example, after the 9/11 attacks, I developed a fear of flying. For years, before boarding a flight, I’d anesthetized my anxiety with alcohol, or an Ambien if it was really bad. But then, on one especially turbulent flight, I heard the flight attendants laughing behind me. I felt my pulse slow and my grip on the armrests soften. On another bumpy flight, I turned around to look at the flight attendant near the rear bathrooms. She was calmly texting on her phone, unbothered by the turbulence. By watching flight attendants—who, I knew, spent countless hours in rough air all year round—my fear of flying eventually disappeared.
I’ve learned to apply the same strategy to my Brown queer existence. From kindergarten through college, there weren’t many people I knew who were going through what I was. Not in my school. Not on television. Not in books. But when I started graduate school at UCLA, I suddenly had no shortage of people who looked like me whom I could watch from a distance. I remember that queer Filipino twenty-something who’d sashay along the sidewalk in front of my apartment on his way to class. On weekend nights I’d occasionally hear him coming home from some party, buzzed, greeting passersby with a “Hey girl!” no matter their gender. I remember the first time I saw a crowd of Brown men sporting jerseys and white tees, men who grew up in neighborhoods like mine, grinding up on each other on a dance floor while the DJ was spinning hip-hop and reggaeton. I remember walking up to Grand Park in the days after the Pulse shooting and seeing queer people embracing, crying, and honoring the dead. Watching these moments, these people—my people—became my antidote for fear. Watching them allowed me to reimagine another way of being.
Anthony Christian Ocampo is Professor of Sociology at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is the author of The Latinos of Asia: How Filipino Americans Break the Rules of Race and co-editor of Contemporary Asian America, 3rd edition. A Tin House and VONA/Voices of Our Nations Arts fellow, he has published essays in GQ, Catapult, Colorlines, Gravy, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, among others. His work has also been featured on NPR, NBC News, BuzzFeed, and in the Los Angeles Times. Raised in Northeast Los Angeles, he earned his BA and MA from Stanford University and his MA and PhD in sociology from UCLA. Say hi to him on Twitter: @anthonyocampo.