As a therapist who works primarily with gay men, I spent much of yesterday processing people’s reactions to the massacre at a gay club in Orlando last weekend. Cited as the “deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history,” this hate crime left 50 people dead, including the gunman, and at least 53 more wounded.
A crisis like this can open old wounds and traumas, stoke the burning coals of internalized homophobia, and stimulate patterns of depression and withdrawal. Many of my clients seemed hungry for a quiet space to unpack the layers of their experience, away from social media and public demonstrations. With respect and commitment to their confidentiality, I’d like to share some of my observations and recommendations.
I’m writing as a gay man to other gay men, and I hope that others will find this useful as well. There’s no formula to make sense out of something so terrible, but this incomplete list of steps is a good start.
1. Notice your desensitization to violence.
Many people have remarked their initial underwhelming reactions to the headline that 50 people were murdered. We are so accustomed to hearing stories of mass shootings, hate crimes, terrorist attacks, and warfare that we can be unfazed by yet another story. Think back and take note of how you reacted internally when you first heard the news.
2. Regulate your consumption of news and social media.
The political climate is especially polarized and contentious this season, and we’ve been bombarded with strong reactions, perspectives, and judgements. Even news headlines from reputable sources often read more like editorials or soapboxing. This adds significantly to the amount of information we have to process. It also has the effect of increasing our agitation – kicking up the dust, so to speak – so that our perspective and clarity are impaired. Limit your consumption throughout the day, and stop yourself from automatically reaching for your phone every time you have a minute to spare.
3. Consider the position of your identity in relation to the victims.
Most of the victims of this hate crime were Latino/a and LGBTQ. Take a moment to think about aspects of your own identity, especially your race, ethnicity, and sexuality. Notice your position in relation to theirs. How do you feel as you notice the similarities and differences? How will this influence the way you think and talk about the event?
4. Notice how the discourse impacts your sense of belonging and acceptance.
Many gay men in metropolitan areas have immigrated from other parts of the country or the world. What’s it like for you to be you within your family and your religious, cultural, and national context? Are you out to your family, and have you felt accepted by them? How has your family talked about the shooting, and how does that make you feel? How have people’s reactions affected your feelings about home? How have reactions within the gay community affected your sense of belonging?
5. Explore what hate-motivated violence brings up for you personally.
Have you been bullied or harassed for your gender, sexuality, or some other aspect of your identity or expression? Have you ever put someone else down for aspects of their identity or expression? Have you experienced or witnessed hate-motivated violence? How do these experiences influence your understanding of what happened in Orlando?
6. Explore what death and loss bring up for you.
How has your life been impacted by the deaths of others? Have you lost family, friends, or other people you were close to? If so, how did those deaths affect you at first? How do they affect you now? If you haven’t lost people you were close to, how do you feel about the possibility of your loved ones dying?
7. Notice how you feel about the gunman.
What are your thoughts, feelings, and judgements about him? Check out this post from Steven Hayes, who challenges us to examine our prejudices. “What will we do with that pain?” he asks. “Will we now rush to objectify and dehumanize the killer, or worse, our Muslim brothers and sisters?” How do you see the role of the gunman’s ethnic and religious identity in this story? How do you feel about his death? Is that justice?
While we will never know the inner life and conflicts of Omar Mateen, personal accounts and circumstantial evidence suggest that he may have been gay himself. How does this possibility impact your feelings about him and your understanding of what happened? How does internalized homophobia show up in your own life? Are there other aspects of yourself that you hate or wish to change, and how does that impact your relationships with other people like you?
8. Explore your reactions to the many political issues raised by this event.
Broadly speaking, the Left has framed this story in the context of gun control and hate crimes, while the Right has focused on terrorism and national security. Other issues have emerged: the federal ban on blood donations by men who have sex with men, racism and Islamophobia within the gay community, and immigration policy, just to name a few. Speculation that the gunman was gay also suggests that society shares some of the blame and points to the need for continued social change despite recent progress. What issues do you see as most important here? Where would you like to direct our momentum to make change?
9. Notice how you’re dealing with this experience overall.
A crisis like this can reopen old wounds, especially for people who have experienced personal traumas. Do you have intense feelings about these events, or are you feeling detached or numb? Do you tend to speak out and make your voice heard, or do you withdraw in silence? Are you reaching out to your friends, or are you isolating yourself?
10. Focus on what matters most.
While a crisis can cause immense pain and suffering, it can also clarify what’s really important in our lives. What kind of person do you want to be, and who and what matters most in your life? Compassion is often a very good place to start. Remember the victims and their loved ones with lovingkindness. Be gentle with yourself and the people you interact with. Notice when you get drawn into problems and conflicts that don’t matter in the grand scheme of things, and commit your energy to the things that do matter.
11. Don’t shut down; express yourself!
Your life experience matters, and it has given you a unique perspective. Expressing yourself is one of the strongest medicines to ward off depression and despair. Write a post on Facebook. Call up a friend. Invite a small group to sit down and explore your feelings together. Take a stand on the issues. Be careful that your words don’t incite more hate or target groups of people on the basis of their religious or cultural identity. And most important, ask for love and support when you need it.
If you’re looking for ways to help or get involved, take a look at this post for suggestions that include donating money, attending a vigil, or getting involved in advocacy efforts. It also includes resources for crisis counseling and ongoing support. If you’re considering giving money, I encourage you to give to local and state organizations rather than national.
With love from San Francisco.
Kip Williams is a Marriage & Family Therapist (#93170) in the San Francisco Bay Area and a PhD student in Psychology at Saybrook University with a specialization in Consciousness, Spirituality, and Integrative Health. You can learn more about his practice or contact him here.