On the morning of June 12 my reaction to the Pulse nightclub massacre was immediate. I felt a strange combination of numb and stunned. The night before, a community member and I had been celebrating D.C.’s Pride festivities at a well-known local gay bar. The knowledge that this could have been us was so visceral it was nauseating. Like many of my LGBTQ friends, I felt that this attack was personal. How could the deaths of 49 total strangers affect me so deeply? What right did I have to feel a personal sense of grief, hurt, or loss, especially given that this attack primarily targeted Latino gay men?
In the days that followed, my LGBTQ friends from college and I were in constant communication. And yet, my primary emotion over those few days was one of anger. As is often the case, it was much easier to process than my underlying grief, so I stuck with it. I let it move me through the days that followed.
A few nights later, I sat up with one of my straight community members. Unprovoked, I began to unload all my feelings from the previous few days. I couldn’t help it. I yelled and sobbed, showing emotions that I hadn’t yet shown to many of my closest friends and family members, much less anyone in my JV community. Throughout my JV year – and throughout most of my life – I had struggled with authentic vulnerability. Though I genuinely felt that I had gained five new family members in my community and knew that they loved me deeply, I continued to have difficulty in conversations and experiences that challenged my vulnerability.
When I was done, I looked up at my community member in total embarrassment – half expecting them to be gone – and found them still listening. In that moment, I realized that, for the first time, I had been truly vulnerable with them. A realization about my devastation over the Pulse massacre occurred in the sacred space they created by listening to me: it had confirmed all the things I feared most about living in the world as a gay man. I had, without realizing it, been nourishing a hope that the world was becoming a safer place to be queer. That hope, it seemed now, was utterly false. There are people in this world who see one man kissing another and decide they deserve to die for it. The Pulse massacre validated every fear I had ever had as a gay man.
I am still angry and I still believe it is a holy thing. But over the course of the last year – especially after entering into a relationship – I have come to understand that anger is not enough. Vulnerability, too, has a role to play in our healing. By sharing my deepest self with my community, I came to understand what was at the heart of my grief. Once I understood it, I could see it for what it was and begin to grow with and from it.
Perhaps the real value of vulnerability is this: if we are never known in our pain, we can never know how to heal. Through authentic vulnerability in community, I was opened into the process of learning how to heal from a lifetime of anger – anger that, as I said, is holy – but incomplete. A year later, my community and my partner have continued to challenge and show me all the graces that vulnerability can bring, and I could not be more grateful for it. After experiences of marginalization, devastation, trauma, and loss, our anger can give us the strength to keep going – but it is our vulnerability that gives us the strength to heal.
John served as a Jesuit Volunteer in Washington, D.C., in 2016. He is currently earning his M. Div. from the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry and works with LGBTQ+ undergraduates. He can usually be found exploring Boston with his partner, Christian, or talking someone’s ear off about some new, exciting development in the field of queer Catholic theology.