On May 11, 1982, the New York Times published an article bringing attention to a previously-unknown disease that had taken the lives of a few-hundred gay man across the country. Gay-related Immunodeficiency (as it was then coined) was at first ignored, and later joked about; besides, it was only the gays and drug-abusers who were affected by it, and the eventuality of a ‘gay plague’ summoned by divine intervention – ‘natures revenge on gay men’ – was, for many, way overdue. Years rolled on as the bodies stacked up, and almost 10,000 were dead by 1985. By then, the cause of the ‘gay cancer’ was known to be HIV, but the treatment of people who had contracted it was far from sympathetic: as public-health menaces, gay men were subject to a surge in violence and were banished like dogs from public spaces. It took President Reagan way into his second term to even acknowledge the epidemic, but by then, the damage was largely done – the state’s refusal to intervene in the early 80s is now recognized as being, in part, responsible for the 700,000 lives lost to HIV/AIDS in the USA.
I mention this, as the handling of the HIV crisis by the US government is a startling insight into the relationship that LGBTQ people have traditionally had with the state; and for those who are still unfamiliar with ‘insitutional’ modes of racism or homophobia, the utter neglect of people with AIDS during this time provides an excellent case study for explaining what the term means in practise. It also gives context for understanding the proximity of gay people of colour, such as Orlando Boldewijn, to violence.
On the 17th February, 17-year-old college student Orlando Boldewijn had a Grindr date in Schiedam, Netherlands. He was later dropped off at a nearby station where he then travelled to The Hague for a second date, after which he went missing. To those close to Orlando, the idea of him going on two dates in one night before the day of an exam was odd, and his mother was made more suspicious after receiving a conspicuously uncharacteristic text from his phone. Friends and family immediately reported him missing but the police didn’t share their worry, which forced those who loved Orlando to take to social media in order to find help. Despite their certainty that something was wrong, it took the police a whole 7 days to create a Missing Child Alert. The day after, Orlando’s dead body was pulled out of an ice-cold lake.
The exact circumstances of Orlando’s death have not been confirmed yet, but this is a story that is far too familiar as a result of two things: a) LGBTQ people of colour are more likely to suffer violence than their white/straight counterparts and b) The state is less likely to protect LGBTQ people of colour from said violence. In understanding the first, it’s not only important to consider the ramifications of homophobic hate crime, but also the culture that forces already-vulnerable queer people into danger.
Public gestures of queer love are acts of resistance, fraught with risk, and this excommunication of LGBTQ people from public life has in turn created a need for alternative safe spaces. These sanctuaries often provide a rare place in which people can be with one another without fear, but when these are not available – which is increasingly the case – gay men and women are forced into the shadows. Although it is easy to criticize Orlando for meeting a stranger in the dead of night, the systemic consequences of racism and homophobia afforded him no other choice. For many gay people of colour, inviting a boyfriend back to the safety of home is not an option, holding hands in daylight is not an option, and telling somebody about a first date is not an option … but, while this is true, to be devoid of intimacy as a human is also not an option, and certainly not one that is healthy, or sustainable. And it is this conflict that pushes LGBTQ people into situations where they are vulnerable and at risk. This is the price many pay for love.
As I’ve said, we do not yet know the details surrounding Orlando’s last hours, but what we do know is that he was failed by the state. The lax attitude of police in response to the case is now being widely criticized by friends and family, as their response only became sufficient once it was clear that there was a ‘major social impact’. This frank indifference of the state to the lives of queer people of colour was well documented in the AIDS epidemic in the US and continues to be a fixture of Western societies. In 2016 for example, the NCAVP reported that 80% of LGBTQ survivors of violence who reached out to police were met with indifference, and similar results have been published in connection with African-American victims of Intimate Partner Violence. But it’s not only state apathy that queer people of colour contend with – there is hostility too. Indeed, queer people of colour face disproportionate levels of police violence, which makes them less likely to trust law enforcement to do what they are paid to do.
In the infamous New York Times article that brought HIV, or GRID, to popular attention, there is a quote by gay activist Lawrence D. Mass that particularly caught my attention: ”gay people whose lifestyle consists of anonymous sexual encounters are going to have to do some serious rethinking.” I find the idea of ‘gay thinking’ interesting because, on reflection, so much of our experience involves having to think – particularly about adaptation. Not being able to act as one would naturally – having to adapt – are confusing notions for the majority of people; but for the societal ‘other’, life can often seem like an extended role play where repressed urges and desires struggle for freedom in sometimes dangerous circumstances.
Homophobia as a cultural phenomenon can be dismantled just as it was invented – but that starts with an acceptance that the state is failing in its duty to protect vulnerable communities. We are constantly expected to consider how people like Orlando should change in order to lessen their proximity to violence, but are less-often encouraged to expect systemic cultural changes; indeed, it is about time that the powerful protectors of the status quo do some ‘rethinking’, so that teenagers like Orlando no longer have to.
You can donate to Orlando’s funeral here: