Why did I arrive alone? On a Monday, most people I know were working. It was cool and grey and windy when I got to Victoria City Hall, about 30 minutes before the pride flag was to be raised, then lowered to half mast. Which flag pole, and which entrance, I wondered. I began searching, walking the perimeter of the building. In looking for a flagpole, I didn’t realize I’d end up searching for something completely different.
I turned the corner, entering a covered area which leads to Pandora Street. In this covered area, I found something, but it took me a moment to figure out what I was looking at. A paper banner on the old brick wall: “Our hearts with Orlando.” A couple dozen smaller signs posted around it. I choose Love. Love love. June 12 2016. The remains of last night’s vigil? Were these the signs people carried? And on the ground beneath, glasses and jars that must have carried candles. And then I saw the names. Numbers. Written in chalk on the wall. These must be the names of the people who died, I thought. And numbers. Oh God, the numbers next to names: 25, 33, 21, 32.
That’s when it really hit me, seeing those names and numbers together, written in chalk on a brick wall.
I’ve always thought we are lucky to live in this time and place. I’m loved by my family and friends, liked and respected by many. For the most part, I live my day to day life without encountering prejudice.
A few years ago, I began to realize that I owe my easy life to countless people before me. People who were bullied and beaten, excommunicated, disowned, jailed, killed. People who died of AIDS. In response to these tragedies, brave people said, “Enough.” Enough suffering. They helped the sick, and protected the helpless. They protested and organized and they bravely paved the way for me to live a life easier than theirs. I’ve often wondered, would I have come out in the fifties? Would I have protested in the 70s? Would I have risked my job, my family, my safety to take a stand and be branded a homosexual? I hope that I would be so brave, but, secretly and sadly, I fear that in reality I wouldn’t. I’m so thankful other people were.
And so, facing the wall, confronted with the names and ages of those who died in Orlando, I start thinking about how this easy life I live is actually so fragile. I am heartbroken for the people whose names are written in chalk, their family, their friends. It’s too bad these names will eventually wear away, I think. Chalk seems so impermanent. Then I wonder if there have been names there before, memorials long worn away after other tragedies. And I realize this is true. Perhaps not this exact spot, this exact wall, but somewhere, over the years, thousands of names have been written and worn away, written and worn away again.
And then I have the sinking realization that in fact, without a doubt, many more names are yet to be written. It’s not over. Although I am indebted to those who have made my life easier and safer, I can’t help but think that it’s useless to be indebted to the past. My obligation is to the present, and the future. And it’s not just hate crimes. Suffering and loss are equally devastating regardless of the source. Can I make things easier and safer for others? Can I change how many names are written in chalk? Can I be brave? God, I hope so.
Now, what to do…