Queer Memory: Loss, Martyrs, and Memorialization in Southern Florida

Emory University
Published August 11, 2016
Panel from the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Photograph courtesy of the author, June 23, 2016.

Panel from the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Photograph courtesy of the author, June 23, 2016.

Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting…

—Virginia Woolf, Orlando1

Sankofa: go back to fetch it. The implied subject is the imperative "you," as in "you go back to fetch it." It is June 23, 2016: just ten days after a gunman killed forty-nine people at Pulse, a gay club in Orlando, Florida. You sit in the Kashi Atlanta Urban Ashram, surrounded by panels of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt during a Pride month viewing and dialogue. Although it has travelled, you know the quilt is now housed in a non-descript building in Midtown Atlanta. You have been there. You know the quilt's weight (fifty four tons), and you have held in your hands the letters written to accompany panel submissions. Such lightweight papers, yellowed and ragged, describe the memories of loved ones and the processes of sewing quilt panels. As you sit viewing the panels, you fixate on a pink flamingo in front of a setting (or rising) sun: Gay Men's Chorus South Florida. Even as the program begins, as queer activists discuss the history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in our community (Atlanta and the Southeast, specifically) and the quilt's significance as a memorial practice, you fixate on the pink flamingo—always standing, stationary, frozen in its tight stiches—to your left.

You read the names on the panel (stitched in the sand and sky), mouthing them in silence. You follow the flamingo.

The Florida turnpike—the long interstate toll-road that extends the peninsula—resembles a chain of islands. Every few miles, you can pull your vehicle into the center where convenience stations and fast food restaurants await you. These eight archipelagic service stations float in the road's middle, serving as places of respite along the 264-mile expanse. It is as though you are riding the currents at a controlled seventy miles per hour, pulling your car into port when needed. The road begins south of Gainesville, travels through Orlando and Port St. Lucie, passes the Everglades and the ghost town of Flamingo, before reaching Miami. Just south of Miami, the toll road ends, but the road continues, leaving the mainland in a series of bridges that extend to your destination, Key West, the southernmost point in the continental US. Your trip from Atlanta is fourteen hours. You leave at midnight. You arrive in Key West at 4:00 pm. You are tired.

One Human Family sign, Key West, Florida, December 18, 2012. Photograph courtesy of Flickr users Ed and Eddie. Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 2.0.
One Human Family sign, Key West, Florida, December 18, 2012. Photograph courtesy of Flickr users Ed and Eddie. Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 2.0.
One Human Family mosaic, Key West, Florida, May 15, 2010. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user inazakira. Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 2.0.
One Human Family mosaic, Key West, Florida, May 15, 2010. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user inazakira. Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 2.0.
The author alongside Tennessee Williams, Gay and Lesbian Visitor's Center, Key West, Florida, March 2014. Photograph courtesy of the author.
The author alongside Tennessee Williams, Gay and Lesbian Visitor's Center, Key West, Florida, March 2014. Photograph courtesy of the author.

You have come to Key West for "gay spring break," an island-week specifically designed for gay people in a sea of straight decadence along much of Florida's shores. You think it will be a memorable experience, unique to you and your community. You come seeking communion and fellowship; you arrive, greeted with a new understanding of the word family. The philosophy of Key West since 2000 has been "One Human Family," in which all are equal and all resist narratives that seek to divide or impose "artificial limitations" on who we can be.

You arrive and park. You are told you will not be able to move your car until you leave the island; walking or biking are the preferred methods of transit. You check in to your bungalow and walk down Duval Street, the main thoroughfare. You see Aqua Nightclub and Bourbon St. Pub, Graffiti men's boutique, and other spaces catering to you and yours. You make a note to go to Aqua's drag show later. As you keep going, you encounter Sloppy Joe's and the copious tourists who seek knick-knacks and bric-a-brac from street vendors along areas surrounding Mallory Square. Yes, you see many college-aged spring breakers, gay, straight, and everything in between. You pass by the famous La Concha Hotel and the Cuban San Carlos Institute. You have a conversation with the doorman in Spanish; he tells you where to get the best sandwich. You walk back to your bungalow; people smile at you and comment on your huaraches, your straw hat: your carefully planned island wardrobe. You seem to fit in here. More than abstract appreciation, you experience Key West's "One Human Family" philosophy in action.

The next day you awake in your bungalow, refreshed. You walk across the mile-wide island. You stop at Hemingway's House and the Gay and Lesbian Visitor's Center, which hosts a Tennessee Williams in Key West exhibit. You pose next to a cardboard cutout of the famous playwright. You venture to 1431 Duncan Street, once home to Williams and his partner Frank Merlo. Now privately owned, you can only see it from the outside. You imagine the brief peace of their shared domestic partnership in that home.2 You leave Duncan Street, turn left on White Street, and walk until you reach the ocean at the White Street Pier.

Sign at the Key West AIDS Memorial, Key West, Florida, March 2014. Photograph courtesy of the author.A view of some of the names at the Key West AIDS Memorial, Key West, Florida, March 2014. Photograph courtesy of the author.View of the Key West AIDS Memorial, Key West, Florida, March 2014. Photograph courtesy of the author.
Views of the Key West AIDS Memorial, Key West, Florida, March 2014. Photographs (1, 2, 3) courtesy of the author.

Here, beneath your feet, is the Key West AIDS Memorial, the only municipal AIDS Memorial in the United States. Here, engraved on shiny Zimbabwe granite, are hundreds of names. You have come to this pier seeking this place, seeking what Heather Love calls an "emotional rescue," a version of the perilous, unstable, "queer impulse," a longing "to forge communities between the living and the dead."3 You read the names; you are aware you cannot save them, but you yearn nonetheless to say their names, to be in that space of memory, to know their stories. You know better than to think all of them were gay or queer self-identified, that a virus, a syndrome, does not discriminate. Yet, you also know the frayed and often misremembered history of AIDS stigma.4

Leaving the memorial, you encounter an unexpected juxtaposition. Directly to the right of the pier, at Higgs Beach, is the African Cemetery, where some 294 African men, women, and children are buried. Over a thousand Africans were brought illegally (after the abolition of the slave trade in 1808) on three American-owned ships (Wildfire, William, and Bogota) bound for Cuba; the US Navy intercepted the ships and brought the men, women and children to Key West, where nearly three hundred of them would die awaiting their fate. You browse the plaza and plaques, learning about Adinkra symbols and the philosophy of Sankofa, aware of the history of slavery at the foundation of American democracy.5 Uncanny, you think, how memories inhabit the same space, palimpsests of loss beneath the shifting sands at your feet and the white-capped waters beneath the pier's pillars. You stand on the island's southeastern shore overlooking the Florida Straits; a Westerner looking East from the "southernmost," you think how intricately tangled all of our histories are. You look down; the Sankofa bird looks up at you as she reaches behind her to retrieve what she has lost.

Historical Marker, African Cemetery at Higgs Beach, Key West, Florida, March 2014. Photograph courtesy of the author.Akoma Ntoso Adinkra symbol, African Cemetery at Higgs Beach memorial plaza, Key West, Florida, March 2014. Photograph courtesy of the author.Concrete Map, African Cemetery at Higgs Beach memorial plaza, Key West, Florida, March 2014. Photograph courtesy of the author.Sankofa, African Cemetery at Higgs Beach memorial plaza, Key West, Florida, March 2014. Photograph courtesy of the author.
Views from the African Cemetery at Higgs Beach and accompanying memorial plaza, Key West, Florida, March 2014. Photographs (1, 2, 3, 4) courtesy of the author.

That night, you return to the present. You enter Aqua, and there, in the blue lights cascading around the room, you bathe in the fellowship of family. A Celine Dion impersonator infuses the room with the "Power of Love." Subversive, camp, queer, you think, as the drag performer lip-syncs the words, "I'm your lady and you are my man." Slippery, you think, the categories in which we place others and ourselves.

You know the popular narrative of Key West—its open philosophy and strident tourist rhetoric—somewhat muddies the history of the many marginal peoples who gave birth to the island-city and its modern philosophy. Over the years it has attracted political radicals and people persecuted on the basis of race, ethnicity, political beliefs, nationality, gender performance, and sexuality. John Dos Passos, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Ralph Ellison, Terrence McNally, James Merrill and partner David Jackson, John Hersey, Carson McCullers, Françoise Sagan: this is just a brief list of artists (in addition to its most famous residents Hemingway and Williams) who lived in or visited the island-city.

Yet you know Key West is not paradise; just as queer lives have found its borders to be an island-enclave—a sanctuary—it has also served as a microcosmic representation of the pain and loss queer people have experienced in the American mainland-mainstream. Tennessee Williams owned his only home here with his partner, but he also suffered a very public beating leaving a popular gay disco called "the Monster" on the island. As you walk past the colorful buoy designating the southernmost point of the continental US, ninety miles from Cuba, you think of the many Cuban gays (machos, maricones, pájaros) and dissidents who landed in Key West during the 1980 Mariel boatlift, reaching some version of freedom. Yet many of them would die in disproportionate numbers on the island during the peak years of the AIDS epidemic. You need look no further than the many Hispanic names—names like Hernandez, Lopez, Acevedo, Perez, Rodriguez, and Rubino—carved in granite at the foot of the ironically named White Street Pier to witness such a haunting reality. To borrow from one of the island's mottos, Key West may be "far from normal," but it is also only "close to perfect."

Soon, you will leave Key West; you will travel northward from the southernmost point; you will remember Anita Bryant and her Dade County "Save Our Children" campaign; you will remember the Johns Committee and the Lavender Scare. You will remember those who struggled for your own less-contested visibility; you will realize that Florida's past represents the conundrum queer people once faced in this country: attempt to connect to the mainland-mainstream and risk misunderstanding and persecution or live island-existences somewhere "close-to-perfect, far-from-normal." You will travel back through Orlando along the archipelagic turnpike—the meandering road of memory. As you sit in Atlanta two years later, you remember passing through Orlando; your pulse quickens.

Southernmost Point in the Continental USA marker, Key West, Florida, March 2014. Photograph courtesy of the author.Detail of La Florida and the "Martyres" at the tip of southern Florida, from Peruuiae auriferae regionis typus. Map by Abraham Ortelius, 1587. Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Map is in the public domain.
Top, Southernmost Point in the Continental USA marker, Key West, Florida, March 2014. Photograph courtesy of the author. Bottom, detail of La Florida and the "Martyres" at the tip of southern Florida, from Peruuiae auriferae regionis typus. Map by Abraham Ortelius, 1587. Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Map is in the public domain.

After your trip, you will learn that Key West was not always called Key West, that when it was settled by the Spanish, legend has it conquistador Ponce de León first named the archipelago Los Mártires—the Martyrs—because, according to one version of events, upon approach the islands looked like suffering men, knees bowed, humbled, in pain, "dying."6

You will learn that the etymology of the word martyr includes more than those who die in service of faith. It is a word of witness, and as a derivative of the Sanskrit "smri," a word "to bear in mind, remember." Witness. Remembrance. As you drive past Orlando, you will not yet know Pulse and the forty-nine lives yet to be lost to a gunman's madness, but one day you will learn that pulse's etymology includes "drive." As you drive, you remember; as you remember, you drive.

At one place in time in Florida the bravery of queer lives that inhabit spaces at the center of town—places like Pulse, sandwiched between an auto-tinting business and a Dunkin' Donuts—would have seemed radical to you, in fierce need of protection. Yet you have become accustomed to thinking your spaces are safe even in the middle of town. Pulse will remind you that no place is safe when a gunman's mind is adrift, lost, deeply troubled. You know the "gay agenda" is and has always been survival; safety is illusory. Pulse will remind you that Latin night at the gay bar still provokes rage; that violence—real and imagined—still targets specific identities. In this age of contested post-identities, you will again be reminded of the need to physically claim a space of your own, to own your pulse in a world where some seek (and will always seek) to cut it short.

*

Wilhelmina Harvey Crossing the Seven Mile Bridge, Simonton Street, Key West, Florida, July 20, 2011. Mural by Rick Worth. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user Rachel Sample. Creative Commons license CC BY-NC 2.0.
Wilhelmina Harvey Crossing the Seven Mile Bridge, Simonton Street, Key West, Florida, July 20, 2011. Mural by Rick Worth. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user Rachel Sample. Creative Commons license CC BY-NC 2.0.

I begin with a remembered journey through south Florida—a journey that may be my own—but that vitally includes you: my readers, my listeners, and co-travellers. We must be engaged in continual acts of remembering. Memory is a seamstress, and she stitches us all together. When I began this blog post, I thought I would dwell primarily on these sites of memory in Key West and the possibility they create for the living to connect with those who have gone before. Orlando and Pulse have made all of us think anew, and the writing of this post reflects this shift in perspective.

For the Pulse gunman also attacked our memories. In all of the continuing coverage of the tragedy in Orlando, it is important to remember that Pulse Nightclub was more than just a sacred space of queer fellowship, entertainment, and desire. Like the Key West AIDS Memorial and the African Cemetery at Higgs Beach, Pulse was founded as a living, dynamic memorial honoring the dead. Owner Barbara Poma, on the club's website and in interviews after the tragedy, discussed the loss of her brother John to AIDS in 1991 and his presence in her decision to open Pulse. In remembering him and honoring the life he lived, Poma established Pulse in 2004, named "for John's heartbeat" and a place where "he is kept alive in the eyes of his friends and family."7 Pulse, then, has always served to connect queer communities across the living-dead ontological divide. In rebuilding Pulse, we rebuild the vital solidarity that queer spaces engender and foster simultaneously in times of dance and revelry and in times of loss and remembrance.

One Human Family sign, memorial for Pulse, Orlando, Florida, June 19, 2016. Photograph by Flickr user George Malioras. Creative Commons license CC BY-NC 2.0
One Human Family sign, memorial for Pulse, Orlando, Florida, June 19, 2016. Photograph by Flickr user George Malioras. Creative Commons license CC BY-NC 2.0.
#Orlando United at Pulse nightclub, Orlando, Florida, July 8, 2016. Photograph by Flickr user Dannel Malloy. Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0.
#Orlando United at Pulse nightclub, Orlando, Florida, July 8, 2016. Photograph by Flickr user Dannel Malloy. Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0.
Makeshift memorials at Pulse, Orlando, Florida, August 1, 2016. Photograph by Flickr user Walter. Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0.
Makeshift memorials at Pulse, Orlando, Florida, August 1, 2016. Photograph by Flickr user Walter. Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0.
Say Their Names, Orlando Pulse collage by Eric Solomon, August 2016.
Say Their Names, Orlando Pulse collage by Eric Solomon, August 2016.

Pulse is and has always been about family: those who live and those who've gone before. One family, one pulse: from Barbara and her brother John to all of the victims of the massacre:

Stanley Almodovar III

Amanda Alvear

Oscar A Aracena-Montero

Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala

Antonio Davon Brown

Darryl Roman Burt II

Angel L. Candelario-Padro

Juan Chevez-Martinez

Luis Daniel Conde

Cory James Connell

Tevin Eugene Crosby

Deonka Deidra Drayton

Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez

Leroy Valentin Fernandez

Mercedez Marisol Flores

Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz

Juan Ramon Guerrero

Paul Terrell Henry

Frank Hernandez

Miguel Angel Honorato

Javier Jorge-Reyes

Jason Benjamin Josaphat

Eddie Jamoldroy Justice

Anthony Luis Laureanodisla

Christopher Andrew Leinonen

Alejandro Barrios Martinez

Brenda Lee Marquez McCool

Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez

Kimberly Morris

Akyra Monet Murray

Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo

Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez

Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera

Joel Rayon Paniagua

Jean Carlos Mendez Perez

Enrique L. Rios, Jr.

Jean C. Nives Rodriguez

Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado

Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz

Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan

Edward Sotomayor Jr.

Shane Evan Tomlinson

Martin Benitez Torres

Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega

Juan P. Rivera Velazquez

Luis S. Vielma

Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez

Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon

Jerald Arthur Wright

"All memorials participate in the act of naming," and we have and will say their names.8 In doing the work of remembering, we say their names; we go back and fetch them from the bullets that sought to define their lives.

"Events of tragic consequences demand memorials," Marita Sturken writes.9 How will we continue to memorialize what is now the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history, the deadliest terrorist attack on US soil since September 11, 2001, and the deadliest hate crime against LGBTQ people? How will Pulse be remembered? Will we create quilt panels, carve names in granite, erect plazas to commemorate loss? It is still too soon to determine answers. On the one hand, written memorials, testimonials, and manifestos continue to permeate the blogosphere. Since June 12, makeshift memorials have continued to grow at the Pulse site. On July 31, 2016, the Instagram of the One Pulse Foundation mistakenly reported that the owners of Pulse would reopen the club as a memorial site; a day later, August 1, a spokesperson clarified that Pulse's reopening, in whatever form, would include a memorial "of some kind."10 A memorial "of some kind" would allow some young queer man or woman to pilgrimage to the site, engage in acts of emotional rescue, and remember that there are some who do not love you as you are and may cause you harm for being you. In our current political climate, such a lesson seems urgent. Remember, however, Pulse has always been a memorial, and the gay bar—with its music and lights, its dancing and revelry, its owners and patrons—has always been a place where young and old queer men and women of all backgrounds can find family and, perhaps, rescue.

*

Sankofa: "Go back to fetch it." Adinkra symbol at the African Cemetery at Higgs Beach, Key West, Florida, March 2014. Photographs courtesy of the author.Nkonsonkonson: "We are linked by blood in life and in death." Adinkra symbol at the African Cemetery at Higgs Beach, Key West, Florida, March 2014. Photographs courtesy of the author.
Adinkra symbols at the African Cemetery at Higgs Beach, Key West, Florida, March 2014. Photographs courtesy of the author. Top, Sankofa, "Go back to fetch it." Bottom, Nkonsonkonson, link of chain, "We are linked by blood in life and in death."

I follow the pink flamingo, jolted back to the present by the music of a Lambda Legal video playing on the screen before me. As my trip of remembering comes to a close—surrounded by men and women who have lived through tragedy and pain, heartache and joy, dancers from the dance and radical queers acting up—I am reminded that "loss"—in body or in mind—"is not lost."11

We will survive. And yet the grief, the anger, returns in waves. In a world post-Pulse, "For many, anger has replaced grief. Is anger a form of mourning?"12 How can we use our emotions in acts of remembering and in processes of memorialization? In doing so, how will we honor the lives lost? I admit I do not have the answers, but as our history has taught us, they are questions we will continue to ask.

Sankofa: go back to fetch it.

I return to the pink flamingo. In Matthew Dickman's poem "Grief," a purple gorilla visits the speaker and plays a card game, separating names in piles designated life and death. Dickman writes, "When grief comes to you as a purple gorilla/ you must count yourself lucky… how careless that his name is in one pile and not the other."13

My purple gorilla was a pink flamingo—standing with its weight on one leg before a setting/rising sun—reminding me how careless it seems that the suns of so many have set while mine will rise again.

The view of the Florida Straits from the White Street Pier, Key West, Florida, March 2014. Photograph courtesy of the author.
The view of the Florida Straits from the White Street Pier, Key West, Florida, March 2014. Photograph courtesy of the author.
  • 1. Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1956), 78.
  • 2. For more on Merlo and Williams, see John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014).
  • 3. See Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 31.
  • 4. For more on AIDS and memory, see Marita Sturken, Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Christopher Castiglia and Christopher Reed, If Memory Serves: Gay Men, AIDS, and the Promise of the Queer Past (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012). Castiglia and Reed identify (amnesiac) patterns of "de-generation" and "unremembering" in American (queer) culture since the 1980s.
  • 5. See Adrian Sainz, "African Slaves Found Peace in Key West," ABC News, February 6, 2016, http://abcnews.go.com/Travel/story?id=119106&page=1.
  • 6. Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda writes, "dicense los martires porque an padesido muchos ohbres y tanbien porque ai unas peñas salidas debajo de la mar que dende lejos paresen hombres que estan padesiendo" (192). ["They are called the Martyrs because many men have perished [there], and also because there are bare rocks projecting from beneath the sea that appear from afar to be men who are dying" (199)]. See "The Captivity of Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda, 1649–1566" in Discovering Florida: First-Contact Narratives from Spanish Expeditions along the Lower Gulf Coast. Edited and translated by John E. Worth (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014).
  • 7. See Katie Mettler, "Orlando's club Pulse owes its name and spirit to 'loving brother' who died from AIDS," The Washington Post, June 13, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/06/13/more-than-just-another-gay-club-pulse-was-founded-in-her-brothers-memory-and-named-for-his-beating-heart/; Anna Codrea-Rado, "The Little Known Story of Pulse, an Orlando Nightclub Founded on Love," Thump, June 13, 2016, https://thump.vice.com/en_us/article/pulse-orlando-nightclub-history-feature.
  • 8. See Sturken, 186.
  • 9. Ibid, 183.
  • 10. See Paul Brinkmann, "Pulse Owner Says No Re-Opening Planned Yet," August 1, 2016, http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/pulse-orlando-nightclub-shooting/os-pulse-reopening-statement-20160801-story.html?ghj.
  • 11. See Michael Moon, "Memorial Rags." In Professions of Desire: Lesbian and Gay Studies in Literature. Edited by George E. Haggerty and Bonnie Zimmerman (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1995), 239.
  • 12. See Sturken, 201.
  • 13. Matthew Dickman, "Grief," The New Yorker, May 5, 2008, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/05/05/grief-6.
Cover Image Attribution: 
Florida Love. Photograph by Flickr user Mia. Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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