After Orlando: Livestreams of Grieving and Song

As we lift up candles, we also lift up our cameras. Today, mobile video and livestreams help network the music of grieving.

The most powerful thing about a candle isn’t the light — it’s that a candle can light another candle. A candle is social. A candle is viral. A candle contains in itself enough fire to light a room and counter the nighttime sky.

The same could be said, perhaps, of music. Often, the songs that resonate most with us linger less because of one talented singer and more because we can sing along.

This past Sunday evening, some 10,000 people gathered in San Francisco’s Castro district. We met in Harvey Milk Plaza, a place named for a gay male politician who was shot dead nearly 40 years ago. We lit candles to remember 49 queer people, many of them queer people of color, who had been killed earlier that Sunday morning during Latin Night. More than 50 others were injured, and hundreds more ran for their lives. Details of the shooter’s motives remain unclear.

As news of the deaths at Pulse nightclub in Orlando rippled across the internet, so did news of the vigils announced in their wake. One of the earliest of these was in San Francisco’s historic Castro neighborhood, where the rainbow flag for gay pride has fluttered for decades. On Sunday, it hung at half mast, as people marched up Castro and Market streets to gather in grief and find solace in spontaneous community.

And when we raised our candles, some people, like me, raised our cameras. When we waved our flags, some people waved their selfie sticks. A scattering of smartphones glowed in the dwindling sunlight alongside the light of screens capturing and documenting the event.

Mobile phones have become central to our lives, even up to the moment of death. Tragically, for many at Pulse on Sunday morning, phones were a lifeline, and a way to say goodbye. A recent Washington Post article pointed out that many who died — or thought they might — sent farewell texts and snaps to their loved ones in those horrifying hours.

Mobile video, especially livestreaming, is increasingly common in richer parts of the world, made possible by better batteries, higher bandwidth connections, and the proliferation of smartphones. Active marketing efforts from companies developing these tools has helped increase their popularity. Video is a particularly appropriate form for sharing vigils like the one in San Francisco on Sunday. We can live-tweet a speech, but we can’t live-tweet a song. We can photograph a candle, but we need video to show the candles waving in unison.

“The queer club has been a sanctuary for the queer community. It has been for generations,” Rosa Maria Hernandez Juarez, a popular San Francisco deejay and SF Dyke March co-chair, said last Sunday, to cheers from the crowd. I livestreamed her talk on Periscope as hearts bubbled up and comments — both supportive and homophobic — floated in.

“I take very seriously,” she continued, “the task of organizing spaces for queerness, dykes, transmen, transwomen, genderfluid, nonconformity, and for freedom…we must come together as a community, we still must celebrate each other, we still must dance” — and here, the crowd cheered louder and louder — ”and dance and dance and dance.”

Music and dance have often been central to queer culture, especially for queer people of color, from Gay Men’s Choruses to voguing to drag, and Caribbean music like reggaeton and bachata was featured that evening at Pulse. These art forms are social and participatory, the sort of creative actions that soothe psychic trauma by being both physical and communal. Scrolling through the Tweets for #myfirstgaybar, a Twitter hashtag trend that spun up in response to the tragedy, I found memories of rhythm, community, and karaoke.

Indeed, Pulse itself was intended to be a place for healing. Barbara Poma, Pulse’s co-founder, described the club as “not just another gay club” but a space for community events for people along the entire queer spectrum. Its name, which we might first assume referred only to the beat of the music, honored Poma’s brother, who died of AIDS: the pulse is for his heartbeat.

As the Nation’s Richard Kim wrote, “Gay bars are therapy for people who can’t afford therapy; temples for people who lost their religion, or whose religion lost them; vacations for people who can’t go on vacation; homes for folk without families; sanctuaries against aggression. They take sound and fabric and flesh from the ordinary world, and under cover of darkness and the influence of alcohol or drugs, transform it all into something that scrapes up against utopia.”

Writing for Colorlines, Miriam Zoila Pérez noted the specificity of Latin Night at Pulse, and how Latin night has played a pivotal role for many: “Only a few times a year do we claim enough space to unapologetically play our people’s music, dance to the rhythms of our childhoods, and be in a space where all of our identities are seen. It’s hard not to think that what happened in Orlando could have happened to us. How our night of queer Latinx joy could have easily turned into a night of terror.”

An impromptu memorial set up on Castro St. and 18th St., San Francisco.

Why do we take and share video of our vigils? It can be easy to ascribe these networked actions to the attention economy, a vain attempt to gain views and shares in the wake of tragedy in the news cycle. The fact that some of the videos received tens of thousands of views might be testament to this. But most received only a small handful of views — the spirit is in the sharing, not the view count; the gesture of outreach, not the uptick in stats. I am less worried about the social gains of people seeking affirmation in a time of vicarious trauma, retraumatization, and crisis; I am more worried about the easy availability of assault weapons, the erasure of LGBTQ identities except when politically convenient, and the filter bubbles that bias our understanding of what happened.

A more generous interpretation of mobile video is needed, perhaps. I think we take and share video of these vigils for the same reason that we attend vigils at all: to show others we care, to gather with people as much in digital space as in physical space, to show friends and observers we were there. A number of people told me they wanted to be there but couldn’t, whether due to geographic distance, the need for emotional space, or the fear of another attack — mobile video gave them a space to attend and bear witness.

And for the viewer, there is something raw and powerful about mobile video that a television broadcast can’t capture. A livestream is a community effort, and a string of livestreams helps create the sense of a networked vigil stretching through many parts of the world. The internet platforms we engage on may be contested, consumer-oriented spaces, but for now, these are the collective digital spaces most readily available to us.

Joined by hashtags like #prayfororlando and #orlandovigil, these livestreams also take the form of Instagram videos and Vine snippets posted directly from mobile phones. They come from places like Greensboro, NC, Oakland, CA, Orlando, FL, London, Seattle, and New York. They take the form of their localities, while referencing a common culture, like gay and transgender flags, and Holly Near’s “Singing for Our Lives.”

In Los Angeles, Lady Gaga read the names of those who died.

In Promise, Arizona, folks gathered in a circle with guitars.

Ferndale, Michigan:

Belfast, Northern Ireland:

St. Louis, Missouri:

Nashville, Tennessee:

The internet has been central to LGBTQ activism in recent years, with marriage equality memes and bathroom bill selfies furthering a dialogue online and off and arguably accelerating a tidal change in attitudes over the past decade. For years, the streets have been the place where we gather in collective grief in the face of national tragedies like those in Orlando, and the past few days have been no exception in that regard. With a networked life on the internet, the streets have often gotten bigger and more interconnected, and the songs are more widely sung.

Speaking at the most recent Personal Democracy Forum, Jason Mogus noted that social change is like a marathon, and digital advocacy often looks more like a sprint. Both are needed, of course. What has felt like rapid progress for the American LGBTQ community in recent years is but one stage in a decades-long marathon for equality. Keeping with this analogy, perhaps vigils are like the much-needed water break, where we recharge and gather our emotional strength.

As I watched small flames pass through the crowd, candle to candle, and watched photos and videos shared online, smartphone to smartphone, I started to wonder what was next: will this be another shooting quickly forgotten, or is this a moment of activation for a community with a long history of activism? Last year, Pride felt like a victory lap in the face of marriage equality across the nation. This year, we are reminded — tragically, painfully — that the community faces an ever-moving finish line.

author and technologist. words and commentary in ny times, bbc, atlantic, hyperallergic, etc. meedan. opinions my own.

author and technologist. words and commentary in ny times, bbc, atlantic, hyperallergic, etc. meedan. opinions my own.