On 12 June 2016, a mass shooting left 49 dead and 53 wounded in an LGBT+ nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Statistics show that the LGBT+ community is the minority whose members are most likely to become victims of hate crimes in the United States. More depressingly, over 80% of LGBT+ people killed in the US are queer people of colour, according to a report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.
Someone who knew Pulse Club well was anonymously quoted online saying that calling it a “gay club” would be factually false: “What actually made this club unique is that it was explicitly for the entire LGBT+ spectrum.
“A place where in addition to theme nights in various topics related to the broad community, also did a lot of educational and supportive work for lesbians, bi-people, trans-people, QTPOC and others.” QTPOC refers to Queer & Trans People of Colour. What supports this view is that the list of victims clearly shows that many women were present there at the nightclub, too.
Omar Mateen, the Pulse shooter, allegedly claimed allegiance to ISIS before the attack. In doing so he tried to gain legitimacy in an attempt to be something more than just a “lone wolf”, more than a solitary madman. What he was literally doing was jumping on the bandwagon of Islamism, the most visible representative of bloodthirstiness that is globally known right now. It is telling that while he was in Pulse, he called the police to pledge allegiance to Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, two Islamist groups that immensely differ from ISIS and are in fact fighting against them in Syria. This suggests that he actually had little knowledge about Islamic extremism.
In fact, his homophobia was not an outside product. Omar Mateen was born in New York. His views were completely in line with what many conservative people think in the US.
Some of the reactions to the attack afterwards demonstrated how deeply homophobic some parts of US society are. People from various denominations or religious identities tweeted things like “this was good, there is (sic) less perverts now” and “gays should be shot for disrespecting the natural order”.
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In the wake of the attacks, there were at least three separate occasions where men threatened other LGBT+ venues with attacks – two of the threats came from marines and one from a gay man from Atlanta. All three men were white. One Florida priest expressed joy at the attacks and was filmed saying: “As Christians, we shouldn’t be mourning the death of 50 sodomites.
“We shouldn’t be sad or upset,” the priest added.
Blaming Islam, in this case, precisely serves finding an “outside source” for the homophobia bred in the United States. The endemic homophobia is the atmosphere the shooter breathed, while he was preparing his mass shooting attack. He knows he will be applauded by certain segments of society.
A writer on Tumblr hit it like the nail on the head with the following piece:
“You weren’t the gunman, but you didn’t want to see gay people kissing in public. You weren’t the gunman, but you were upset when gay people gained the right to marry. You weren’t the gunman, but you use slurs for gay people. You weren’t the gunman, but you were the culture that built him.”
For queer people the shooting was a reminder of the dangers they live with every day – a life straight people cannot imagine. As one person, Alex Darke, wrote on Facebook: “When I reach to hold [my boyfriend’s] hand in the car, I still do the mental calculation of ‘ok, that car is just slightly behind us so they can’t see, but that truck to my left can see right inside the car’. If I kiss [him] in public, like he leaned in for on the bike trail the other day, I’m never fully in the moment. I’m always parsing who is around us and paying attention to us. There’s a tension that comes with that.
“Every LGBT+ person you know knows what I’m talking about. Those tiny little mental calculations we do over the course of our life add up,” he added. “And we just got hit with a stark reminder that those simmering concerns, those fears probably won’t ever go away.”
When the news came out that Omar Mateen had frequented Pulse himself and was inscribed on gay dating apps like Grindr, one trans woman commented: “The fact that this attacker had homoerotic feelings, the fact that homophobia and homoeroticism are linked, while it may be surprising for many straight people, is no surprise for those of us who are queer and trans and have to constantly flirt with the invisible line between violence and desire as part of our existence in this world.”
Those who are having it the hardest in the wake of the attacks are Muslim members of the LGBT+ community. Amina Wadud, a feminist Muslim scholar, wrote on social media “queer Muslims, I know you have always had a hard time finding your place in the LGBT+ community. Know that you are loved!”. David Klion, an Al-Jazeera journalist remarked, “there will be attempts to pitch two already vulnerable communities against each other. Don’t let them do it, resist!”
Many were quick to blame religion, specifically Islam. Yet not all Christians are like the priest cited above. Indeed, some Christians also came forward to help. And just as there are progressive currents of Christianity, where women and members of the LGBT+ community can become priests, there are progressive movements in Islam. The passages of the Quran that concern homosexuality can very cogently be interpreted as being actually more progressive than the Bible.
According to these interpretations, the “story of Lot” in the Quran was told with the intent of showing that raping men is just as bad as raping women, and not, as in the Bible, to condemn homosexuality. To cite one senior researcher in Islamic Studies, Usama Hasan:
“[T]here is no automatic penalty for homosexuality in Islamic scripture, and this was also the view of Imam Abu Hanifa. Imam Ibn Hazm also mentioned this in his Al-Muhalla with regard to lesbian sexual acts. By the way, the Ottoman caliphate was the first modern state to decriminalise homosexuality, in the 19th century.”
During the Pulse shooting, Imran Yousuf, a trained marine was able to save 70 lives. Like the shooter, he was also a Muslim. When the press wrote about him, however, his religion did not make the headlines.
A few days after the Pulse shooting, a white man was stopped with explosives on his way to a Pride event in L.A. He was not a Muslim, but a white supremacist. And a week later, British politician Jo Cox was murdered by a man identified as a white supremacist. The hypocrisy of one particular newspaper was outstanding: When two years ago two black, Muslim men killed British Army soldier Lee Rigby on the streets, the Daily Mail showed one of the men titling: “Blood on his hands, hatred in his eyes”. In Jo Cox’s case, the Daily Mail used the headline “MP’s alleged killer was a timid gardener dogged by years of mental turmoil”.
Islamist terrorism is clearly a threat. But tantamount to that is white supremacism, which doesn’t receive media attention Islamism does. One explanation for this could be that white supremacism does not fit into the narrative state powers want to create. The idea that danger comes from within society is much harder to exploit and transform into political capital than that of an “outside enemy”. Apparently the FBI told Omar Mateen’s widow not to tell the media that her husband was gay. The story of a man conflicted about his own sexuality did not fit into their grand narrative of identity politics, pitching “Muslims” against the “rest of society”, which is conceptualized as mostly white.
In the same week of the Pulse shooting, there were several violent crimes elsewhere in the US: A shoot-out at a Walmart store, a female pop-star was killed by a stranger, a woman was killed together with her three daughters by her husband, and teenage girlfriend murdered by her boyfriend. The real list of violent crimes is most certainly longer. Incidents of domestic violence ending with murder are often seen as “ordinary” violence that usually makes headlines only locally.
What’s the common denominator here? All the perpetrators were male.
To quote one sarcastic tweet that was widely spread: “998 shootings since Sandy Hooks, 2 involved Muslims. 998 out of 998 involved males. But yeah, must be a Muslim problem, not a male violence problem.” Some parts of society, especially men, laugh at the suggestion that “male violence” is actually a thing. Other men actually get angry if someone points out male violence providing solid details.
Just imagine a woman did anything remotely close to the Orlando shooting. People would immediately jump into her problems with femininity. I can hear the comments already, “did she need the gun to feel tough or what?”
“Why did she need this for her ego to start with?”
Although by far not all men live their masculinity in this pathological kind of way, the fact that the need to “feel like a man” can be bolstered with a gun in hand is almost taken for granted and not seen as something worrisome in and of itself. This toxic, violent type of masculinity must structurally be understood as part of explaining violence. This is another problem at the core of American society itself.