The tragic shooting at the Pulse night club is historic by almost any standard. Even setting aside America’s narcissistic oblivion towards the frequent terror events around the world, 103 people shot and 50 dead is significant anywhere. Given Omar Mateen’s claim to be acting on behalf of ISIS, it was logical to view this tragedy as an act of terrorism. Even in the first hours after it happened, though, it was clear that this was a far more complex event than a simple terrorist attack.
Sadly, terrorism has become a comfortable fear in America. Of course people are genuinely afraid, they are justifiably appalled, but terrorism has become a part the contemporary narrative of our nation. Terrorism is something we rally in the face of, triumph over symbolically if not literally. Across the US people jump at the chance to join in the national outrage. This is American nationalism and exceptionalism at both it’s best and worse.
The rush to frame this tragedy as simple terrorism certainly gives some people political capital and it gives others a way to include themselves in a major media event, but it gives us far more a way to feel comfortable. An act of terrorism can be blamed on a comfortably distant Other. This was an born here, in America. A tragedy of our own making.
Speaking as a gay man, I will say Thank You to all of those who care. Thank you for the flags at half mast, the buildings lit in rainbow colors, the speeches, the sympathy. However, please understand that this isn’t a tragedy for “all of us.” It is a tragedy that struck at the heart of the LGBT community for predictable reasons that have only little to do with the so-called American War on Terror, or radical Islamists war on America.
In the midst of so much sympathy far too many people have reduced a GAY bar to “a nightclub in Orlando,” an LGBTQ gathering has become “an event for Latino youth.” Even NPR, the liberal bastion of radio news, aired a segment on the impact of this event on tourism in Orlando without ever mentioning that this was an incident of homophobia aimed at the LGBTQ community. Neither, Disney World nor Universal Studios was under attack. No random tourist then, or now, is in danger. When it became obvious that Mateen had no connection to ISIS, beyond his own claim, and despite a clear history in the Gay community, the Atlanta Journal Constitution still ran a front page story clarifying his identity as a “loan wolf,” yet still motivated by Islamist terrorism.
President Obama offered a beautiful response. Even several Republican congressmen distanced themselves from party homophobia with surprising speeches. Others however, doubled down on homophobia in despicable ways, and this tragedy has quickly become a political football with terrorism far more marketable than homophobia. To all of heterosexual America, those who care deeply, those who care not at all, and those who want to vicariously hang their hearts or ambitions on this tragedy I must say that this was not an attack on “all of us,” and it was not a tragedy for “everybody.” It was several hundred shots aimed squarely at the heart of the Gay and Lesbian people of America and 50 of our brothers and sisters died from it, while 53 others were gravely injured. This is our tragedy and, while it is the worst, it is only one of countless others.
The fact that Ramulah Mateen could be taken seriously when he dubiously claims that his son was
provoked by seeing two men kissing a few weeks ago defines the position of gay men in America today and in the past. A gay bar is not Ruby Tuesdays, it’s not Hooters, it’s not even the local pub that straight people wonder into for a beer on Saturday night. A gay bar is our refuge, our town square, our home when often we, like Omar Mateen, cannot even be ourselves in the house we live in.
Our gay bar is the place where we can meet our friends without a mask of heterosexuality literally keeping us at arms length from each other. It is the place where our charities raise money to care for our own when our families and our nation turns it’s back. It is the place where we celebrate our lives. The place where we grieve the loss of friends and loved one’s when we are barred from their funerals. It is the place where two men can kiss without the fear of violence. What happened in the Pulse that night did not happen to “everybody.” It happened to our LGBT community in our home!
While this the worst identifiable act of homophobia in our history it is not the only one. Incidents have become less frequent in recent years but they still happen. In 2013 a man set fire to a gay nightclub in Seattle, WA. In 2010, the Atlanta Eagle was raided by a police SWAT Team on false charges. The patrons were forced to the ground at gun point and left lying on a dirty floor for two hours while being assaulted with homophobic insults. In 2000, Ronald Gay, opened fire in a gay club in Roanoke, VA killing one and injuring six because he resented being harassed about his name. In 1996, a bomb was detonated outside of the Otherside bar in Atlanta by the “Olympic Park bomber.” These are only some of the more notorious events.
Hate crimes are a fact of life for LGBT people. When I go to my bar I take care not to park too far away, or down a dark side street. I walk with care, on the look out for anything suspicious. I live in the city. All city people worry about being mugged. Only L/G/T people worry about being bashed for being a “faggot.” Only L/G/T people live with one eye looking out for hateful glares and the possibility of violence. Hundreds of LGBT people are assaulted every year do to their perceived orientation. Dozens are killed.
While it is no longer a standard practice, as long as there have been bars and clubs where Gay and Lesbian people have gathered, there have been police raids, violent attacks and arrests. The modern Gay Rights movement began with a riot following a police attack on the Stonewall Inn in New York City.
When I first heard, on Sunday afternoon, that the Pulse bar in Orlando had been attacked, my thought was “the Christian Jihad has begun.” While most of America hangs on every hateful word uttered by radical Islamists a world away and cringes at ever rumor of terrorist violence, they have not noticed the rising tide of murderous homophobia in the United states.
Several times a month, for the past several years, headlines have appeared, to document the latest radical Christian reminding their flock that their interpretation of the Bible condemns homosexuals to death and eternal damnation. Only slightly less often are there articles quoting men who wish for a legal death penalty in our nation for Gay people. Far too often there have been suggestions that perhaps good Christians should take matters into their own hands. L/G/T people understand that those crazy preachers and homophobic bigots mean what they say and that their followers take them seriously, which ever God they give the glory to.
In the week since this tragedy, homophobes have doubled down on their hate. Close to a dozen gay clubs have been threatened. Several christian preachers have extolled this horror in God’s name. Of course the Westborro Baptist Church has shown up in Orlando to demonstrate outside of the funerals. Surely, if our communities do not have laws to address hate speech when it rises to the level of celebrating mass murder and encouraging more of it, they should be enacted.
Evidence and testimony that Omar Mateen was attracted to radical Islamist ideology, he was not connected to any terrorist group, or even had a coherent personal ideology. He did, however, have a long time connection to the gay community. He had a history of going to gay bars, including many visits to Pulse over a period of several years. He had a membership on several gay dating aps that he used to communicate with a number of men over the course of many years. Several men report being propositioned by Mateen.
Perhaps out of the desire to frame this as a terrorist attack, no one seems interested in examining the significance of the details of Mateen’s life. Mateen was married for three months and allegedly abused his wife, Sitora Yusufiy . One reporter asked a psychologist if terrorists often had histories of domestic violence, leaving the obvious question unasked. How often do closeted young homosexual men from oppressive religious backgrounds abuse women they feel pressured to marry? Yusufiy says that she believes that he was gay but that when they were together he was not a religious fanatic.
Mateen’s home life was unusual at the least. His father, a supporter of the Pashtun people and the Afghan Taliban, has claimed to be the President of Afghanistan in exile. He still refuses to acknowledge that his son was homosexual and, while condemning that attack, claims it was an act of terrorism on behalf of Afghanistan. Mateen’s second wife, divorced from a previous arranged marriage, is currently under investigation as a possible accomplice in the attack.
Perhaps, Mateen was drawn deeper into radical Islam by his family or perhaps, as a homosexual, who tried to marry women twice and apparently failed to achieve a heterosexual life, he saw this as his only way out. Identifying himself as a terrorist might well have been a way to gain his father’s approval. On the other hand, while his God condemns homosexuality, a martyr for the Islamic Jihad is admitted into Paradise regardless of his sins on earth. Whatever the details, Mateen was a young man caught in an impossible web of homophobia and self hate.
As his story is pieced together, he become less a terrorist and more the latest example of emotionally tortured young men who act out with terrible regularity with acts of horrific violence. Whatever the cause for this rash of killings, the fact is that they are virtually unique to our country and we should be asking ourselves why. Does lack of access to guns in other countries mean that these damaged young men suffer in silence, or possibly take their own lives? Is there some dysfunctional facet of American society that drives them into psychopathic rage? Has a vicious circle of violence been set in motion in which each incident inspires yet more more people to express their pain and rage through massacres and suicide by police.
This tragedy does not belong to everyone in our nation. On a collective level, responsibility for this tragedy does. We allow the easy ownership of weapons of mass murder. We wink at Christian homophobia. We embrace a double standard in which same sex marriage is celebrated but same sex public displays of affection are condemned, even by many self-styled liberals. We endorse the ideal of diversity while persecuting those who do not fit into a heterosexual gender binary. We, by whatever failing, allow one young man after another to fall into a poisonous state of despair, self hate, and social alienation.
The LGBT community appreciates the prayers and condolences of our nation but cannot ignore the rank hypocrisy behind far too much of it. If you really care, stop praying and and start acting. Begin with yourself and accepting the idea that being gay is not something that we just happen to be. We have unique lives, a unique subculture, and a community that supports us. If you want to embrace us, you need to embrace all of us, our bars, our dating websites, our fears, our struggles, and our individuality. If you care at all, you will take those small personal steps to make homophobia unacceptable in your own family and social circle. If you never want to see this again, get guns out of the hands of the sick people who commit these atrocities. The day after the Pulse massacre, a man was arrested in southern California with three assault rifles and told police he was headed for the West Hollywood Pride Celebration.