Pride Month 2016 has been marred by the massacre on June 12 in Orlando, Florida. The gunman, Omar Mateen, took forty-nine lives and injured fifty-three before he was shot down by police officers. The victims of the Pulse nightclub attack were primarily members of the Latino community, and it has come to not only be the deadliest attack on LGBT people in US history, but also its deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman. Though I was far from the US, and my loved ones live in safety, the tragedy has left me grieving for my community.
Details of the shooting flooded the news across the globe, giving rise to much controversy. Although his father believed that religion had nothing to do with his actions, Mateen reportedly declared allegiance to ISIL during the attack, leading to discussions on the role of Islamic fundamentalism in the event. Much of the conversation was, and still is, expressed in dichotomy; there could apparently be no overlap between the (always) homophobic Muslims and the (very separate) other group, queer people. One in the wrong and the other, the victims. Yet, countless LGBTQIA+ Muslims, including myself, now face the paradox of dealing with the loss as one community while also receiving its backlash as another.
There are very powerful social forces at work which aim to push the idea that Islam is uniquely homophobic. These are voices that demonise an entire religion when some of its practitioners use their faith to justify infringing on the rights of others. Ironically, these Islamophobes are more often than not the same conservatives who have consistently fought the progress that queer advocates call for, backing themselves with the same destructive logic. Here’s the truth: the problem isn’t in one single religion. As Lorri L. Jean described in a CNN interview following the attack, “Because the focus has been on the influence of ISIS on this murderer. And that might have impacted him, but you don’t have to go to the Middle East to learn this kind of hatred and bigotry. You can get it right here in the United States from fundamentalist Christian leaders and many GOP politicians who have fomented this kind of violence.”
American Muslims are more accepting than many Christian groups in the US (relevant demographics highlighted in yellow on the table below) regarding homosexuality. In terms of same sex marriage, Muslims and Christians are shown to have comparably similar balances in favour and against. In spite of this, there is a clear double standard in the way Islam is perceived as more the homophobic religion. In addition, while the right-wing wish to blame this event entirely on Islamic terrorism, the vast majority of mass shootings in the US have no apparent political motivation, as seen in the Washington Post map below.
Despite the victory of nationwide same sex marriage nearly a year ago, the safety of many queer people remains at risk in the US. Hate crimes are daily occurrences, influenced not only by geography but the intersections of different social groups. This leads to the shocking differences in the livelihoods of particularly marginalised groups when compared to the theoretical “baseline”. Transgender women of colour, for instance, have an average life expectancy of merely 35 years, compared to the US average of 78.74. Thus when recognising statistics such as that of LGBTQIA+ people being twice as likely to be targeted in hate crimes as African Americans, it is essential to remember that it is impossible to remove race from a discussion regarding our sexual orientations. Acts of violence do not occur in a vacuum. Nevertheless, when mainstream media doesn’t erase the queerness of the victims, it often forgets the particular loss to the Latino community through the whitewashing of the tragedy.
Another point of controversy has been the speculation that the gunman himself was gay or bisexual. This emerged after conflicting reports of Mateen being a regular guest at Pulse, which the FBI is currently investigating, and having interactions on gay dating apps. If Omar Mateen’s obsession with homosexuality was a result of his own repressed sexuality, it further adds to the tragedy of the massacre. The destructiveness of the deeply rooted self-hatred that might drive one to lash out so horrifically must be understood. We don’t need confirmation of Mateen’s sexuality to know that it is society’s heterosexist influences that allow homophobia to grow. One of these influences may well be the rejection (or often times the lack of outright acceptance) of queerness in mainstream Islam, which begs the need for greater voicing of progressive thought by Muslims rather than entirely absolving our community of any relationship to the tragedy.
Returning to politics, the outcome of the Orlando massacre has been highly divisive, with liberal voices disparaging existing gun control legislation as insufficient and calling to reinforce firearm regulation across the country. Conservative views continue to defend the right to bear arms, pointing almost solely at so called Islamic terrorism being the issue in need of addressing. To this end, Republican perceptions of almost inarguably repressive laws which bar Muslims from entry into the US, or require them to bear special IDs, are considerably more favourable than those of their Independent or Democratic counterparts according to recent Gallup polls.
In a bid to hold votes on gun control amendments, Democratic Senator Christopher Murphy led a filibuster in the Senate on the 16th of June during which he stood for 15 hours. The deeply bipartisan nature of American politics is thus clearly evident in the reaction to the massacre. While gun control may not address the underlying issue, (which is not entirely Islamic fundamentalism, but something more deeply ingrained in society), it is appalling that access to such dangerous weapons is so easy that power so often comes into the wrong hands. Gun control may not prevent violent crimes, but it can certainly reduce its casualty count by a significant amount.
Regardless of all the debates on cause, the events of June 12 were deeply traumatic to many people. There has been immense support for the victims of the tragedy across the globe, especially thanks to social media. Although this mass shooting is one of many acts of violence faced by the LGBTQ+ community, and one of many more, we will continue to march on with pride and strength that has brought us to this point. The condemnation of homophobia and violence has grown ever stronger, with more people coming closer to understanding the need for progress. The Orlando massacre will be remembered for many more years to come, fueling the passion of advocates of the queer community and people of colour in bringing social change to the forefront of mainstream discussion in the US and around the world.