Media coverage of Sunday night’s deadly three-hour shooting rampage in Orlando, Florida, has been marked by the usual ambivalence with such kinds of attacks—on one hand focusing on the killer’s sympathies for the Islamist terrorist group Isis, and, on the other hand, warning against Islamophobia (an irrational fear of Muslims).
The warnings against Islamophobia are certainly important, but I sense that in much of the coverage, including a liberal newspaper like New York Times, there is much less discussion of another phobia, a deadly one behind the worst mass shooting in American history. I am referring to homophobia, a generic term that refers to a fear and hatred of gay men, lesbians and transgenders.
In the Philippines, the news coverage of the attack in Orlando refers to a “nightclub,” a term which tends to be associated with dark, sleazy establishments with half-naked dancing women. I’m glad the media haven’t used “gay bar” either, which in the Philippines has similar sleazy connotations as nightclubs, except that they feature half-naked macho dancers instead of women.
“Gay club” or “gay nightclub” or “gay disco” would probably be more appropriate terms for the scene of the shooting. The point is that the gunman was specifically targeting gay men, even if such places are not limited to a gay male clientele. Among the dead were four women.
Among the international newspapers I checked, only The Guardian in Britain featured solidarity acts from around the world with specific reference to LGBTs (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender).
In the United States, vigils were held in many cities; and in New York, the One World Trade Center, site of the 9/11 attacks, had its rooftop spire lit in rainbow colors.
In London’s Soho district, the heart of the gay community there, restaurants stopped serving at 7 p.m. Monday night, and people poured into the streets, releasing one balloon for each of the Orlando victims. It was in this district where, 17 years ago, a bomb blasted a gay pub, the Admiral Duncan, killing three and wounding 70.
In France, Paris councilors observed a minute’s silence for the Orlando victims, and Mayor Anne Hidalgo said City Hall would raise the US Stars and Stripes together with the rainbow flag, a global symbol of LGBT communities. The Eiffel Tower is also scheduled to be lit up in the rainbow colors.
France is hosting the football Euro 2016 competitions, so it was touching to see a tweet from the French football team, with a picture of a ribbon combining the colors of the United States and rainbow flags, and a message in French which in English means: “Sometimes football counts for little. Thoughts for Orlando.”
Several cities in Australia are using similar rainbow colors as lights, with Sydney’s town hall going to the extent of a rainbow flag being flown at half mast. In Israel, Tel Aviv’s City Hall was lit up, too, with the US flag and the rainbow flag.
Many more conservative countries, from Egypt to China and Japan, condemned the shooting but were silent about homophobia.
We are often unaware of the extent of violence inflicted because of homophobia, the worst example of which was during the Nazi era, when homosexuals were rounded up and sent to concentration camps and gas chambers. Where the Jews had to wear a star of David, homosexuals had a pink triangle.
Seventy years after the Nazis, homophobia persists in many forms. Two years ago Newsweek came up with a list of the world’s “top 12 most homophobic nations,” based on restrictive and discriminatory laws, as well as the incidence of violence against mainly gay men. The list started with Nigeria, where “97 percent of citizens think society should not accept homosexuality” and “same-sex couples face up to 14 years in prison, and even public displays of same-sex affection are illegal.”
Newsweek went on to name Uganda (where a law had just been passed making homosexuality punishable up to life imprisonment), Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, India, Jamaica, Senegal, Afghanistan, Iran, Lithuania, Sudan… and, yes, the United States.
The United States making it into the list, in an American magazine, is startling. America, after all, has long been a haven for LGBTs fleeing persecution in their own countries; and its laws—including a Supreme Court ruling last year that ruled same sex marriages are constitutional—extend many rights to LGBTs. Conservative Muslims have in fact painted a picture of the United States as immoral, insisting that homosexuality is encouraged by the West or that western colonialism introduced homosexuals into countries that previously were free of such “immoral” people.
Yet in the United States itself, conservative Christian groups remain fiercely homophobic, almost encouraging violence against LGBTs not just in the United States but in countries where they have been doing missionary work. Uganda is an example: A rise in violence against gay men was noted in that country after American missionaries convinced officials there that homosexuality was a threat to Ugandan society.
Even people who consider themselves liberal—Christian or Muslim—use the problematic argument of “hating the sin, loving the sinner,” which still fuels bigotry.
The gunman in Orlando, Omar Mateen, was the son of migrants from Afghanistan, but he was born and raised in the United States. He was married but his wife had divorced him after suffering domestic violence at his hands. Apparently, being raised in America did not make him more tolerant of LGBTs, his father admitting that the gunman had been very upset when he saw two men kissing in public, verbally expressing his anger especially because he was with his wife and son at that time. Mateen’s friends have also reported hearing him make antigay remarks.
The New York Times quotes his ex-wife as saying that she thought Mateen might have been gay, and patrons of Pulse nightclub reported that they saw him several times at the club. Was he staking out the area as part of his plans for the attack, or was he there as a gay client? That is another angle to look at: People having problems coming to terms with their own homosexual feelings sometimes end up being the most homophobic.
During his shooting rampage, Mateen called 911 three times declaring he was acting on behalf of the Islamic State’s (IS) leader and declaring his solidarity with other terrorists. But investigators said there was no evidence he was acting as part of a group. It seems he was a “lone-wolf terrorist,” radicalized by exposure to the extremists’ propaganda on the internet.
The Guardian and The Washington Post both have articles noting how the terrorist groups’ websites have homophobic statements and coverage of the grisly executions of gay men in IS-held areas.
Last Sunday, American homophobia found deadly convergence with the homophobia of a lone-wolf Islamist, fueled by lax gun control laws, in Florida. Mateen had two firearms, a semiautomatic Glock handgun and an AR-15-style assault rifle classified as a “weapon of war.” AR-15s are semiautomatic, firing one round with every pull of the trigger.
The convergence of deadly homophobias produced the worst mass shooting in American history.
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