by Ann Montague
On June 12, the nation and the world were stunned when a mass shooting took place in Orlando, Fla., at the Pulse, a gay nightclub. Forty-nine people were killed and 53 wounded. Five people remain hospitalized.
This was the deadliest attack in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001. The shooter opened fire and took hostages. After three hours the police stormed the bar, where 300 patrons were trapped. The shooter, Omar Mateen, 29, was killed in a shootout with law enforcement officers.
The LGBTQ community and friends are pouring out to attend vigils across the U.S. and the world. In the first two days after the massacre, 250 vigils were organized in the U.S. and numerous events also took place in Brazil, Australia, Canada, Ecuador, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, Poland, Puerto Rico, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, and Great Britain. Readers can find a continual updating of vigils and solidarity actions at weareorlando.org.
This mass murder did not happen in a political vacuum. In the last year over 100 bills discriminating against LGBTQ people have been introduced and are pending in 22 states. Several bills allow any person or business to deny services to same-sex couples based on their religious objections. In some states judges may refuse to marry same-sex couples, and in others adoption and foster-care agencies may refuse to provide any services that conflict with their religious beliefs about marriage, regardless of what is in the best interests of a child.
Some laws allow health professionals to deny services to LGBT people by citing religious objections, and others prevent local governments from passing nondiscrimination protections, including LGBTQ protections, that go further than protections at the state level. Nine states place restrictions on the use of public bathrooms by transgender persons. All these laws have the same goal—to further legalize discrimination against the LGBT community.
A History of Violence
Author, journalist, and gay-rights activist Michelangelo Signorile reminds us, “The brutal reality that jarred Orlando’s LGBT community, and the entire nation, is something that LGBT people have always experienced, as gay and lesbian bars and clubs have been targeted consistently by those who harbor hate toward LGBTQ people. And it’s a reminder of the animus against LGBTQ people that still exists, and the ever present danger with which we still live.”
On June 24, 1973, an arsonist set fire to the Up Stairs Lounge, a gay bar located on the edge of the French Quarter in New Orleans. The result was the deadliest single event to affect the gay community in U.S. history until this weekend.
Thirty-two people were killed, and some bodies were never identified. The primary suspect was never charged with the crime. There were also the delayed injuries—lost jobs, fear, public ridicule and severed families. The devastation was compounded by the homophobic reactions and utter lack of concern by government and religious leaders and the general public.
In 1996, Eric Rudolph targeted lesbian bars, and in 1997 detonated bombs in the Other Side Lounge, a lesbian bar in Atlanta. The press coverage of him only covered his actions at abortion clinics. In 2014, Musab Masmari was convicted and sentenced to 10 years for setting fire to a Seattle gay nightclub on New Years Eve in 2013. Last year, there were a series of unsolved attacks on gay men coming out of gay bars in Dallas. In one case, a man was dragged into a van and beaten with a baseball bat.
The LGBTQ community has always been victim of the oppression of invisibility, and there was no clearer attempt to erase their identity than the ongoing coverage of this massacre. Many news organizations are refusing to center the conversation around exactly what this is—a homophobic, transphobic attack, in which 49 members of the queer community, mostly people of color, were slaughtered in one of the few places that they feel safe, during the one time of year when LGBTQ people celebrate in public. To make this point, Owen Jones, a writer for the Guardian, walked off the set of a Sky News studio set interview, where they had refused to say the attack was specifically on the LGBTQ community.
As soon as the report came out that the shooter was Omar Mateen, whose parents had emigrated from Afghanistan, some were quick to connect him to “Islamic terrorism.” The press quickly took up this narrative and ran with it, even before a perfunctory investigation had begun. The Muslim community once again was forced to defend itself against attacks scapegoating them for the tragedy. Presidential candidate Donald Trump, who reiterated his call for a ban on the entry of Muslims into the United States, assisted in deepening the climate of bigotry.
Rasha Mubarak, Orlando regional coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in a statement. “The Muslim community joins our fellow Americans in repudiating anyone or any group that would claim to justify or excuse such an appalling act of violence.” There has been a large turnout of Muslims at the hundreds of vigils across the country.
Samra Habib, a lesbian and a Muslim, pointed out in the Guardian: “We are now used to the fact that, every time a criminally misguided Muslim commits an act of violence, the entire religion and all its followers are questioned and placed under suspicion in a way that isn’t replicated with other faiths. We—and this of course includes queer Muslims—have to take extra care walking down the street at night and entering our mosques for fear of Islamophobic attacks. Muslim organizations and activist groups are tasked with the responsibility of releasing public statements, apologizing for the actions of terrorists and reminding the world that Islam promotes peace so innocent Muslims who are just trying to go about their daily lives don’t suffer repercussions….
“Our thoughts must for now be with those in Orlando. But over the next few days, as we try to recover from this atrocity and begin to piece together what it all means, it’s important to remember that Islam is exploited by religious extremists all over the world, often in attacks committed against other Muslims. … This can’t be boiled down to us v them. We’re all experiencing the same tragedy together.”
Unfortunately, Islamophobes were not the only ones with a biased agenda. Early descriptions of the attack by the media merely stated, “A bar has been attacked.” This would have been like referring to the 2009 attack on the Holocaust Museum in Washington as merely an “attack on a museum.”
But even worse was what we heard afterwards. The Democrats, who always come to the LGBTQ community for money and votes, claiming that they are “friends,” instantly diverted all discussion away from homophobia and transphobia. Their single focus was on exploiting the mass murder for their own narrow political agenda. After a few words of condolences, hours and hours were spent talking about “gun control,” and any discussion of addressing the motivation of the massacre was absent.
In the first place, if any of them cared at all about the homophobia and transphobia that motivated this terrorist attack, they would have demanded long ago the passage of the Equality Act, which is languishing in Congress. The legislation would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex in the areas of employment, housing, and public accommodations in all 50 states.
While the bill would not end institutionalized homophobia any more than the 1964 Civil Rights Act ended institutionalized racism, it would outlaw discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations throughout the country.
Instead of yelling and screaming about the lack of gun-control legislation, it is time for all people who really care about the LGBTQ community to be outraged about the continuing violence they suffer and the lack of basic legal protections against discrimination and for basic human rights.