The day of the massacre at the Pulse in Orlando, Jack said of it that the really insidious thing about homophobia was that it was possible that the killer himself was gay or queer. I had not thought that, but it resonated with me when I thought about the way his father had said that he had been enraged watching two men kiss in the streets of Miami.
I mean, you don’t have to be secretly gay to have a visceral reaction to that, just bigoted; the idea that all anti-gay bigots are gay themselves is a kind of backhanded homophobia itself. It gives straight “allies” a way to say “HA HA NO YOU’RE GAY!” while ostensibly defending the community.
But few rages run as hot as the anger mingled with betrayal and frustration that occurs when you see somebody enjoying something you have denied yourself at great psychological cost. It takes a terrible toll, to deny oneself and to bury one’s feelings, to say nothing of holding beliefs that say that one’s conduct or feelings or even existence is inherently sinful.
People in such positions often get by only on the strength of their ability to believe that it’s all worth it, that what they’re going through is necessary, that’s there no other way except to shoulder the burden they’ve been saddled with and muscle on.
And then they see somebody else who has apparently shrugged off that burden, and who is doing okay, and it all comes crashing down around their ears…
I’ve personally started talking more about my anxiety and depression and the ways in which it makes my life dysfunctional, and I’ve done so for many reasons, but one is that trying to “manage” these things by burying them and plastering on my best imitation of a smile makes me behave very uncharitably when other people don’t do the same. That is to say that when I’m burying my anxiety because That’s What You Have To Do, I tend to snap at people who don’t. It’s an ugly reaction, hurtful to those around me and I’m sure harmful to me.
You can see the same thing with people who adopt super restrictive regimens for their life, when they see people who can’t, won’t, or don’t do the same. People who suffer and suffer to get a body they think they’ll like often react poorly to people who dare even try to love the bodies they have. People who give up on fun activities because they think they have to in order to ascend to adulthood tend to take it really personally when they see those of us who don’t, living our lives and having fun.
To put it simply: people who have made compromises to get to where they are in life, no matter where that might be, often feel threatened by anything that makes them question if the compromise was necessary.
The more we learn about the killer, the more his supposed connections to radical terrorist groups overseas seem like lethal flights of fancy. He supposedly claimed ties to multiple groups that have deep political and ideological divides, and while the FBI had looked into him, they found no credible thread either before or after his death. In essence, his terrorist ties are likely to be nothing more than violent fantasies of power and control, much like his aspirations to join the NYPD.
Yet the more we learn about him, the harder it is to discount the possibility that he was motivated not just by hatred, but self-hatred. His trips to the Pulse have been described in some quarters as simple reconaissance, scouting trips. But he was active on at least one gay hook-up site for a year, and he’s supposed to have talked to his wife about a “past” that included sexual experience with other men.
I have no doubt that among those who see politics as a game and tragedies as a way of keeping score, there is or will be some crowing about “the narrative crumbling” and how “the SJWs can’t say it was homophobia if he was a homo himself”. No doubt at all. But Omar Mateen’s sexual orientation, whatever it might have been, does not change the calculus here. Or rather, it does not soften the impact.
This was homophobia. This was bigotry. This was hatred.
If it is true that the killer’s hatred was also self-directed, then this only makes it all the more important that we recognize that hatred as the problem. It’s all the more important that instead of shifting blame to Those People Over There, we look at the hatred that festers on the homefront.
Donald Trump, eager to use the corpses of our dead as puppets in his political theater, immediately proclaimed that his vague warnings of Islamic terrorism constituted “calling it” with regards to this tragedy. In the days and weeks and months that come, we must not let this false narrative stand without challenge. We must not let it spread. We must not let the political pressure to declare this killing—which was an act of terrorism, as all hate crimes are—signs of conspiracy abroad rather than rot at home.
Editorialist Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times that though the targets were not random, this wasn’t really an attack on LGBT people but on freedom itself. He’s wrong. He is not just wrong, but completely wrong.
We’ll never know everything about the killer’s life or mindset or motivation. We don’t yet know all we’ll ever know. But we know enough to make the educated inference that his target was not “our freedoms” or “our way of life”.
Far more likely, what enraged him was a freedom that he felt was denied him, a way of life he could not see a clear path to but which he could not quite give up on.
And the blame for this cannot be laid at the feet of any one culture or religion, but at a society that is awash with both homophobia and privileged platitudes about equality that position homophobia as just one more sacred “opinion” which must be protected, while also positioning homosexuality as an alternative (and thus, both optional and deviant) “lifestyle”.
The way to mitigate or prevent bloodshed on this scale is going to have to include sensible reforms to how our society handles gun ownership. It’s going to have to. But this particular type of tragedy, where one man’s life is given over to hatred to the point where he takes the lives of others on his way out? To prevent this kind of tragedy from happening on whatever scale is available, what we need is love. Love, compassion, an end to hatred.
Often calls for compassion get twisted around into calls for the hated to reach out to the haters and change their hearts through a good example. No. That doesn’t work. The compassion we need comes from the vast majority of people who are neither overtly hateful nor in the camp of the hated. Outpourings of support and conspicuous signs of allyship are fine and dandy, but what we really need is for you to challenge the hatred not just when it’s immediately lethal and not just after the smoke clears.
By the time a man opens fire in a crowded nightclub, it’s too late for words. How many acts of hatred did that man experience, encounter, witness, internalize, and/or perpetrate before then? How many times a day did he hear words of hatred on the radio or TV, read them on the internet or in a newspaper?
How many times a day do you?
Love is grand. And while love is love, love is not love if it will not challenge hatred. Then it’s only words, and while kind words are always appreciated, right now they’re a bit like blood donations after a crisis: a lot of people rush to give them all at once, and we wind up with a surplus that goes to waste, and not enough for later, when we really need them.
So cis & straight allies, here’s my request for you: save some of those kind words you’re pouring out now. Save them for when they can make a difference. Save them for when someone makes a hateful comment in front of you, even if it’s a joke. Save them for when someone tries to make a space you’re part of safer for their bigotry by making it unsafe for others.
Save them for when we need them.
Make this world safe for the man that Omar Mateen might have been, if he’d a place to be himself in it. Don’t do it for him, necessarily, because he is far from the only one of us who succumbed to the hatred that surrounds us. He’s just the one who decided to go out with a bang and make other people suffer along with him. That was his choice, and I don’t want to diminish his responsibility for it.
But the same hatred that killed him and spurred him to kill others is killing other members of our community right now. Like high levels of background radiation or toxins in the atmosphere, it’s poisoning all of us by degrees, though not all of us equally. The healthiest and best protected among us might live full and happy lives until we die of something else.
But we all still feel it, and those of us who feel it more distantly have all the more obligation to do something about it. As more is given to us, so more is asked from us. This goes even more so for those of you who are not touched by the hatred at all.
Name the hatred that sparked this massacre. Confront the hatred. End it.