Fifty people are dead in Orlando, Florida. More than fifty others are wounded. A man walked into the nightclub called Pulse with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and shot them all. It’s the highest death toll in a mass shooting in the history of the United States.
There’s an equation to any act of violence. There’s the actor, the killer; there are the acted-upon, the victims; there is the mechanism, the set of circumstances that allowed the violence to take place. As the world reacts to a horrifying act of violence like the Orlando mass shooting, its focus moves between the different elements of that equation, and we can learn a lot – sometimes, some very uncomfortable truths – from where that focus is permitted to rest.
Pulse is a gay nightclub. It was running a night themed around Latin music and aimed at Latino clientele. That’s part of the equation; this was an act of violence directed against minorities – queer minorities and, more specifically, queer people of colour. Then there’s the mechanism; the killer used a powerful rifle (essentially a consumer version of the US military’s famous M16 assault rifle) which he had legally purchased, despite the fact that he appears to have been on an FBI watchlist.
Then there’s the final part of the equation – the killer. His name was Omar Mateen. He was a 29 year old American. His parents came from Afghanistan. His family is Muslim.
Ahhhh. You can almost hear the sigh of relief – from the US media, from Republican politicians, from the Trump campaign, and from conservative media and politicians around the world. A Muslim. A Muslim man who, apparently, visited ISIS websites. Suddenly the story is simple; suddenly the conservative media can stop having to wrestle with things that make it uncomfortable, like homophobic violence or people on FBI watchlists being able to buy high-powered rifles, and focus on something it’s really comfortable with; spouting uninformed nonsense about ISIS and Islamic terrorism. Business as usual.
And so it goes. Look at coverage in conservative media outlets or statements from conservative politicians, and you find the identity of the victims almost entirely erased. The reality of this attack as an act of violence against queer people is swept aside; now it is an attack on “America”, a tragedy that all Americans can wring their hands about, a senseless and incomprehensible assault on ordinary Americans.
Except it’s not senseless or incomprehensible, and it’s not an assault on ordinary Americans. It’s an assault on queer people in a venue catering specifically to them. The target wasn’t chosen at random; Omar Mateen drove nearly 160 kilometres in order to specifically, deliberately attack a large gay nightclub. To attack “America”, he’d just need to have walked into his local Wal-Mart with his rifle; he didn’t do that because he wasn’t attacking America, he was attacking queer people. To claim this as an attack on “all of America” isn’t solidarity, it’s a dismissal of the real issue and an erasure of the identity of the victims every bit as mealy-mouthed and calculated as the “All Lives Matter” riposte to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Far from being senseless and incomprehensible, this kind of attack feels wearily inevitable. Why is so much of the world uncomfortable with talking about this as an assault on queer people, so desperate to spring back into the familiar embrace of the fear-fuelled ISIS narrative? Precisely because so much of the American conservative movement, like many conservative movements around the world, has spent years demonising and attacking queer minorities. Precisely because they’ve proposed, cheered on and voted for several hundred pieces of local and state legislation attacking the rights and basic human safety of queer people in the past few years. Precisely because the idea that queer rights have gone “too far”, that laws designed to protect vulnerable minorities are themselves “discrimination”, has become a mainstream view in conservative circles. Precisely because any discussion of queer Pride always seems to be met with a question about when “straight Pride month” is. Precisely because the right of trans people to use the bathroom in safety is something half of America thinks we need to have a conversation about.
Omar Mateen didn’t kill fifty queer people because he read an ISIS website, or because he was a Muslim; he wasn’t, by all accounts, even a religious or observant Muslim. He set out to kill queer people because he hated them – a hatred which far predated the very existence of ISIS, let alone his fascination with it. He hated them because he was raised in a climate in which hating queer people is normalised and even celebrated; a climate in which every social advance, like the acceptance of equal marriage, is met with an aggressive conservative backlash that hurts minorities, empowers the bullies and abusers who prey upon them, and legitimises hatred in speech and action. Omar Mateen was an Afghan-American, and certainly, his background probably made him more susceptible to ISIS’ propaganda as a vehicle for legitimising and channeling the hatred he felt – but that hatred, that choice to specifically target queer people, wasn’t down to being Afghan; it was down to being American.
Just remember, as you see the news – not only in America but all around the world – hungrily fall upon the ISIS angle of this story, upon the Muslim angle; this was a homophobic attack on queer people. A man shot over a hundred people because they were queer. The identity of the man matters, but the identity of the victims matters more, because it’s core to the motivation, to understanding the context. Presenting this act as “a Muslim man attacked Americans” is nothing short of dishonest; a lie of omission, a lie of perspective. An American man attacked, maimed and killed queer people. That’s the starting point for the conversation that ought to be happening; but it’s a conversation large segments of the USA, and the world, will do almost anything to avoid.