Two days after the massacre of 49 people at Orlando LGBT club Pulse, we are now beginning to hear, and become familiar with, the names of those who were killed. They are no longer just statistics from what is the worst mass shooting in US history. They’re people with their unique stories, people from all backgrounds, individuals who had, for their reasons, chosen to be at Pulse that night to belong to and participate in an active, loving LGBT community, before they were hunted and gunned down like animals by Omar Mateen.
The practice of naming the dead is not just about identification and visibility: it’s about a final act of respect; but more than this, it’s the final, lasting way of denoting that a person belonged to others: to a partner, to a family, to their friends and their community. In this ephemeral world, based so much now on possessions, there is, after all, only one way that we indeed remember one another: through the unconditional love that we give and we receive in return.
This love would have been palpable in the club on the night that these innocent LGBT and straight people died. LGBT bars and nightclubs are special places for our community: spaces in which we can escape from an often harsh reality, where we can cut loose and reveal our emotions surrounded by those that we know will never judge us. These venues are our form of churches, where the inextricable bonds that we have built over years of struggle, prejudice and hatred are cemented. We need to say little to one another at these times. Indeed, everything we need to say is often unspoken as we dance and hold one another, mouthing along to songs that have a collective meaning, our love and joy evident in the slightest of movements, in a body language which all of us understand.
Pulse was deliberately chosen by Omar Mateen on Sunday night in order to cut out the vibrant, beating heart of Orlando’s LGBT community. This was, without any doubt, a calculated attack targeting an LGBT venue and LGBT people. To say otherwise is not only an insult to the memory of the dead but a dismissal of LGBT communities all over the world. In the days that have followed the shooting, there has been much dubious reporting in the media with publications and news channels glossing over the sexualities of those who were killed. Some of the perpetrators are predictable: the London-based Daily Mail chose to run a front page story on Turkish immigrants, but other publications were no less guilty of erasing LGBT identity. As Owen Jones, who quite rightly walked off Sky News when the interviewer repeatedly failed to acknowledge that this was a very particular assault on LGBT people, said in his Guardian OpEd, even original reporting in the New York Times neglected to say that an LGBT venue had been targeted.
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - June 13, 2016: Candles and flowers in memorial near US Embassy in Moscow for memory the victims of the mass shooting in Orlando in 2016. Image: Urban Reporter.
What message are LGBT people meant to take away from this? There is, surely, only one answer: that we are in some way less important, less worthy, second class citizens. At a time when right-wing Christians are praising this atrocity and websites in countries such as Turkey are using words like “perverts” in their headlines, is it too much to expect major media organizations in the West to name this tragedy for what it is? Anything less reveals the deep-seated homophobia which – despite all the outward appearances of acceptance through equal marriage – still lies festering like an open wound in our so called civilised society. Moreover, it serves to reinforce the virulent anti-gay bigotry of the Middle Eastern and African nations who still execute LGBT people – nations which, ironically, the West is frequently all too quick to condemn on these grounds.
It is not only the scale of the Orlando massacre that people are struggling with – it’s also its complexity. How do we define what happened? Is this an act of terrorism, or a hate crime? It is both. They are not mutually exclusive. But, judging by much of the reporting on the incident, the two cannot easily exist together, and, it seems, to comprehend what has happened, LGBT people are quietly being erased from the narrative. Matters are, of course, further complicated by the fact that the murderer, Omar Mateen, is said by the FBI to have been radicalized online by Islamist propaganda. Certain left-wing thinkers and writers – yes, including some LGBT people – in a monumental triumph of political correctness over rational thinking – are totally blinkered in their commitment to downplay extremist Islam’s role in what has happened. While Islamism has undeniably played a pivotal role here, we must also acknowledge that this is about all extreme forms of religion, which time and time again, have shown themselves to be the greatest enemy of LGBT people all over the globe.
As we grapple for answers, there is perhaps only one certainty: if the right to keep and bear arms was not protected by the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, Omar Mateen – a man already known to the FBI – would not have been able to obtain a weapon. At London’s Admiral Duncan Pub, on an evening in which I was just around the corner at another bar on 30 April 1999, the neo-Nazi David Copeland planted a nail bomb which killed three people and wounded around 70. One can hardly bear to think how many others might have died if the UK had the same gun laws as the US.
We will never know what drove Mateen to turn Pulse into a slaughterhouse. The speculation will continue: was he compelled to act because he saw two men kissing, as his father stated? Or – as recent articles suggest – was he in fact “gay” himself and a regular visitor to Pulse? The media’s use of the word “gay” in this context is, in itself, lazy and problematic, failing to grasp the difference between a possibly self-loathing man who physically desires men, and the political ramifications of the word “gay” – a word which LGBT people, as a community, have taken ownership of, a word devoid of senseless hate.
How then can we, as an LGBT community, respond to this senseless mass murder? Over the last few days, we have seen vigils across the world showing solidarity with Orlando. LGBT people come from all backgrounds, cultures, and classes, but we have all faced the same obstacles, the same fears. Our dreams – love and acceptance – are much the same. Together we are strong, and our visibility has rarely been more important than now. As we mourn, we must also be angry – but, crucially, we must turn our rage into power.
This is the moment to hold people to account. It’s not only the gun laws that must change in the US; in the hours after the attack on Pulse, hundreds of gay men were not allowed to give blood because of a draconian, discriminatory law passed by the Reagan administration during the height of the AIDS epidemic.
Our voices must be loud and uncompromising: there is no place for homophobic legislation, just as there is no place for the politicians who feel it is acceptable to denigrate LGBT people, and then stand and hypocritically condemn a massacre in an LGBT club, without even making reference to LGBT individuals. These figures – and all religious hate preachers, whatever their denomination – have fanned the flames of anti-LGBT vitriol and have blood on their hands. Let this be a warning to all those who would rather we vanish: LGBT people, perhaps more so than any other minority, know how to fight – and, no matter how long it takes, we know how to win. We will and not be silenced when our own are hurt.
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