In the wake of Sunday's mass shooting in Orlando, LGBTQ advocates and allies are demanding the violence—a targeted attack on a club that was a safe space for LGBTQ people—be called out as a hate crime.
"This isn't about LGBT people taking ownership of the pain and anguish," Guardian columnist Owen Jones wrote on Monday. "People of all sexual orientations have wept over this massacre, and all communities should unite in grief.
"This was homophobia as well as terrorism. It is not enough to simply condemn violence: we have to understand what it is and why it happened."
—Owen Jones, The Guardian
"But," he continued, "this was a deliberate attack on a LGBT venue and LGBT people.[...] Omar Mateen could have chosen many clubs, full of people laughing and living, but he chose a LGBT venue. This was homophobia as well as terrorism. It is not enough to simply condemn violence: we have to understand what it is and why it happened."
Indeed, Jones—who is gay—walked off a Sky News appearance Sunday night because his hosts refused to accept the massacre as a homophobic attack.
"There is a tendency in the mainstream media right now to fold the Orlando shooting into one — and only one — tradition of violence: radical Islamic terrorist attacks against the West," Meagan Day wrote at Timeline on Monday. "That [shooter Omar] Mateen was a Muslim, that he'd already been investigated by the FBI for possible (though never confirmed) terrorist ties, and that he called 911 to declare allegiance to ISIS on the eve of the attack are all facts that support this reading."
The narrative put forth by Sky News and others is that Orlando was just like Paris, Brussels and San Bernardino, except at a gay bar, as though the location were incidental. This framing is preferred, especially, by conservatives who want to take this opportunity to condemn radical Islam’s war on Western values without having to express their condolences for the LGBT community specifically.
But Mateen's attack folds just as neatly into another tradition of violence: homophobic attacks by American citizens on LGBT people, many of which do take place at gay bars. Instead of thinking about this purely as an act of radical Islamic terrorism targeted, this time, at gay people, we might think about this as an act of radical homophobia perpetrated, this time, by a Muslim.
"It may be likely that the shooter was motivated by faith-based hate," Nico Lang argued at Salon, "but to suggest that his religion was the sole motivating factor is an act of dangerous erasure. It ignores that this is merely the latest attack on a gay establishment in the United States and the latest reminder that queer people are not safe from being victims of a hate crime, even in spaces that are supposed to be havens for us. While the rate of LGBT hate crimes is dropping nationally, violence against transgender people and people of color remains on the rise—from Orlando to Iowa and the streets of Los Angeles."
Yet, there has been reticence from many quarters to name the violence as a hate crime—a reluctance that stems from several sources.
For one thing, Patrick Cockburn wrote Tuesday at the Independent, "Western media are likely to emphasize the ISIS angle because it feeds into popular fear of a vast ISIS-led conspiracy that menaces every home in the U.S. and Europe."
Hence Donald Trump's xenophobic remarks Monday afternoon, or House Speaker Paul Ryan's statement in response to the attacks—which did not employ the word "gay" but did describe the attack as a reminder that we are a "nation at war with Islamist terrorists."
Consider the rhetoric on display in Texas, as Michael Barajas reported for the San Antonio Current:
[W]ith word that the gunman, identified as 29-year-old Omar Mateen, called police during the attack to pledge allegiance to ISIS, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, an Austin-area congressman who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, quickly called the shooting at the Pulse night club "the worst terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11" and "a sobering reminder that radical Islamists are targeting our country and our way of life." Texas Gov. Greg Abbott responded not only by flying a Florida flag from the governor's mansion, but also by tweeting out a list of attacks blamed on extremists who were Muslim.
Such transparent opportunism has infuriated queer activists like Evan Greer, campaign director for Fight for the Future, who said Tuesday: "I'm sickened by politicians who never cared about our lives or our safety until they saw an opportunity to advance their Islamophobic, imperialist agenda."
Furthermore, Barajas added, "you probably won't see a rainbow or trans flag flying over the governor's mansion this pride month, since acknowledging the Orlando attack as both terrorism and a hate crime targeting a specific, vulnerable group would put politicians like Abbott in a pretty awkward spot."
"I'm sickened by politicians who never cared about our lives or our safety until they saw an opportunity to advance their Islamophobic, imperialist agenda."
—Evan Greer, Fight for the Future
New Leaders Council senior fellow and radio host Richard Fowler expanded on that argument in an op-ed on Tuesday, positing that to call the Orlando shooting a hate crime would force a public reckoning with how we have given hate "fertile ground to grow":
For all those who have been laser-focused on doubling-down on xenophobic rhetoric and codifying hate and discrimination in our nation's laws, know that you, too, are guilty of crimes against humanity. By limiting self-expression, having superficial debates about who gets to use the bathroom, holding on to bigoted ideas about gay men donating blood, and by adhering to an ideology that speaks of hate toward the LGBTQ community, you are complicit.
Homegrown extremism can only take root in a society where hate has fertile ground to grow. When the GOP presumptive nominee talks of building walls; scapegoats the Muslim-American community by proposing a ban on Muslims traveling to the U.S.; uses hateful language against communities of color; and urges an impartial judge to recuse himself because of his heritage, we have created a fertile ground.
When the junior U.S. senator from Florida and a former GOP presidential candidate calls same-sex adoption a "social experiment," vows to repeal executive orders that protect LGBTQ people from discrimination and supports organizations that back conversion therapy, we have created a fertile ground for extremism.
In fact, University of Exeter lecturer João Florêncio wrote Monday, "it is telling that it only takes a brown, (supposedly) Islamist 'terrorist' for queer lives to suddenly be worth mourning publicly as 'human' lives. What this reveals is how the net worth of queer bodies changes depending on who or what threatens their existence, how queer lives are only grieved for when threatened by someone with an even less grievable life—in this case, a brown Muslim.
"It is for this reason that today—in the aftermath of the mass shooting—we must reiterate the queerness of our dead brothers and sisters and refuse to have their lives strategically turned into disembodied, undifferentiated and abstract 'human' lives in the name of the 'War on Terror'," Florêncio said.
"Only when we do this," he concluded, "will we be able to stress that the difference that made those bodies targets in Orlando is the same difference that makes queer people look over our shoulders and fear for our lives on an almost daily basis no matter where we are in the world."
Watch Chicago-based writer and activist Yasmin Nair discuss these questions on the Real News Network, below: