Faces of Orlando

Unravelling Orlando

I keep going to social media to write something else about the sadness, grief, frustration, and outright anger I’ve been feeling in the last two days since the news broke of the Orlando nightclub massacre of LGBT+ people, most of whom were Latinx. I have forgotten that I write long form, and that in the act, I get a clarity of thought that soothes my jumble of feelings.

I have been addicted to the news cycle. It’s an unhealthy habit, and there are people whose job it is to stay connected for the benefit of us more emotional types. So I’ve been asking myself: what fix am I getting from it? What itch has it provoked? While I am a G of the queer initials, I’m white and mostly safe in Australia, where the gun laws have strictly regulated ownership of firearms since 1996. But I suppose the terror of Sandy Hook, where children were the superlatively innocent victims, couldn’t totally desensitise me to the US’ problem with gun violence. Australia still has the madness, just not the guns. Would the Orlando massacre have happened here if not?

The news that the gunman had frequented Pulse nightclub before his attack, and had been seen on gay dating apps, twists the knee-jerk Blame Islam narrative into an identity-shifting kaleidoscope. Within the queer community, perhaps especially among gay men, we learn that the homophobe is probably a latent homosexual themselves. It’s a tidy refrain that taps into some of our own experiences of being trapped in society’s closet of fear and self-loathing. However, if true, a great number of heterosexuals would be lacking in sexual-awareness. Homophobia — and queerphobia — exists in bigots of all shapes and sizes. If one believes in a spectrum of sexuality, then the sexual identity of the gunman has been disappeared by the bullets that took his life. He might have been straight, gay, bi-, pan-, a-, or simply curious (or obsessed). To call the attack an act of homophobia only is too crude: it suggests a reactive leap into retaliation (something still protected by law in some states). It was an act of hatred. The gunman planned his night. He was plagued by more than gay panic. He was supported by systemic queerphobia still at large in society. He wasn’t ignorant of the LGBT+ culture, he’d just decided he hated it.

Here is a man who was born and raised in the US with Afghani heritage. He is known to have been a student of Daesh, if only via the internet, through which he added their doctrine to his patchwork identity. His father says he wasn’t very religious. He was married and abusive. What I read about him, searching for deeper motives, describes a man scrapbooking a sense of self that supported his idea of masculinity. Those who feel powerless in the ranks they’re born into can be lured by militaristic patriarchy. My guess is that this was a man who felt completely emasculated within the standards he held himself up to, informed by the Abrahamic cultures of heritage and birth land, the nuclear family discourse of until very recent America, and the fratboyish self-proclaimed iconoclasts of Daesh. Add to this the resentment of class that simmers somewhere beneath all this prejudice.

Indeed, his real motivations, too, are gone. To shoot up a place designed for dancing doesn’t necessarily require mental illness. But it does help to have easy access to an AR-15 without background checks. I hope the political conversation focuses on the stranglehold the NRA has on the interpretation of the 2nd amendment, rather than the murderer’s identity, but it probably won’t.

For now, I mourn those bodies who represent the courage, resilience, and yes, pride, in rejecting the heteronormative toxicity of society. They’re my countrymen. They were attacked on home soil. They weren’t even the most powerful citizens of our movement — they were mostly latinx and lower middle class: they weren’t the ones mainstream media champion because of their unthreatening whiteness and wealth. In fact, the most insidious queerphobic fallout from the Orlando massacre has been the straight-washing of the event by mainstream media and politicians, who couldn’t bring themselves to call it a ‘gay club’, who chose instead to twist the kaleidoscope to suit their political framework. Suggesting that this was a terrorist attack on Western values — values that have only been changed in policy in the last twenty years, and are still attacked from within by conservative Christians — obfuscates the history of Western ideologies that have been just as queerphobic as Daesh, and other Abrahamic countries all over the world. It yanks the agency away from queer people who still need bravery each day to live their lives. To suggest that this wasn’t about queerphobia denies those fallen bodies their own identity, which they didn’t claim as a way of heightening their social status. They needed that nightclub, it was a sanctuary. Marriage equality did not erase everyday discrimination. To be queer and latinx in the US requires some down time.

From politicians and the press to the (non) responses many queer people then had to endure on social media, I was reminded of how much I still live in a world where no one wants to upset the children when it comes to sexuality. It hurts because by not ‘upsetting the children’, by not explaining that human sexuality is loveable in all its colours, I had to endure decades of not feeling ‘right’, or ‘good enough’, or ‘worthy’. It’s these small erasures of my lived experience that anger me most when I’m forced to think of them in times like this, post-Orlando. I think of the five years of bullying at high school for my supposed and suppressed sexuality; I think of my close straight friends who added ‘gay’ in a derisive sense to their lexicon; I think of straight friends who told me their other gay friend ‘got happy’ by moving to the big city and getting a gym membership; I think of seven years in a job where I’m teaching queerphobic Muslims and non-Muslims alike; I think of the first night my boyfriend and I hooked up — at a Mardi Gras-themed party where we were the only queer people and the rainbow flag hung upside-down, where I was told my ‘costume’ wasn’t ‘gay’ enough, in a suburb where queer-bashing still happens; I think of the time we were walking in an ostensibly queer-friendly neighbourhood in Sydney and were called ‘faggots’ by a man with a stroller, child and his wife; I think of the first serious disagreement my partner and I have ever had in two years on the Monday after the Orlando shooting, caused by not knowing how to navigate the other’s way of dealing with a reopened wound. I was overflowing with anger, and he, being wiser than I, was trying to get on with the day, compartmentalising the event as best he could, not following the news cycle as closely. Like most queer people do, most other days.

So what? Could the Orlando massacre happen here without gun laws? To be honest, I think it could. Here is my conclusion. I hope to see a movement away from self-congratulatory mainstream ideas of Western culture, and the realisation that critique of queerphobia bound in all cultures is not an attack on faith, but of systemic hate within the religious and nonreligious alike. Australia congratulates itself every time the US suffers a mass shooting, but we harbour politicians with spiteful views on sexual identity, and can’t muster enough confidence to make equal rights matter in the classroom or chapel. I hope the LGBT+ community itself remembers and looks out for each other no matter where they hang on the rungs of our capitalist societies, no matter the colour of skin or lack of affluence. I hope I now have more chutzpah to call out queerphobia when I see it, in spite of the heightened fear caused by the atrocity in Orlando. Most of all, I hope those who’d count themselves as an ally start doing the same. I hope they read all the fantastic 1 pieces 2 coming 3 out 4 by queer voices in light of the massacre and sit quietly with them. I want them to know that the people to drown out with their own voices aren’t those who are just ignorant, but those who do know, with fists and weapons and policy-making power, and have chosen to hate.