America’s Dangerous Exchange Of Homophobia With Islamophobia
By Rafia Zakaria
On a warm Florida night, not far from the lights of Disney World, men and women danced in a crowded gay club called Pulse on LGBTQ Pride weekend. It was Saturday night and the venue was packed. That night, like every Saturday night, was devoted to Latin music; in crowded rooms people were laughing, drinking and dancing.
We all know what happened next. Omar Mateen, a young man armed with a semi-automatic weapon, entered the club and opened fire. Peppered with his bullets, bodies began to fall: a grotesque game of dominoes played with human lives. Before Mateen could be stopped and before he was shot dead by the policemen that arrived at the scene, he called 911. In that call, Mateen, born and raised in the United States, pledged his support to ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. It took hours to count the bodies; it was the deadliest mass shooting in recent history, with 49 people dead and 53 wounded, a tearful trail of families and friends left to mourn them.
The next day, the talk was of ISIS. Solemn-faced politicians, eager to whet America’s fears, took to the media, prodded with questions by equally eager anchors. Many who had until a week ago been fighting the noble cause of keeping transgender individuals out of women’s bathrooms now expressed condolences for the dead and wounded.
Against the murderous homophobia of Omar Mateen, their own bigotry, their failure to support marriage equality, their refusal of civil rights and equal protection to LGBTQ individuals, was suddenly lesser, routine, forgettable. Fear of the LGBTQ person that had just a day earlier provoked a man to leave a bomb in the women’s restroom of a Target store because of its refusal to bar transgender individuals from them, was now trumped by fear of the Muslim.
In a 1985 essay entitled “Here Be Dragons and Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” the author James Baldwin wrote: “Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated, abominably because they are human beings who cause to echo our most profound terrors and desires.” In the essay, Baldwin, who identified as gay, Black, and androgynous, points to his habitation of two categories: Black and “homosexual,” both of which represent threats to an American mainstream dominated by the white and heterosexual.
It was terrifying for Americans to consider that there were more homosexuals in their society than they thought, Baldwin wrote, given that many then considered homosexuality to be a disease. His words are still true today. In November 2015, Pastor Kevin Swanson of the National Religious Liberties Conference asked his followers to attend LGBTQ weddings and hold up signs saying gay and lesbian couples should be put to death. And just a few weeks before Orlando, Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, railed against the Obama administration’s decision requiring public schools to permit transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice and endorsed Donald Trump, who, after the attack, smugly reiterated his ban on Muslims coming to the United States (ignoring that the killer was born in the U.S.), and never mentioning that before the Orlando attack, 31% of his supporters in the South Carolina said they supported a similar ban on homosexuals.
In its aftermath, the gruesome attack in Orlando has accomplished for Americans a slick interchange of terror. The fear of the immoral LGBTQ person replaced with the fear of the terrorist Muslim. Even while FBI officials stated that there was no proven link between Omar Mateen and ISIS, that information was sidelined as were any facts that pointed away from the foreign and Muslim and to the ordinary and homegrown. No one was interested in the ex-wife’s statement that Mateen — who had reportedly repeatedly beat and terrorized her — may have been bipolar, even fewer in the possibility that he shared far more proclivities with mass-murderers like Charleston killer Dylann Roof. The likelihood that the killer may simply have pledged allegiance to ISIS to brand his brutality, to a group that would grant him posthumous notoriety, was never considered.
There is grave danger in exchanging America’s hatred of LGBTQ people for its fear of Muslim terrorism. The first is neither eliminated nor overcome by the inflation of the other. In the sad aftermath of Orlando, a procession of political and intellectual figures have lined on television screens expressing condolences. Their sorrow must not be mistaken for solidarity; while visibly sad and sorry, they offer no commitments to recognize the equality of LGBTQ Americans, the extension of civil-rights protections sexual orientation or, even better, prosecution of hate crimes against them. In sum, LGBTQ individuals deserve protection from Muslim extremism but not the right to use the bathroom of their choice or have legal recourse when they are fired for being gay.
It is easy, following a massacre as bloody, cruel, and ruthless as Orlando, to sink into the quagmire of approximating relative evils. In such a comparison, the sensational mayhem of a deranged criminal easily overshadows the everyday horror of American homophobia. It is a clever and politically expedient illusion that tricks a passive public into believing that a war against Islamic terror is urgent and necessary, while a war against homophobia, its routine cruelties and marginalization, is not.
It is a conclusion that would be impossible if the millions of LGBTQ Americans were considered full and equal American citizens, deserving of equal protection against all discrimination, all threats. That math; the lost arithmetic of a homophobic American reality, can count many million more victims to its perpetual cruelties than all terrorist attacks on Americans put together.
If the victims of Orlando are to be allotted true dignity in death, than those forgotten numbers must also be confronted, for as Baldwin said himself: “Nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
This article originally appeared in Dame Magazine, and is reprinted here with permission.
Lead image: flickr/liz west