Vigil for Orlando, Soho, London, June 13, 2016. Photograph: Alisdare Hickson
Our understanding of the June 12 mass killing at Pulse, the LGBT Latino dance club in Orlando, Florida, is still in flux, as new information continues to be discovered about the shooter, Omar Mateen.
Was Mateen a religious Muslim? Was his bizarre claim of allegiance to several jihadist groups at war with one another a deadly fantasy, posturing, or a nihilistic non sequitur? What was his relationship with the gay male community? Why was he on Adam4Adam and Grindr, popular online hookup services for gay men? Was he stalking gay men? Planning to harm them? Was he cruising for sex? Was he gay? We may never know; perhaps we can’t know. People are enormously complex.
But one theme has caught the popular imagination: the drumbeat that Islam (as a religion and a culture, although commentators rarely make this distinction) is intrinsically anti-homosexual. The right in particular has embraced this idea as proof that the Orlando shooting was simply, and only, an act of jihadist terrorism.
Conservative talking heads endlessly repeat the mantra that in Muslim countries the punishment for homosexuality is to be thrown off a roof to your death. Such violence was notably documented in a video from Mosul, Iraq, under Islamic State occupation and has been frequently featured on right-wing anti-Islam websites. But like so many of the operatic acts of debased violence performed by the Islamic State—calculated for the camera’s watchful gaze—the practice is neither common nor endorsed by Sharia law.
Conservatives—who have strenuously objected to LGBT equality—want to direct focus away from themselves and onto Islam.
In Tablet, a mainstream Jewish political and cultural magazine, James Kirchick called the “Islamic war” on gays “unambiguous.” Kirchick is a fellow of the Foreign Policy Initiative, a conservative American think tank founded by William Kristol. Donald Trump cynically played up the Islam/homophobia link as an opportunity to attack his opponent. Posting on Facebook, he wrote: “Saudi Arabia and many of the countries that gave vast amounts of money to the Clinton Foundation want women as slaves and to kill gays. Hillary must return all money from such countries!”
There is a large body of academic and popular literature that explores the complicated history between Islam and homosexuality. A few sensible pieces reflect this effort. Raillan Brooks’s “Double Jeopardy: Queer and Muslim in America,” a personal account of tensions between more traditional Islamic views and acceptance of LGBT people, focuses on what the media obscures: the existence and experience of Muslim queer people themselves, and the interwoven threads of sexual identity, sexual behavior, gender identity, cultural traditions, and lived experience that all people inhabit—often in contradictory but sometimes surprisingly productive ways.
Thus the most salient feature of the media’s intense focus on Islam and homophobia is the important reality it ignores. Indeed it is a distraction from the ways in which Jewish and Christian beliefs in the United States have had, and continue to have, extraordinarily detrimental effects on the civil and human rights—not to mention physical, emotional, and psychological health—of LGBT people.
In other words, if the aftermath of the Orlando massacre is one of the only times that the conservative media has shown any interest in harm done to LGBT people, we need to ask why.
It is easy to cherry-pick extremist Christian or Jewish voices that are complicit in violence against gays. Pastor Roger Jimenez of Verity Baptist Church in Sacramento praised Mateen, saying that Pulse victims “got what they deserved” and that Orlando was safer now without these “predators and pedophiles.” Yosef Edery, a Brooklyn member of the Chabad Orthodox Jewish sect, posted a video on Facebook (since removed) that celebrates the murders: “People were killed in an act of terror. Fine. If an Arab did it, good for him! God hates sin. They deserved to die. I have no mercy for people that God has no mercy for.”
It is rare in American culture, even among religious extremists, for people to publicly call for or celebrate the deaths of homosexuals—at least, American homosexuals. Even in the cases that someone does, such as Pastor Steven Anderson, it is almost always bundled with the exculpatory language that, of course, he would never personally do so. But outside of the United States, American Evangelicals have in some cases all but declared open season on other countries' queer citizens. In Uganda, for example, a wide-scale anti-LGBT political and religious crusade culminated in lawmaker David Bahati’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill. The bill created the new crime of “aggravated homosexuality,” punishable by death (later reduced to life imprisonment). The campaign for this bill was aided, funded, and promoted by leading American Christian Evangelical organizations such as Family Research Council and TheCall. Their most prominent leader is Scott Lively, of Springfield, Massachusetts. While not an ordained minister, Lively works closely with other Evangelical leaders on anti-gay causes. In his book, The Pink Swastika (1995), coauthored with Kevin Abrams and now in its fifth printing, Lively argues that the Holocaust was engineered by a gay cabal that included Hitler. Lively publicly disavows that he has any connection to the Ugandan law. Tellingly, the U.S. courts are unconvinced: they are permitting a consortium of LGBT Ugandans to sue Lively in U.S. District Court for crimes against humanity.
Even more shocking, mainstream evangelical ministers such as Rick Warren (who gave the invocation at Obama’s first inauguration) and Lou Engle, whose sermons the Southern Poverty Law Center says can occasionally “venture into bloodlust,” have made a cottage industry of exporting American know-how for anti-gay political organizing. The efforts of Lively, Warren, and Engle to promote draconian penalties for homosexual behavior and advocacy sometimes make the news—Rachel Maddow has been vigilant and there have been occasional stories in the mainstream press—but many Americans are unaware of them.
According to Chase Strangio, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, “The Christian Right has introduced over 200 anti-LGBT bills in the last six months.” This tidal wave of anti-gay legislation introduced in multiple states involves not just the “freedom of religion” laws that would allow for-profit companies to refuse services to LGBT people, but also laws banning people from access to public services as basic as bathrooms. In Orwellian fashion, many of these laws have been advertised as “anti-discrimination” laws, in contradiction to their manifest purpose.
The animus behind these 200-plus laws is abundantly evident and represents a massive coalescing of cultural and religious forces—and fundraising—following the Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage. Liberals who want to believe in a narrative of progress may be confused about the presence of homophobic backlash after United States v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges. They should not be. It has been a sustained and distinctly American phenomenon.
Other nations that have implemented various forms of same-sex marriage, civil unions, and domestic partnerships—twenty-three countries allow same-sex marriage, and twenty-four have some form of civil union or registered partnership—have not experienced pushback the way that we have here. The United States has been at the vanguard of anti-LGBT efforts since the advent of the marriage equality battle.
It is a dismaying but inescapable fact that animus toward LGBT and gender-nonconforming people in the United States is alive, vibrant, and unapologetic. According to the New York Times, there are more hate crimes against the LGBT community than against any other groups: “Nearly a fifth of the 5,462 so-called single-bias hate crimes reported to the F.B.I. in 2014 were because of the target’s sexual orientation, or, in some cases, their perceived orientation.” LGBT people are twice as likely to be targeted for hate crimes as are African Americans. One must quickly add that these are not mutually exclusive identities, and some of America’s most vulnerable citizens are those who are both black and queer.
It should come as no surprise then that following the Orlando killings, conservatives—who have largely objected to the progress that has been made toward LGBT equality—might want to redirect focus away from themselves and onto homophobic aspects of Islamic culture and theology.
We may never completely know Omar Mateen’s motivations. Clearly he was influenced to some extent by fantasies of jihad. We know he had a long history of other forms of violence. His obsession with male homosexuality may have come from sexual desire, revulsion, or both. But the connection between his actions and Islam feels tenuous. More than anything else, Mateen was an American; we should own his actions as the deadly manifestation of an explosive and inchoate amalgamation of distinctly American anxieties about sexuality, religion, race, and exclusion. The focus on Islamic homophobia surely distracts us from our own challenges and allows some persistent and distinctly American forms of hatred toward LGBT people to go unremarked and unchallenged.