Orlando: Bigotry fuelled the slaying

Issue section: 

The massacre of 49 people at gay club Pulse in Orlando, Florida, in June has gone down in history as one of the most violent episodes against LGBT+ communities. Josh Hollands examines the context of US society.

The victims of the mass shooting at Pulse were overwhelmingly young, LGBT+ and Latino.

That the assailant, Omar Mateen, claimed to support Isis in a phone call to the police has allowed politicians and the mainstream media to produce a narrative that scapegoats Muslims for this tragedy.

Many Muslim organisations quickly responded by offering solidarity to LGBT+ people and there was an outpouring of support in vigils around the world. In contrast, Donald Trump used the massacre to reiterate his calls for Muslims to be banned from the United States, and Hillary Clinton responded by using the attacks as justification for increased air strikes in the Middle East.

The media scrambled to construct a narrative that posed the attacks as an assault on supposed “Western values”, not a specifically homophobic massacre, as if LGBT+ people do not usually face violence or bigotry in the US.

The fact is that homophobia is alive and well in the US. The media focus on the shooters’ religion and supposed links to the terrorist group Isis belies the fact that LGBT+ people in the US, and especially the southern states, have faced an increasingly hostile atmosphere following the Supreme Court decision legalising same-sex marriage across the country last year.

In the past year we have witnessed Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis’s refusal to grant marriage licences to same-sex couples become a Christian cause célèbre. Additionally, the Human Rights Campaign notes that “more than 200 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in 34 states in 2016 alone”.

We have seen the legalisation of discrimination in Indiana and Mississippi which allow, to varying degrees, businesses to refuse services to LGBT+ people under the guise of “religious freedom”. And a majority of states still have no protections for LGBT+ people in the workplace.

Perhaps most noted has been the success of House Bill 2 (HB2) in North Carolina — the “bathroom bill” — which bans transgender people from using public toilets matching their gender identity. These laws are dangerous for transgender people but also open the door for further attacks on all LGBT+ people.

Rolled up in HB2 is a ban on setting a minimum wage in the state, and a provision that if one part of the bill should be overturned the others will still stand. As such, these attacks can be viewed as part of broader attacks on the working class as well as specifically against an increasingly visible transgender community.

Physical violence has also increased in the last year. Hate crimes are underreported in the US, but there has nonetheless been a spike in the reporting of anti-LGBT+ hate crimes. The latest FBI statistics show that crimes motivated by bias due to sexual orientation and gender identity were the second largest set of hate crimes — around one in five — behind racially motivated crimes.

Before the horrific shooting in Orlando the largest massacre of gay men took place in 1973 at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans in which 32 people died in a fire started by an arsonist. In the aftermath some bodies remained unclaimed due to the stigma of homophobia while police officers spread unsavoury jokes about the deceased.

Though we have come a long way since 1973 stigma still follows LGBT+ people. In the aftermath of the Pulse shootings a dire need for blood was initially undermined by the homophobic policy of not allowing gay men to donate blood unless they have been celibate for one year.

Both massacres serve as reminders that gay bars have always attracted violence. In some cases in the 1970s and 1980s a new gay bar would open on a Friday night and be firebombed before the Saturday evening.

Indeed, the Stonewall Riot — the incident that sparked the gay liberation movement in 1969 and is commemorated at Pride marches each year — was an act of defiance against police violence that took the form of routine raids on bars that welcomed gays, lesbians and gender nonconformists.

Far from being safe spaces, bars have always been contested areas, as Julio Capo Jr has written in the Washington Post.*

As right wing legislators attempt to legalise discrimination against LGBT+ people they provide a toxic environment in which bigots can feel justified in carrying out violence against us. To separate the Orlando massacre from this context and to pin it on Muslim homophobia is ahistorical and dangerous.

LGBT+ Against Islamophobia activists in Britain released a statement calling on communities to unite in the face of violence and scapegoating, stating that we must not allow homophobia to be turned into racism. The statement received tremendous support both online and at the local vigils for Orlando which attracted tens of thousands of mourners on the Monday after the attacks.

Uniting our communities at Pride parades and standing up to bigotry has never been more important. LGBT+ Against Islamophobia will march in the trade union block of this year’s London Pride parade and in many others around the country.

*https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/ 2016/06/14/gay-bars-were-supposed-to-be-safe-spaces-but-they-often-werent/