American homophobia impossible to ignore
“This was an act of terror and an act of hate,” President Barack Obama said, addressing the nation after Sunday morning's deadly shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Twenty-nine-year-old Omar Mateen, armed with an AR15 and a handgun, killed 50 people and injured at least 53 more. According to the gunman's father, Mateen had seen two men kissing several months ago, and he became enraged.
With 50 dead, the Pulse nightclub attack is the worst mass shooting in United States history. Authorities are pursuing this heinous act as a terrorist attack after details emerged that Mateen placed a call to 911 and declared his allegiance to Islamic State. He was reportedly on an FBI watch list. America's fear of Islamic State and Islamist terrorism will undoubtedly dominate the narrative as Americans process this horrific tragedy.
There is no doubt that Islamic State has committed unspeakable crimes against those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. Of course, the United States has made impressive strides on same-sex marriage equality for gay and lesbian people and, unlike several countries around the world, does not view homosexuality as a crime, punishable — in some places — by death. But that this shooting occurred at an LGBT club, during the nation's Pride Month no less, should make us take a moment to pause and reflect on homophobia and transphobia that still exists in our body politic.
At almost the same time that the news broke about the Orlando shooting, reports emerged of a man in California headed to the Los Angeles pride parade, armed with explosives and assault weapons, who said he wanted to “harm” the parade. He has since been identified by authorities as 20-year-old Indiana man James Wesley Howell.
It was just last week that a woman in Illinois detonated a bomb in a Target bathroom, possibly related to the company's decision to allow transgender people to use the restroom of the gender they identify with in its stores — more than one million Americans chose to boycott Target as a result of its decision. Politically, the nation endured a wave of anti-LGBT Bills pending in state legislatures. Last year was the deadliest year on record for transgender people in the US, with at least 21 trans-women, most of them people of colour, killed. The Southern Poverty Law Centre has seen an increase in anti-LGBT hate groups, their numbers rising from 27 in 2011 to 48 in 2015.
GOP lawmakers who have tweeted or spoken about the tragedy have zeroed in on the terrorism angle, largely not touching on this being an attack on LGBT people.
Senator Marco Rubio has landed himself in the news before for his harsh stance against gay marriage and for creating a “marriage and family advisory board” whose members have advocated for so-called conversion therapy.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who tweeted, “Please join Janet and me in praying for the victims” after the attack, has also likened homosexuality to a “lifestyle” choice like drinking or swearing.
Former GOP 2016 hopeful Senator Ted Cruz, in a statement that focused mainly on terrorism and Islamic State, said on his Facebook page, “If you're a Democratic politician and you really want to stand for LGBT, show real courage and stand up against the vicious ideology that has targeted our fellow Americans for murder.” This is the same senator who has been consistently against gay marriage, saying that the US was in a “time of crisis” after same-sex marriage became the law of the land.
In Iowa, Cruz lamented that redefining marriage is a “depravity” and that “it is evil. It's wicked. It's sinful”. Make no mistake, this is rhetorical violence against LGBT Americans.
At this juncture in the Orlando massacre's aftermath, hatred and violence against LGBT people are being treated as exclusively a province of our enemies in the war on terrorism, while we ignore that LGBT people face marginalisation and fear for their safety right here at home, particularly youth and transgender people of colour — it should not be forgotten that it was “Latin night” at Pulse, a particularly popular night for the club.
As USA Today noted, the attack is the latest and most horrific chapter in a long line of attacks against gay clubs in the US. And yet, fear of transgender “aggressors” in bathrooms preying on women has been peddled as a reason for a flood of anti-transgender-bathroom bills across the country.
As the days unfold, strong statements about thoughts and prayers, Islamist terrorism and Western freedom, and love and hate will fly around the media-sphere.
The US cannot forget to tackle the ways that home-grown ignorance and anti-LGBT rhetoric and violence still contribute to the marginalisation of our fellow citizens.
• Karen Attiah is The Washington Post's Opinions Deputy Digital Editor. She previously reported for Associated Press while based in Curaçao