So much has gotten better for LGBTQ people in the last few years. We won marriage. We saw gays accepted in the military, and the recent appointment of an openly gay secretary of the army. We heard the president of the United States speak out for transgender Americans. We saw the pope receive a gay couple during his visit to the US.
Gay people have to do constant battle even to hold the ground we have won. Don’t forget that women in Kabul in the 1960s wore miniskirts, nor that it was easier in many states to get an abortion 20 years ago than it is now. Hard-won liberties are often eroded. Immediately following the administration of a black president, Donald Trump’s unabashed bigotry stands a reasonable chance at securing him the White House.
The gunman in Orlando, Omar Mateen, was apparently incensed by having seen gay people expressing affection – men kissing each other in the vicinity of his child. Seddique Mir Mateen, Mateen’s father, declared that “this has nothing to do with religion”, though the younger Mateen pledged allegiance to Isis as he set out to sow mayhem.
It will not be easy to sort out whether his act has “nothing to do with religion” but that is because the notion of religion has become so corrupted in modern America. It is now a convenient catchall that includes a vague and shifting notion of outdated proprieties, a system of “family values” championed by people who are often serially divorced and philandering, of hostility to every form of difference. These fundamentalist rigidities are predicated on the supposed right of some part of the population to present its intolerance as a matter of dignity, to whitewash vitriol with the language of piety. Marauding Crusaders used such arguments in the 12th century, and they are largely unchanged. Religion’s messages of love never stand a chance in this perversion of morality that masquerades as a defense of morality against perversion.
The gunman in Orlando, Omar Mateen, was apparently incensed by having seen gay people expressing affection – men kissing each other in the vicinity of his child.
Of course, few people of faith will champion Mateen’s attack. But it occurred in a country where gay people are still subjected to reparative therapies, and where people deny basic human services to gay people, from refusing to serve them in restaurants to rebuffing them when they seek housing, employment or health services. In many states, someone can legally be fired from her job or kicked out of his apartment for being gay.
While malicious intolerance is obviously toxic, well-intentioned complacency is equally so. Many polls have shown that most straight people believe that gay people have jobs and housing protections that we in fact lack. My own father has become supportive of gay political objectives to the point of believing that the problem is solved. When I explained that I needed to live in an area with other gay families around, he was slightly bewildered; when I told him that I wanted to be sure my children grew up among other children with gay parents, he seemed to think I was restrictively categorizing myself. In my liberal New York world at least, he surmised, everyone accepted me and my husband and our marriage and our children.
I don’t want to compare my situation to that of the people who are being denied entry to homeless shelters or hospitals. I have none of those problems. But I seldom give my husband a quick kiss in public without wondering whether we are offending someone. My husband and I never take our son through an airport without being concerned that a security agent will ask where his mother is, as one did last winter; we carry his birth certificate at all times.
The fact that the attack happened in a nightclub at 2am has already reinforced in many minds the idea of gay lives as essentially louche; it has been used to trivialize the losses sustained by our community. This, too, represents a failure to grasp the particularity of the gay experience. It would be hard to overstate the importance of bars and nightclubs to the life of a community long excluded from other structures for socializing.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of bars and nightclubs to the life of a community long excluded from other structures for socializing.
There were two gay bars in the neighborhood where I grew up, and I used to linger outside them as a teenager when I walked the family dog. I was never good at bars and nightclubs; a friend used to joke that I could walk into a bar where 50 handsome men were flirting and immediately get immersed in conversation with the one lesbian in the establishment. Nonetheless, my emergence as a gay man required those places of gathering, and I visited many of them.
They were places like Pulse in Orlando, places where what some considered our illness could be celebrated as our identity. A friend, Suman Chakraborty, wrote on Facebook, “Bars and clubs have long been intertwined with LGBTQ life. We can tell you that the Mattachine Society met at Julius. We remember that our movement started outside Stonewall. But even more than that, bars and clubs were our places of safety, our respite from a queer-phobic world, a place to live out the laughter and happiness and desires that had long been trapped in our closet.”
The US is no longer quite as queer-phobic, but it remains a land where success has blinded many people, LGBTQ or otherwise, to the constant guerrilla warfare that we must sustain if we hope for justice.
Of course the Orlando tragedy would not have unfolded if we had sane gun control laws in the United States. Perhaps it would not have unfolded as it has if we had a less disastrous foreign policy in the Islamic world. Like any such aberrant act, it is overdetermined, the end result of many processes: governmental, personal, social. But the intermingling of intolerance and complacency has enabled it.