Orlando nightclub massacre and the depth of homophobia

We mourn the 49 lives cut short in the June 12 massacre of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. We support the 53 people who were wounded and the many who were traumatized. We abhor the increased fear now permeating LGBTQ communities around the country and around the world. We reiterate how empty legal rights can prove to be in capitalist society (see our editorial last year).

Whether or not the killer had any relations with ISIS, as he claimed; whether or not he was a closeted gay man, as has been reported; whether or not he picked “Latin Night” at the club out of racism against Latinos; whether or not gun control laws could have prevented it or diminished the number of deaths; whether or not his ex- or current wife could have gotten the authorities to prevent it by reporting the violence he inflicted on them–the fact remains that homophobia is still a huge force in the world. In the West, gays have become prominent in popular culture and won some civil rights, but these things alone cannot change the propensity to hate and perpetrate violence against “the other” by people who hate their own lives and the diversity in their society. Some experts contend that the increased general acceptance of gays may actually cause those who strongly oppose it to feel their culture is threatened and to strike back through violence.

The press repeatedly refers to Orlando as the worst massacre in U.S. history; we suppose they mean the worst one perpetrated by one or two people with guns, and not Sept. 11, 2001 or the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. The second worst massacre was also of gay people: 32 were killed in 1973 at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans. Of course, there have been too many individual killings of LGBTQ people to count.  According to recent FBI data, LGBT people are today twice as likely as African-Americans to be the targets of hate crimes, and surpass Jews and Muslims as targets.

In ranking the “worst” massacres, the press only considers those perpetrated by a shooting spree—the kind that are becoming routine in the U.S. because mentally deranged people have easy access to military-grade assault weapons. What gets little mention is that there were many larger massacres of Native Americans by the government and of African-Americans in race riots. To name a few: mobs of white people killed African-Americans, wiping out whole towns, in Colfax, La. in 1873, in East St. Louis, Ill. In 1917, and in Tulsa, Okla., in 1921. Following the long history of massacres of Native Americans ever since the Europeans first arrived, in 1890, a cavalry regiment slaughtered countless Lakota men, women and children on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

It seems to us that if we wish to characterize massacres, Orlando and New Orleans belong in the same context as those, and not grouped with the recent spate of mass killings like Columbine, Sandy Hook and Sacramento, where the victims were not selected for their race or sexual orientation. This implies that a deeper discussion is needed than the dominant one taking place about gun control; we need to look to racism and prejudice, and the nature of societies that perpetuate them.

The persistence of homophobia today seems akin to the continuation or resurgence of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and the U.S. In Britain, the Brexit vote is attributed in part to the fear of an influx of Syrian and other refugees. In the U.S., blaming “the other” is inflamed by Donald Trump’s pandering to his base’s racism, nativism and narrow nationalism. People who feel powerless, and as if their world is changing out of their control, may resort to blaming  others if they don’t see a better alternative. Not surprising, then, that a prejudice as old and widespread as homophobia remains deeply entrenched and keeps boiling over. We need to present a better explanation for the ills of society and a better alternative for changing it than a return to “the good old days.”

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