Orlando was both a terrorist attack and a homophobic attack on LGBT people. It was both the worst mass shooting in US history, and the worst targeted mass killing of LGBT people in the western world since the Holocaust. It is possible for an atrocity to be more than one thing at the same time. You are not compelled to select one option or the other. Life – with both its horrors and its joys – is incredibly complicated, and we have a rich language able to capture its complexities.
I am reluctant to dwell too much on my appearance on Sky News last night, because this isn’t about me, so let’s just use it as a case study. In sum, I walked off in disgust during a discussion about the massacre: it was an instinctive reaction to an unpleasant and untenable situation. The presenter continually and repeatedly refused to accept that this was an attack on LGBT people. This was an attack “against human beings”, he said, and “the freedom of all people to try to enjoy themselves”. He not only refused to accept it as an attack on LGBT people, but was increasingly agitated that I – as a gay man – would claim it as such.
If a terrorist with a track record of expressing hatred of and disgust at Jewish people had walked into a synagogue and murdered 50 Jewish people, we would rightly describe it as both terrorism and an antisemitic attack. If a Jewish guest on television had tried to describe it as such, it would be disgraceful if they were not only contradicted, but shouted down as they did so. But this is what happened on Sky News with a gay man talking about the mass murder of LGBT people.
This isn’t about LGBT people taking ownership of the pain and anguish. People of all sexual orientations have wept over this massacre, and all communities should unite in grief. It is highly likely that straight people died in the atrocity. When the neo-Nazi terrorist David Copeland detonated a nail bomb in the Admiral Duncan gay pub in 1999, one of the fatalities was a straight pregnant woman, having a drink with her husband and her gay friends. LGBT people are part of the wider community, and LGBT people and their straight friends party together in LGBT venues. But this was a deliberate attack on a LGBT venue and LGBT people. According to Omar Mateen’s father, the reportedly Islamic State-supporting terrorist had expressed revulsionat the sight of two men kissing. His co-workers have described his anti-gay comments. Omar Mateen could have chosen many clubs, full of people laughing and living, but he chose a LGBT venue. This was homophobia as well as terrorism. It is not enough to simply condemn violence: we have to understand what it is and why it happened.
It wasn’t only Sky News at fault. In the New York Times’ original reporting, it didn’t even point out that a gay club had been targeted. The Daily Mail didn’t bother to put the atrocity – the worst terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11 – on its front page, instead opting to stir up xenophobia over Turkish immigrants and publicising an offer of “free pearl and white sapphire earrings”. This is erasure of LGBT people – pure and simple – after their community was horrifically targeted.
LGBT people are varied, and have different experiences: the life experiences of a young working-class gay black woman and a gay white male multi-millionaire CEO are very different. But we all grow up in a society that still treats us as if we are inferior: we have all repeatedly encountered homophobic abuse, the stress of coming out repeatedly, or the fear of holding hands with a partner in public. To imagine LGBT people who may have endured distress and internalised prejudice – just because of who they are – spending their last moments in terror as a homophobic terrorist hunted them down is just unbearable.
Today, the “we only care about LGBT rights if Muslims are involved” brigade are out in force. As a gay man, I am proud to live in a city represented by a Muslim mayor who has faced death threats for supporting and voting for LGBT people to have the same rights as everybody else. The bigots must not be allowed to hijack this atrocity.
Tonight at 7pm in Old Compton Street – in the heart of London’s LGBT community – LGBT people and straight people will link arms in memory of what happened in Orlando. Let it be a show of solidarity – and defiance against those who hate.