50, Not 49

We are not going to ever completely understand the Orlando massacre. That is okay. We are going to tell a lot of stories about it to try and grasp at what happened, but the truth is that the death of 50 people—you will see there are good reasons I am not taking Omar Mateen out of the count—should not make sense to people who are not inclined to mass murder. To start us towards understanding, though, I would like to talk about three of the stories we are telling.

The first is that Omar Mateen is not a Muslim. This story is being told by both Muslims and progressives. We will see that it hurts queer people in profound ways. The second story is that Omar Mateen is not himself queer. (Where between gay, bi, and straight he would fall if he could have chosen those words for himself is anyone’s guess.) The evidence is mounting that he was looking for relationships with men and some LGBT people are quick to other him. Finally, the third story is that Omar Mateen was mentally ill. What ties these stories together is the insistence that Omar Mateen was not one of us.

Muslims and progressives who say Omar Mateen was not a Muslim are playing a dangerous game. It is a no-true-Scotsman fallacy wrapped up in theology. The essential point that murdering 49 people extra-legally in the month of Ramadan is widely considered a heinous crime is worth your consideration. And then you must consider that LGBT Muslims and ex-Muslims widely report domestic violence from their parents, siblings, and extended families. This sort of violence from Muslims against queer people may be theologically unsound, but that Muslims and progressives are rushing now to remind people of that is telling. I invite everyone who discovered the importance of this theology this week to dedicate some time to understanding and maybe dismantling these structures. I expect to be disappointed by their inaction.

Nowhere is this hypocrisy more on display than from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have condemned the shooting in Orlando, to which I will say: no thanks. What they meant by their condemnation was that it is a shame that this man acted outside of the law. Saudi Arabia prescribes floggings and hangings to LGBT people and they are hardly the only Muslim majority state to do so. I doubt it was in error that they forgot to announce that they are reversing those laws.

With this in mind, we arrive at the next story: the fact that Omar Mateen was probably a victim too. Please, hear me out. I know many of you reading this are angry and hurt and you are angry and hurt because of the terrible, monstrous thing Omar Mateen did. I am asking you to do the thing that Omar Mateen failed to do for his 49 victims and imagine that he too was a person with all of the complexity and faults that come with that. If you are not ready, I understand. Go, grieve. But I hope you make your way back.

If we accept that part of Omar Mateen’s story is homophobia in Islam and that part of his story is that he was gay, then you begin to see how he got caught in the middle. Witnesses said he was angry at the way his father treated him and the strictures he placed on him. They say that he frequented and drank at the club and had a Grindr account. They say he abused both of his wives. I would think LGBT people more than anyone would recognize that the kind of hate he had is the kind of hate that can only come from hating yourself.

We only diminish the lives of his victims if we pretend that this is an excuse. It is not. But we have to acknowledge the ways he was likely caught between his father’s very Muslim homophobia and his own sexuality. After all, it takes more than a casual discomfort to find ISIS more appealing than your own family. We must take the radical position that violence rarely happens in a vacuum, that Omar Mateen was passing along the violence visited upon him. When Muslims say that he no place in Islam because he was gay, they cut the next Omar Mateen off from their community. It is scared, isolated young men who commit these attacks—a shout-out to everyone ringing the alarm about how toxic masculinity is part of this story.

I risk equivalence by pointing out that LGBT communities have trouble with access. Clubs like Pulse are an important part, but they are not a place that one can find oneself without help. People of color and people from a conservative religious background have trouble finding their way to queer spaces in a healthy way. The places we do the best at offering resources are colleges and universities, unsurprisingly the places for the privileged. Opening more doors for people like Omar Mateen sooner will save lives. It is, I am at pains to repeat, neither equivalent to the homophobia he faced nor an excuse. But we should nonetheless renew our commitment to access.

The final story I would like to talk about is the story of mental illness. This country must do better for its mentally ill, but Omar Mateen was not counted among their ranks. Remember, he underwent an extensive psychological examination to become a security guard and was declared sane. To be sure, it may well have been in error; people of color have trouble getting diagnosed and mistakes happen. But all evidence points to the fact that Mateen was sane by any normal standard of the word.

That we want him to not be is just one more way that we are telling stories that close doors on him. It is natural, after all, to separate ourselves from his violence. But we must reckon with the fact that Omar Mateen was one of us. If he was not, it is choices we made. Homophobia separated him from his family and his faith. The patchwork of support for LGBT people was not enough. Our culture gave him violence as his expression and made guns easy to get.

To forget any part of these stories, stories about how we closed doors on Omar Mateen, is to forget why the last door he opened was at gay nightclub. The call to focus on the victims and forget his name, while well-intentioned, is a call to forget why they died. It is a call to forget the deep homophobia that is killing many LGBT people worldwide every year. It is a call to forget that LGBT people have the unfair responsibility to build a more inclusive community. We honor his victims much more by throwing wide the doors of our communities and building better ones.

I am heartbroken.

I am heartbroken 49 times because someone walked into a gay nightclub and killed 49 people. But I am also heartbroken because it is clear that the communities Omar Mateen should have been welcomed in failed him.

And for that reason I am heartbroken not 49 times over, but 50.


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