One would have thought it was an obvious truth screaming in huge, ugly, blood-red letters: people were slaughtered in a club in Orlando, Fla., because they were gay. Not because they were men or women, white or Hispanic, religious or secular, but because they loved people of the same gender. This may have been terrorism, but it was also a homophobic hate crime of grotesque proportions.
Yet while many people acknowledged this, it was astounding how many others tried to digress or distract. Various Christian leaders predictably tried to theologically and morally anesthetize the whole thing. Pope Francis, whose church believes that same-sex love is “disordered,” managed to refer to the murder of 49 people as though it happened in a vacuum. As Pink News stated, “The Pope’s official statement on the terror attacks in Orlando failed to even acknowledge that the attack was homophobic or that it took place in a gay club.”
Suddenly these were mournable souls, whereas a few hours earlier they had been sinners. Republican senator Marco Rubio was, of course, all over the story because of his connection to Florida. What he failed to make clear, however, was his long-term opposition not only to equal marriage but to many of the aspirations of the LGBTQ community; and to his pandering to some of the baser element of his evangelical and conservative Catholic support. The same zealots who had actively campaigned against equal marriage and full gay equality now removed all gender politics from their ersatz grief. Frankly, I didn’t buy it for a moment.
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It all rather resembled the Soviet attitude towards the victims of the Holocaust. Anxious to condemn Israel, control Jewish identity and always partly influenced by anti-Semitism, the men in the Kremlin described the six million not as Jews but as “victims of fascism.” It was no longer described as calculated genocide, but random nastiness.
Some American conservative leaders have been horribly unsure how to react over the past two days. They know that anti-gay feeling is still strong among the grassroots supporters, and that hell for many a southern Republican is a gay club in Florida. In addition to this ugliness is the extraordinary power of the gun lobby and the political fear of referring to any form of automatic weapon control.
So instead they placated homophobia with Islamophobia, and bigotry with the second amendment fetish. It’s all about the Muslims, they explained. Fear Islam, hold on to your guns, and God made Adam and Eve and not Adam and Steve. Gay suffering was gruesomely transformed into xenophobic immigration policy. Donald Trump wasted no time in congratulating himself on proposing a total ban on Muslim immigration, apparently not realizing that the killer was an American citizen. He and his campaign ran with the threat of Islam, hardly even mentioning the sexuality of the victims.
What has to be understood is that this massacre may be unique in its intensity, but in many ways is part of a cruel continuum that our mainstream culture is very much a part of. In Jamaica, lesbians are raped so as to “cure” them of their homosexuality, and gay men are murdered. In Uganda, LGBTQ people are killed and the government recently considered making homosexuality a capital crime. In Iran, young gay men are hanged and in Iraq and Syria ISIL throw them from the roofs of tall buildings. To deny any of this is absurd. Equally, however, dozens of Muslim groups throughout North America immediately condemned the attack as being barbaric and contrary to Islamic teaching.
In Britain the situation became even more bizarre when journalist Owen Jones walked off a set on live television because he felt understandably disgusted at the host and his fellow panellist’s insistence that the attack could have been on anybody out enjoying themselves, and that it was wrong to claim it as something specifically anti-gay.
“At the end of the day this was a homophobic hate crime, as well as terrorism, and it has to be called out,” Jones said on-air. “On lots of news channels, there’s not been many LGBT voices that I’ve heard myself. It is one of the worst atrocities committed against LGBT people in the western world for generations and it has to be called out as such.”
Jones is one of the most interesting writers in Britain right now and as young gay man was especially qualified to discuss what had happened. Clearly incredulous and angry, Jones asked his fellow panellists why they could not see that this was a direct, deliberate killing of people merely for who and what they were. Finally exasperated at the obtuseness of it all, he stormed off. And I cannot blame him.
So yes, Orlando stands out as a symbol of hatred and violence, but hatred and violence against people for one reason alone. If we forget, ignore or deny that we play into the hands of the bigot, and the gunman.
Author and columnist Michael Coren's new book is Epiphany: A Christian's Change of Heart & Mind over Same-Sex Marriage.