Recent, inconclusive evidence suggests that Omar Mateen, who murdered 49 LGBT people and allies—many of whom were Latino—early Sunday morning, may himself have been a closeted, repressed gay man.
That evidence remains, at this time, patchy and unclear. But the clueless reaction to it among some conservatives illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of homophobia and their own role in propagating it.
To be sure, the most we can say right now about Mateen’s sexuality is that we don’t know. The evidence for his repressed homosexuality consists of three patrons of Pulse saying they’d seen him drinking there (to excess), a college acquaintance who says Mateen made a pass at him, a leading comment by his ex-wife, and one person who claims to have seen him on a gay dating app. Other than that quite thin evidence, all the rest is conjecture.
Moreover, rumors like this often circulate after mass shootings, most notoriously the wholly unsubstantiated claim that the Colombine shooters were a secret gay couple. Indeed, the very floating of such rumors can reek of homophobia. Then again, some gay rumors, such as those about the Roanoke shooter last August, turn out to be true.
None of this uncertainty, however, has stopped some conservative pundits from opining that if Mateen was gay, that proves the attack wasn’t about homophobia after all. Oh, goodie, now we can all blame the Muslims.
Such remarks are offensive, of course, but let’s focus first on their wrongheadedness.
If Mateen turns out to have been repressing his sexuality, that makes the attack more about homophobia, not less. Now what we have is not a gay-hating radical Islamist but a self-hating gay man who found in Islamist ideology a way to express his animus at everyone and everything.
Nor is this unique to Islam. When Christian fundamentalist Ted Haggard preached vitriolic sermons against homosexuality, it was because of—not despite—his furtive sex dates with a drug-dealing gay masseur. When former senator Larry Craig inveighed against the evils of equality, it was because of—not despite—his own shame around soliciting men for sex in public restrooms.
That is why study after study has shown that the more homophobic one is, the more likely one is to have repressed homosexual desires. If you’re battling your demons in private, you’re going to battle them in public too.
It is also why repressed gay people seek out fundamentalist religion in the first place. Religious fundamentalism sublimates the repressed sexual urge into religious zeal. In its Christian, Muslim, and Jewish forms, it insists that we are all struggling with evil urges that must be assiduously repressed. And its restrictions on sexual expression, coupled with often single sex male environments, work just fine for those who couldn’t express their sexuality in an “acceptable” way anyway.
Once again, that is as true for “celibate” Catholic priests as it is for ultra-Orthodox Jews as it is for born-again evangelicals as it is for newly radicalized Muslims. The logic of fundamentalist religion is the logic of repression and sublimation, of projecting one’s own inner struggles onto the screen of the theological.
I know this from personal experience. For 10 years, I lived my life as a closeted, Orthodox Jew. I wasn’t closeted because I was Orthodox; I was Orthodox because I was closeted. Here was a world of spiritual (i.e., sublimated sexual) enthusiasm, of rich community, and of deferred expectations for sexuality. Along with many other misfits, I found a home among the newly religious.
Of course, that life was also one of self-hatred and self-denial. I don’t think I could ever have shot up a gay bar, but I certainly harbored deeply homophobic feelings about “those” gays with their drag queens and pride parades. They were deviant, slutty, degraded. I was above all that.
Obviously, it would be absurd to project my experience onto that of Omar Mateen. Yet for the 12 years I ran an LGBT nonprofit, I counseled dozens, if not hundreds, of religious people struggling with their sexual identities, and the pattern was often similar. Self-hatred, religious devotion, and an ever present, frightening sense that it could all crack at any moment. Just last week, I received an email from an evangelical Christian struggling with exactly the same issues, in exactly the same way.
The more internalized homophobia, the more externalized homophobia. The more fear of one’s own sexuality, the more condemnation of someone else’s.
Now, I wonder, where did Mateen get all that homophobia from? Surely some was from his Muslim community—although reports indicate he was not that pious a Muslim. Surely, though, the American-born, NYPD shirt-wearing Mateen also absorbed some of the endless condemnations of LGBT people coming from religious conservatives, Republican politicians, and some of the same public figures now exploiting the murder of LGBT people to further their Islamophobic agenda.
Such exploitation knows no bounds of decency.
First, before the bodies were even identified, conservatives treated this as purely a “Muslim” terror attack, erasing us from the narrative and condemning Muslims with the same broad lies that they use to condemn gays. Hardly any Republican congressman to tweet concern about the attack even said the words gay or LGBT. Or Latino.
Then, as gays became convenient victims to be exploited, we were told gay people were “merely” symbols of Western civilization. Ted Cruz, who has fought against us at every turn and who would make my own marriage illegal, said that now gays ought to stand up and fight against Muslims. Donald Trump, who likewise has promised to appoint justices to void my marriage, said the attack proved him right.
And then we were treated to the likes of Erick Erickson telling us that even to talk about the deliberate targeting of an LGBT nightclub was to draw an “unnecessary dividing line.” I guess this was just a random nightclub, then. Like that random church in Charleston, I guess, which just happened to be filled with black folks. Or like that random supermarket in Paris, which just happened to be filled with Jews.
And now that rumors circulate that homophobia was the primary, rather than just one contributing, cause of this vicious act of murder, now we’re told that it’s not a factor at all. All the while, I’m not even allowed to donate blood for the survivors. The only gays’ blood conservatives want is dead gays’ blood.
The obvious reason for all this silence, exploitation, ignorance, and obfuscation is that to the extent homophobia was a motive in the shooting, the ultimate blame lies on the same conservatives trying to exploit it. Ted Cruz, and thousands of people like him, are as responsible as the barbarians in Raqqa for what has happened to us.
So, no, I’m not going to “come together” or “unite” with the very people who, just last week, were creating the conditions for this massacre to take place—and who, in the last 12 months, have introduced more than 100 anti-LGBT bills across the country. Maybe sometime—but not now. Because whatever we learn or don’t learn about Omar Mateen’s sexuality, the Orlando attack was as much about homophobia (and guns) as it was about Islamism.
All of which makes the homophobes’ blame games seem all the more desperate.