On Sunday night – less than 24 hours after Omar Mateen killed 49 people in Orlando, Florida for being gay – Owen Jones, the gay journalist, took part in a review of the papers on Sky News. He ended up walking off the show, in disbelief and disgust at the utter denial he encountered from the segment’s presenter (and, to a lesser extent, his fellow panellist) that homophobia had any significant part to play in that morning’s events.
He was informed that those who died were killed because they were at a nightclub enjoying themselves, not because they were gay. (This despite the fact that the murderer’s father had already gone on record to state that his son had been angered by seeing two men kissing.) He was instructed that he had to make a distinction between an act of terror and a homophobic hate crime: that a single event could be either the former or the latter, but not both. (This despite the fact that the utter extremity of homophobia is a key component of the ISIS ideology of hate that Mateen claimed to have been inspired by.)
This treatment of Mr Jones was personally insensitive, but it was also revealing of something rotten in our society. The unpalatable truth is that LGBT people – and our many straight, cisgendered allies – have been engaged in a struggle against homophobia on two fronts: against active homophobes themselves; but also against those who insist that homophobia does not exist, or is wholly trivial, or is the fault of gay people ourselves, for ‘flaunting’ our difference.
When this phenomenon is noted in respect of anti-Jewish prejudice it is, thankfully, beginning to be called out for what it is. We recognise that those who perpetrate hate crimes against Jewish people are anti-Semites; but we recognise, too, that those who respond to the evidence of hate in front of their very eyes by insisting that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist, or that it isn’t a significant problem, or that Jewish people bring it on themselves, are also anti-Semites. They may not commit as fully to the ideology of hate, but they create the space in which it can grow.
Exactly the same is true of homophobia. If a man who, in the words of his father, has ‘a grudge in his heart’ against gay people sets about killing us with a semi-automatic assault rifle, he is a homophobe. But so, too, is the person who argues that homophobia played no significant part in his actions. So, too, is the person who argues that gay people bring it on ourselves by living open lives – that if only we’d ‘tolerate’ the views of those who hate us by hiding away, we wouldn’t get gunned down like this. And so, too, is the person who will insist that, because we now have equality under the law, we no longer have any need for our own venues, for pride festivals, and all the rest; that the continued existence of these things is proof that gay people aren’t victims of homophobia, but perpetrators of ‘heterophobia.’
That last idea is not always carried so far, but in attenuated form it’s been everywhere over the last few years. The BBC website has run multiple articles off the back of marriage equality, forecasting the imminent demise of the gay scene – as though the inability to marry was the only, or even the worst, problem that we faced. The Guardian (that bastion of prejudice masquerading as liberal concern) has run articles describing the gay scene as a ‘suicide cult’ – as though the higher rates of drug abuse and mental illness among LGBT people were the result of our leisure activities, and not the prejudice that surrounds us.
Well, this attack demonstrates why the gay scene hasn’t vanished in a puff of rainbow confetti, and it underlines the sheer nastiness of blaming gay people for the effect that homophobia has upon us.
It demonstrates that homophobia never went away, and therefore why safe spaces carved out from the prejudice that surrounds us have remained so important to our community. Especially to those among us who could not pass for straight or cisgendered if their lives depended on it (as too often they do), and so do not have the option of blending in with the mainstream, as some among us do. Legal equality has done nothing to alter the fact that even the most confident LGBT person – and visibly LGBT people especially – must routinely pause to consider, even if they live in the most accepting cities we can boast, “Am I safe here? What will happen if we hold hands? Are those drunk lads harmless, or will they turn confrontational – even violent – if they realise I’m not like them?”
The gay scene is – or should be – a place where none of that applies. It’s a place where we can simply be ourselves, without the constant self-policing (“Am I coming off too gay?”) and risk-assessing that mingling in straight society too often involves. It’s a place where we can exist on our own terms. It’s a place where we belong. A place where, fundamentally, we feel safe.
That sense of safety is what Omar Mateen violated, and it’s why his was an attack, not just on those who were in range of his gun, but on the whole LGBT community. It has said to our entire community: even here you are not safe; there is nowhere you can take shelter from hate.
It is of course those who died and those who survived who have paid the highest price, and it is they and their loved ones who will carry the heaviest burden. They have been in my thoughts almost constantly these last few days, and should remain in all our thoughts for the foreseeable future. But, because of the way it has violated our collective sense of safety, this attack will also cast a long shadow over those who were not present, and have no connection to anyone who was.
So it was with the Soho bomb (when a far-right extremist detonated a nail bomb in a crowded gay pub in London), and so it will be with this mass shooting. For too long to come, LGBT people stepping into one of our venues – into the one place where they used to feel utterly secure and relaxed – will have anxiety-inducing questions at the back of their mind: “Will there be a gunman? Will there be a bomber? Am I safe?”
This attack will cast a long shadow, too, over a generation of our youth. Many of us who have been involved in this struggle for so long had hoped that the generation coming to maturity in the era of marriage equality might be the first to carry no real baggage – the first to have the chance to fall in love with each other as naturally as breathing, as naturally as straight people fall in love with each other. That generation have lost their innocence here. It will not now be them who will grow up and step out into sunlit lives, untouched by fear and unconscious of hate. For LGBT people, happiness is once again deferred.
This shadow is cast – and the victims at Pulse were killed and injured – by homophobia. There are suggestions that it may have been internalised homophobia; that Mateen was unable to reconcile his nature with his religion, and that the loathing and disgust he felt toward himself he projected outwards in terrible, utterly inexcusable, violence done to others. But whether the hatred he felt was fundamentally of the Self, or of the Other, it does not alter the fact that he was motivated by homophobia.
Homophobia kills. It kills in acts of mass violence like this. It kills more slowly, in the drip-drip-drip of individual murders that don’t make the news on their own, but add up to horrifying numbers overall. It kills in the violence people do to themselves – whether quickly by means of suicide, or slowly by means of reckless lifestyles – because they cannot cope with being an object of hate simply for who they are.
That’s why we must speak out about homophobia, and shine a spotlight on it. It’s why we must insist that, yes, the person who perpetrates a hate crime is a homophobe; but so, too, is the person who would deny that homophobia exists, or argue that we bring it on ourselves, or that we are ourselves to blame when we fall victim to its effects. Those who would deny that homophobia exists create the space in which it can thrive, and that’s why we must struggle, not just against the likes of Omar Mateen, but against those who would insist that, even though he was a known homophobe who targeted and killed gay people for being gay, he was not significantly motivated by homophobia.
I’ve been involved in this struggle, in my small way, for 25 years now, and I grow wearier of it with every passing day. I’m so tired of this world – a world where, not only are we killed by homophobia, but even before we have laid our lost to rest are told that homophobia does not exist.
I want to live in the world I have been dreaming of all my life. A world where we get to take for granted the things that straight already people do – like being able to fall in love without having to question why they love who they love, and whether loving as they do will see them killed.
But the struggle is the only way to get from here to there, and so the struggle goes on.
My thoughts are with the family and friends of Jo Cox, too. There is no better or worse when it comes to the innocent being senselessly killed.