Before Sunday morning, the event that had the grave distinction of being the largest massacre of gay people in American history occurred June 24, 1973, at the Up Stairs Lounge in New Orleans. A fire, which a police and fire investigation eventually deemed arson, killed 32 people during a Sunday beer blast after a church service had been held in the space. The details contain gruesome stuff like bodies being melted together, as well as disgustingly sad anecdotes of love and failed heroism. Bartender Buddy Rasmussen successfully led a group of about 20 men out of a hidden fire exit onto the bar’s roof that provided safe access to the ground. Among the group was a man named George Mitchell. According to Jim Downs’s Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation:
In the midst of the chaos, George Mitchell realized that his partner, Louis Horace Broussard, was not among this small group of survivors. He scanned the faces, screamed Horace’s name, and ran back into the fire. His body was later found next to Broussard’s.
The tragedy had a galvanizing effect on some—Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the LGBT-inclusive Metropolitan Community Church (those congregated at Up Stairs were members of that church) and organizer of an Up Stairs Lounge memorial, said years later that the “events in the following days helped to pull the community together and strengthened the resolve of the national gay equality movement…Out of the terrible, terrible tragedy grew a sense of empowerment for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered [sic] persons.”
It is likely that you are unfamiliar with this story; so was I until I read Downs’s above-quoted book earlier this year. The reason this tragedy goes unremembered is that gay history isn’t really taught in schools, nor does it hold much priority in American culture (the movie Stonewall about sums up our sorry state of affairs). The larger straight world hasn’t shown much interest in these narratives.
This weekend in Orlando, we got our indelible cultural narrative. Granted, things are much different now than they were 43 years ago. In no particular order: LGBT people have more visibility, the extent to which people of color are under attack as a matter of course is more apparent than ever, the argument over gun control keeps getting louder, “terrorism” is among our go-to cultural boogeymen, and a media that benefits greatly from mass shooters follows them closely. All of these factors have intersected in a tragedy that reads like the plot of an ingenious novel devised to expose the weakness and hatred of the right. This situation presents a dilemma for the bigot—who to root for? The terrorist is American (albeit of Afghani descent and ISIS sympathy), and the targets are a bunch of queer people, many of them Latino (judging by their names and that Pulse was hosting its weekly Latin Night), enjoying a night of actively being queer. It turns out the right has more in common with ISIS than it previously wanted to admit. To cope, Republicans have simplified the matter by simply erasing the fact that LGBT people were targeted from their responses.
All sides of the debate over whether or not LGBT people deserve equal treatment with straights are mired in projections. The right says accepting queer people is a slippery slope to the end of civilization, while queers worry about what will happen if they are denied rights. (Will we find ourselves shut out of services we need? Will laws that allow for unequal treatment have a ripple effect and effectively cosign violence against LGBT people?) While the right’s worst-case scenario remains unrealized—as I, a believer in human equality, am certain it will remain—we have now seen ours. Over the weekend, we saw a renewed picture of our fear: Getting murdered en masse in a space we call our own, and are accordingly comfortable in to the point of vulnerability. What’s more, there is no shortage of such spaces and their sizes range from island towns to the bedrooms of strangers.
We have seen the tangible epitome of gay hatred, if we are to believe the father of the shooter Omar Mateen, Mir Seddique. Seddique, whose reliability as a narrator has already been revealed as dubious, claimed that Mateen’s decision to assassinate gay people was in direct response to witnessing affection among two men recently in Miami. He said:
We were in Downtown Miami, Bayside, people were playing music…And he saw two men kissing each other in front of his wife and kid and he got very angry. They were kissing each other and touching each other and he said, “Look at that. In front of my son they are doing that.” And they we were in the men’s bathroom and men were kissing each other.
Mateen’s coworker at the gated community for which Mateen worked as a security guard, corroborated Mateen’s homophobia (as well as racism) and said that Mateen stalked him with multiple text and voice messages a day. Mateen pledged his allegiance to ISIS in a 911 call he placed during the shooting. ISIS is a group that murders gay men for being gay by throwing them off buildings, among its atrocities.
Seddique said, “This had nothing to do with religion,” but that is clearly untrue—it just may have not had to do with Seddique’s religion. Mateen’s act of hatred and destruction, in fact, illustrates the absurd extent to which “sincerely held” religious beliefs—the same rhetoric underpinning of “religious liberty” laws and bathroom bills—can be taken. I don’t say that as an indictment of Islam (white Christians have the power in this country, thus the most effective homophobia, anyway), but of radical religion. Certainly, Mateen held his beliefs more sincerely than most, as he was willing to die for them. The issue here isn’t his religious foundation, but the extent to which he was willing to deviate from it in the name of righteousness.
If his father’s and former co-worker’s stories are true, this mass killing was not personal. It was rooted in theory, the same caustic theory that considers LGBT people as a whole, not a group of individuals, to justify that they are lesser. Elsewhere, this theory prompts people to deny service to, gloat at, mock, ignore, beat up, target, not “believe” in, actively fight against the marriages of, and otherwise simply despise queer people. And that’s to say nothing of the societal neglect that had a large number of Pulse patrons on Saturday at higher risk for HIV simply because they were Latin or black.
With extreme homophobia comes the inevitable suspicion that its purveyor is or was closeted, or uncomfortable with gay people because he was uncomfortable with his own sexuality. (Interestingly, the only real suspect in the Up Stairs Lounge arson was a gay man named Rodger Dale Nunez, who reportedly felt shunned by the bar’s community. He committed suicide the year after the attack.) No matter whether Mateen was secretly gay or as straight as his fag-killing guns would lead you to believe he was, his guiding philosophy either way was that gay people are lesser. No one is automatically exempt from any kind of bigotry.
Mateen’s mass murder reified the political nature of the assembly of the patrons of Pulse. Even in 2016, it takes courage to show yourself amongst your openly queer brothers and sisters. These people gave their lives up to be themselves, and even if it was inadvertently, even if it’s clear only in retrospect, they are all heroes for doing so and not bowing to the perverted mindset of innate inequality.
Sometimes as a queer person, you find yourself faced with a certain cultural imperative to be less gay so as to be more appealing to straights. Now, this imperative comes with reinforcement via gun power—just hours after the Pulse shooting, a man named James Wesley Howell was arrested with a trunk full of guns. He reportedly intended to attend Los Angeles’s Pride festivities.
The Pulse tragedy will keep saddening us as the days full of new information about the victims turn into weeks and years. But I hope that this, too, is ultimately galvanizing. I hope straight people can understand with more clarity the degree to which LGBT people in this country are threatened. I hope that queer people will resist with more determination than ever those cultural imperatives that request they reduce their queerness for the sake of being user-friendly to straights. If you ever feel tempted to do that—to resist PDA, to dress more heteronormatively, to conform in any way that places the comfort of straight people over your own—think about the type of person you are attempting to appeal to. He or she already shares way too much with Omar Mateen. Resistance will be our salvation, like it always has been.