“This was an act of terror and an act of hate,” President Obama said, addressing the nation after Sunday morning’s deadly shooting at the nightclub Pulse in Orlando. Twenty-nine-year-old Omar Mateen, armed with an AR-15 and a handgun, killed 50 people and injured at least 53 more (as of this writing). According to the gunman’s father, Mateen had seen two men kissing several months ago, and he became enraged.
With 50 dead, the Pulse nightclub attack is the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. Authorities are pursuing this heinous act as a terrorist attack after details emerged that Mateen placed a call to 911 and declared his allegiance to the Islamic State. He was reportedly on an FBI watch list. America’s fear of the Islamic State and Islamist terrorism will undoubtedly dominate the narrative as Americans process this horrific tragedy. There is no doubt that the Islamic State has committed unspeakable crimes against those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. Of course the United States has made impressive strides in marriage equality for gay and lesbian people and, unlike several countries around the world, does not view homosexuality as a crime, punishable — in some places — by death. But that this shooting occurred at an LGBT club, during the nation’s Pride Month no less, should make us take a moment to pause and reflect on homophobia and transphobia that still exists in our body politic.
At almost the same time that the news broke about the Orlando shooting, reports emerged of a man in California headed to the Los Angeles pride parade, armed with explosives and assault weapons. He has since been identified by authorities as 20-year-old Indiana man James Wesley Howell. It was just last week that a woman in Illinois detonated a bomb in a Target bathroom, possibly related to the company’s decision to allow transgender people to use the restroom of the gender they identify with in its stores. (More than a million Americans chose to boycott Target as a result of its decision). Politically, the nation saw a wave anti-LGBT bills pending in state legislatures. Last year was the deadliest year on record for transgender people in the United States, with at least 21 trans women, most of them women of color, killed. The Southern Poverty Law Center has seen a increase in anti-LGBT hate groups, their numbers rising from 27 in 2011 to 48 in 2015.
GOP lawmakers who have tweeted or spoken about the tragedy have zeroed in on the terrorism angle, largely not touching on the fact that this was an attack on LGBT people. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has landed himself in the news before for his harsh stance against gay marriage and for creating a “marriage and family advisory board” whose members have advocated for so-called conversion therapy. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R), who tweeted, “Please join Janet and me in praying for the victims” after the attack, has also likened homosexuality to a “lifestyle” choice like drinking or swearing. Former GOP 2016 hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), in a statement that focused mainly on terrorism and the Islamic State, said on his Facebook page, “If you’re a Democratic politician and you really want to stand for LGBT, show real courage and stand up against the vicious ideology that has targeted our fellow Americans for murder.” This is the same senator who has been consistently against gay marriage, saying that United States was in a “time of crisis” after marriage equality became the law of the land. At a Ted Cruz event, crowd warmer Phil Robertson lamented that redefining marriage is a “depravity” and that “it is evil. It’s wicked. It’s sinful.” Make no mistake, this is rhetorical violence against LGBT Americans.
At this juncture in the Orlando massacre’s aftermath, hatred and violence against LGBT people are being treated as exclusively a province of our enemies in the war on terrorism, while we ignore the fact that LGBT people face marginalization and fear for their safety right here at home, particularly youth and transgender people of color. (It shouldn’t be forgotten that it was “Latin night” at Pulse, a particularly popular night for the club.) As USA Today noted, the attack is the latest and most horrific chapter in a long line of attacks against gay clubs in the United States. And yet, fear of transgender “aggressors” in bathrooms preying on women has been peddled as a reason for a flood of anti-transgender-bathroom bills across the country.
As the days unfold, strong statements about thoughts and prayers, Islamist terrorism and Western freedom, and love and hate will fly around the media-sphere. The United States can’t forget to tackle the ways that homegrown ignorance and anti-LGBT rhetoric and violence still contribute to the marginalization of our fellow citizens.
An earlier version of this post incorrectly attributed a quote to Sen. Ted Cruz. labeling gay marriage as ‘evil’. It was Phil Robertson, speaking at a Ted Cruz event. This post has been updated.