I’ll never forget the night New Zealand legalised same-sex marriage. April 17 2013. I was Queer Rights Officer at the Auckland University Students Association. We put on a bit of a viewing party, expecting 20 or so people to show up – we got over 500. All of those students cramped into a dark student bar on a damp Wednesday night to share witness to one of the most joyous moments in queer history. It’s moments like those that made us think the most difficult days of prejudice and persecution were behind us.
America’s LGBT community marked that occasion too, just last year when the highest court in the land voted to make marriage equality a reality for every LGBT American. Many there also felt like the hardest part of the struggle was now in the past. Now, a mere 12 months on, they are coming to terms with the fact that their community was directly targetted in the worst mass shooting in US history. Just as we celebrated with our American counterparts when the Supreme Court ruled in favour of marriage equality last year, we mourn and stand in solidarity with them over the violent act of terror that took place in Orlando on June 12.
The LGBT community has always been one of strength and resilience. But there is no masking the shock and pain that this attack at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub has brought to us all worldwide. While this massacre occurred thousands of miles away on the East Coast of the United States, the victims and the location of the atrocity made the attack painfully personal for so many LGBT people, myself included. As others have written, Pulse – just like other LGBT venues – was not just some nightclub. It was not just some venue where patrons went to drink and dance; it was a refuge. Gay bars are safe spaces where we can truly be ourselves, free from judgment or persecution. In a world, which is still at times hostile, they are sacred spaces.
While the details of the attack are still emerging, what is of no doubt is that this was an attack on the LGBT community. The massacre has dominated news headlines over the week following and to be honest has presented some rather serious failings. Firstly, the decision by some media outlets to omit or downplay the fact that the nightclub where the shooting took place was in fact a gay bar. This was not limited to the usual suspects in the right wing press – as The Guardian’s Owen Jones noted, even The New York Times decided not to mention the attack took place at an LGBT nightclub in its original reporting. Such coverage further enabled politicians such as New Zealand Prime Minister John Key to refuse to say the attack was an act of homophobia.
As the world searches for answers, one thing is crystal clear. Omar Mateen didn’t just pick out some club at random. This was an act of terror motivated by a deep hatred of LGBT people. Whether a product of the homophobic culture that stubbornly lingers throughout Western culture or the self-loathing of the gunman, who reportedly frequented the nightclub and used gay hook-up apps to seek out relationships with other men, the Orlando attack was an example of homophobia in its most dangerous of forms. While the narrative of this killer is complex and still emerging, the targets of his hatred must remain a focal point of any media coverage of the massacre.
Secondly, the decision by most media outlets to publicly name the 49 victims is of concern in a case such as this one. Part of the safety of gay bars is the level of anonymity that they can bring, the sense that it can be a sanctuary for those not yet out to family and friends who may not be accepting. It’s likely a number of the victims would have identified as straight, it’s also very possible that others were still working through the process of coming out to loved ones or chose to eschew labels altogether. Individuals’ reasonings for not declaring themselves to be LGBT or queer are varied and often complex and they must be respected.
Thirdly, and most problematic of all, is the use of the attack as a political weapon by media outlets such as Express to further promote a campaign of fear and hatred towards people of Muslim faith, with headlines screaming ‘Islamic terrorist!’ run at the earliest possible opportunity. This wasn’t an attack fuelled by religion. It was an attack fuelled by an extremist ideology, that promotes an intolerance of LGBT people. That of Islamic State, who carry out regular public executions of gay Muslims in their own territories. Though ISIS claim allegiance to Allah, theirs is a fundamentalism at odds with the real nature of Islam.
Online tabloids weren’t the only ones framing the discussion in such ways of course. Donald Trump, an outspoken opponent of LGBT equality was quick to try and capitalise on the tragedy to further his own ‘ban all Muslims’ agenda. In New Zealand, another longstanding opponent of LGBT rights, with a history of making xenophobic statements, decided that last week’s cross-party statement expressing condolences to the Orlando victims was an appropriate time to launch another anti-immigrant tirade. MP Winston Peters thought it appropriate to use the Florida shooting as supporting evidence for his policy of restricting immigration. The NZ First leader said new migrants should be subject to screenings to ensure they are not susceptible to radicalisation and that they respect New Zealand ‘views’. Given he and his entire caucus voted against the 2013 bill to grant same-sex couples equal marriage rights, it’s concerning to think just whose views he believes migrants should respect.
While this type of media coverage and political opportunism is of course nothing new, the Orlando attack can present itself as an opportunity for the global LGBT movement to reaffirm what we stand for. The queer community as I have known it has always been one of inclusion and acceptance, and that’s why in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre it is critical that our voices are heard. In the face of hate and persecution we have always stood firm, holding steadfast to the mantra that love will always triumph over hate. Now more than ever we need love, to reaffirm that belief.
LGBT people cannot take full ownership of this Orlando massacre alone. But we can lead the way in advocating for a new approach in the way such acts are reported on and the steps we must take going forward. We as a community have an opportunity to say no to the scapegoating, no to the blaming of one homophobe’s act of terror on an entire religion, and no to the inflammatory headlines. We have the opportunity to stand against homophobia once more, while also making a stand against Islamophobia.
The attack can also be used as an opportunity to examine some of our own prejudices and ensure queer Muslim voices are given prominence not only during attacks such as this, but also when ISIS continues its rampage of anti-LGBT violence in the Middle East. In a New Zealand context, this can be an opportunity for our own LGBT community to vocally reject the xenophobic bile being spewed out by politicians and some within the media and instead advocate a more open approach to the many thousands of LGBT Muslims seeking refuge from the same hateful ideology that inspired the Orlando shooting. While a sacred safe space for our community in Orlando was violated in the most horrific of ways – it cannot mean we stop creating more of them.
Levi Joule is a journalist from Auckland, New Zealand. He is former News Editor and Editor at Express magazine and gayexpress.co.nz and was Queer Rights Officer at the University of Auckland between 2012 and 2014.