“I don’t have a problem with gay people, just don’t shove it in my face.”
That’s one of the more common lines trotted out when it comes to the “tolerance” of LGBTI people in our society. It is for this reason that we constantly look over our shoulders when in public and looking to hold the hand or steal a kiss from those we love, and it’s why we seek the sanctuary of safe spaces such as gay clubs in order to be who we are, free of concerns for our safety.
Over the weekend, that safe space was violated. Not only on a Latin night (with many patrons who were people of colour) in the gay nightclub of Pulse in Orlando, Florida, but in safe spaces all over the world. In the worst mass shooting in US history, more than 100 LGBTI people were killed or injured.
The terrorist reportedly said he was disgusted to see two men kiss. Reports are now emerging that he had gone to the nightclub on multiple occasions, and had even used a gay dating app. This was not an attack on everyone. It was homophobic.
The reaction from some to attempt to minimise that violation, or to somehow claim it affects everyone equally, highlights just how difficult it is for some to feel compassion towards gay people, let alone relate to them.
In Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s initial public statement, he did not mention at all that the shooter had targeted a gay club or LGBTI people. Instead, he said it was “an assault on every one of us. It’s an assault on freedom.” It was hours before his second statement explicitly mentioning it was a gay club would correct the record. In that time, I tweeted highlighting the omission and received many replies asking why it mattered or why couldn’t we see it as an attack on all people.
It is, but we should not diminish the impact this has not only on queer people in Orlando but queer people around the world. The shooter didn’t go to a straight bar to shoot straight people for being straight. This was an explicit attack at a gay club on gay people for being gay. To not mention that is disrespectful to those who were murdered.
The Sky News incident — where one guest and the host attempted to “straightsplain” to gay Guardian columnist Owen Jones why his feelings about the attack being homophobic were no different to the pain felt by everyone else — was just infuriating, but it served as the perfect example of how difficult some people have with even relating to the concept of LGBTI people. As Jones wrote after the incident:
“We all grow up in a society that still treats us as if we are inferior: we have all repeatedly encountered homophobic abuse, the stress of coming out repeatedly, or the fear of holding hands with a partner in public. To imagine LGBT people who may have endured distress and internalised prejudice — just because of who they are — spending their last moments in terror as a homophobic terrorist hunted them down is just unbearable.”
As Jones said, this was homophobia as well as terrorism, but some are only keen to see the latter side of things and talk up ties to Islamic State, which remain, at the time of writing, unconfirmed. These are the same people who have spent months railing against a program developed for schools to teach kids how to empathise and relate to someone who might be gay, bisexual or transgender. Attempts to teach people to have empathy with LGBTI people is treated as some attempt to “convert them” as though merely attempting to step into the shoes of a person with a different sexuality to them might result in them catching the gay. In failing to acknowledge the homophobic nature of the attack, they are not forced to confront their own prejudices.
Part of the reluctance to acknowledge the impact on the LGBTI community seems to be an unfortunate byproduct of the marriage equality movement’s attempt to frame LGBTI people as “just like you” and therefore worthy of marriage rights. Yes, we are very much like everyone else, but we are also very different. Perhaps it’s time to show and embrace that difference.
If anything good can come out of this horrific tragedy, it might force LGBTI issues to be shoved in the faces of people who maybe hadn’t considered them before.