Christopher Isherwood tells of the time he tried to bring his German lover back into Britain with him. Just off the boat from the continent, in Harwich, he writes of the customs officer: "As soon as I saw the bright-eyed little rat, I knew we were done for. He understood the whole situation at a glance — because he’s one of us."
In days gone by, when we had to contend with far more serious and widespread homophobia than today, a self-hating gay could cause unspeakable misery to other gays as he projected his self-hatred out into the world.
What am I talking about – “in days gone by”? Very likely it was a man struggling with sexual demons within himself who went off the deep end and killed those 49 men and women in the Pulse Bar in Orlando the other night.
The Orlando massacre is a story still being told. ISIS appears to have a new policy of getting sympathizers to forgo coming to the Middle East, but stay at home and wreak havoc locally, instead. Whether that's part of the story is only a guess. And if it is part of Omar Mateen's motivation, that still leaves open the question of whether that's foreground, and the choice to kill LGBT people is background, or whether it's the other way around.
I’ve lived my life as a gay man in an intensely homophobic environment, so you know why I’m inclined to think this is primarily about homophobia. Forgive me if the blood starts to boil when I take note of church spokespeople and other religionists who insist on downplaying the sexual orientation of most or all of the 49 people in a gay bar in Florida as coincidental. When synagogues are bombed, it's about anti-semitism. When four little black girls were killed in a black church, it was about white supremacist racism.
There are always people, apparently of good will, quick to stress this is not just a Jewish/African American/fill in the blank tragedy. It’s a human tragedy. And why can’t we all just get along?
Such misplaced attempts at solidarity do a disservice to the people involved who have lost their lives for a quite specific reason. To dilute that message dishonors the victims. And it takes away the need to track down the particular sources of that hate. I willingly grant you that I’m making a case from a particular vantage point. I hope you’ll allow me to make that case.
As the investigations continue into what made Omar Mateen tick, investigators are discovering that he had apparently spent a considerable amount of time in the Pulse Bar. He also had a gay meet-up phone number in his cell phone. Evidence is coming together for calling this primarily a hate crime, not a political one. And that holds whether Omar was projecting internalized homophobia or simply acting out what was to him the logical next step in ridding the world of gay people.
There may never be a definitive answer in Omar Mateen’s case. But there is no doubt that whatever motivated the killings, he was working with a powerful conviction that these people deserved to die.
And don’t come at me with the bullshit explanation that he’s simply crazy and that’s that. There’s a much simpler explanation right at the surface, an explanation the churches and rightwingers are working hard to push aside. Far more often than many are willing to admit, it takes religion to create the will to kill and to die, both to commit suicide and to take others with you.
On March 13, 1974 one of my closest friends committed suicide. In fear and dread, I got on the phone shortly afterwards with the sister who raised him. “I suppose we’ll never know what made him do it,” I said, fumbling terribly for words. “Oh, I know what made him do it,” she responded. “It was drugs and the Mormon Church.”
His name was Merrill. We had become close friends in our army days a decade earlier. I was just waking up from a nightmare, fighting with everything in me against the ever increasing evidence that I was probably gay. When Merrill told me he was homosexual (I don’t believe we used the word gay back then), I responded, “I have those tendencies, too, but I’ve been able to fight them off so far.” Merrill laughed out loud. “You’re only fooling yourself. You’ll see.”
Merrill then became my mentor in the coming-out process, took me around the gay bars of Berlin and taught me how to hold a bottle of beer. I fell immediately in love with him, of course, back then before I learned to fall in love with people who might love me back. But we bonded over the secret and shared an apartment in San Francisco for a time.
Once back in the States, things took a different turn, however. As I began living on my own for the first time and timidly began coming out – more from a shell than from a closet – Merrill, my “big brother” in matters of the flesh, to my astonishment, began moving back into the closet. He found himself a girlfriend and struggled mightily to make that relationship work. The evidence that it wasn’t working led him, as it did and still does with so many others, into alcohol and drugs.
I tried to tell that story to a much younger gay person recently. He stared at me in disbelief. Why, he wondered, would anybody go back into the closet once he’s out? Why indeed? I had to laugh at the naiveté. You have to understand the power of homophobia to make sense of the question. Go to a place where they throw gay people off of buildings, for example. Or go back to the America of pre-Stonewall. Merrill killed himself less than five years after the nelly queens of Stonewall took their stand during a police raid on their bar in the Village on June 28, 1969, and fought back. It would be decades before their efforts would be recognized fully, before they might have been able to persuade Merrill that someday everything would be all right, that being gay would some day no longer be an unbearable burden. But at the time, so ingrained was the self-loathing that the lived reality was not unlike living today in Uganda or Russia or Afghanistan.
I remember my response to the drag queens of Stonewall at the time. I begrudgingly admitted theirs was an act of courage. But that didn’t stop me from feeling terribly uncomfortable around men in heels and dresses. I was still new at the game and knew nothing about theater or irony or the power to thwart the efforts of others to define me. I bought into the explanation du jour that these were “men who wanted to be women,” realized that didn't apply to me, and saw no reason for a sense of solidarity. It took a long time before I made the connection, and when I did I sat down and bawled like a baby in shame over the disgust and loathing I had directed all those years at drag queens and at men with feminine mannerisms.
You know that clever Steve Weinberg quotation: “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” I wasn’t a bad guy. But I had no trouble pointing the finger and condemning what I had come to believe was sin. The self-loathing Merrill felt may have been put there originally by the church he was raised in. But it was people like me, all too quick to protest that religion no longer had any power over me, who helped create the atmosphere of disapproval of anything but the authorized norms of sexual behavior, which pulled the rug out from under Merrill and others struggling with serious self-doubts. So strong was my early indoctrination into the belief that homosexuality was evil that the after effects would take many years to shed. The homophobia that had its source in religion has seeped into the broader American culture. And just as many of us lose sight of who our ancestors were, it’s not uncommon to hear from religious people that “it’s not religion – it’s culture.” That blurring of origins then becomes the new reality. It can be seen today in those who would deny the fact that the victims in Orlando were a religiously-persecuted minority.
Owen Jones, who writes for The Guardian, The New Statesman and other publications, walked out of a TV interview yesterday when it became obvious to him that the interviewer was trying to hide the fact that the killings in Orlando took place in a gay bar. It’s not just LGBT people who can see this effort for what it is. Others with the eyes to see are taking note that this interviewer is by no means alone. All you have to do is run down the websites of the Catholic Church, for example. Check out the last several postings of my friend and catholic blogger (and friend) Bill Lindsey the past couple of days to see how applied homophobia is revealed in the church's efforts at silencing. Check out the Republicans leading the anti-gay charges, the Santorums and the Ted Cruzes who cater to their right-wing Christian base. It’s not something you have to dig for. It sits there right on the surface, this need to demonize homosexuality. In their case it’s an authoritarian form of Christianity. In Mateen’s case, it's likely to have been an authoritarian form of Islam. Poison from the same well.
I’m struck with how widespread the push still is in the media at present to make this story mostly or all about Mateen’s acting as an agent of ISIS. I’m thinking of Rachel Maddow’s extended piece on the shift in ISIS policy from getting volunteers to come join them in Syria and Iraq to staying put and wreaking havoc at home. Note, however, as you watch that coverage, that she’s leaving open the possibility of a shift of focus to Mateen’s internalized homophobia. At least she leaves the back door open and suggests there is more of the story to unfold.
The fact that Omar Mateen was Muslim does not make this an act of Islamic terrorism. Islamicist thought may well have figured large in his anger and sense of alienation, but when he lashed out, it wasn’t against a bank or other symbol of capitalism, or a synagogue, or a military target. It was a gay bar.
Nor was it a spontaneous act. Mateen had hung out in a gay bar for some time before his planned massacre. One person told the Orlando Sentinel that he had seen him there a dozen times. And his father told the press he was probably motivated by seeing two men kiss some time back. The signs are there that milady doth protest too much. Another source reports Mateen was actually actively dating gay men and showing up regularly at the Pulse bar.
“Have you ever noticed,” a wise man once asked me, “that people comfortable with their own sexuality seldom concern themselves with the sexuality of others?”
Yes, I had noticed actually. Just as I have noticed the open secret that one of the major sources of homophobia around the world comes from the Catholic Church, where estimates are that as many as half the priesthood is comprised of men who have a same-sex orientation. And as long as such feelings are taboo, the church will continue to provide a haven for them. I noticed too that Ted Haggard, who had weekly access to George W. Bush as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, regularly preached the homophobic party line while engaging in sex with men, providing evidence that sexual hypocrisy is by no means the exclusive purview of the Roman Catholic Church. In the political arena, an article in The Advocate some time ago took note of sixteen antigay leaders who, it turns out, were gay themselves. Projection of internalized homophobia is clearly alive and well in Washington.
Love the sinner but hate the sin, the churches preach to us. It sounds at first like a reasonable slogan. But think about it for a while and you come to see that somebody is still defining the core act of expressing physical desire and emotional attachment to a person of the same sex as sin, and then declaring that expression of love and affection is something one should hate. That twisting of love into hate didn’t come from nowhere. It came from the religious teachings of the three abrahamic religions that undergird the civilization in which we live. Ancient prejudices. Those same scriptures once supported our culture’s acceptance of slavery, the suppression of women, the bashing against the rocks of the heads of the children of those from another tribe. We’ve managed to root these prejudices out, most of us, as we struggle to embrace the new humanistic and egalitarian morality of the modern world. But some ancient practices remain.
As always, it is necessary to distinguish between religion as a locus of our better hopes, dreams and instincts on the one hand, and the toxic varieties in which the Bible or the Qur’an are used as a hammer, on the other. It’s the toxic brand I’m referring to when I use the word religion obviously. Criticize me, if you will, for the ellipsis in leaving out the word toxic when I mention religion. But only if you do the same for those folk who leave out the word non-toxic when trying to persuade you that “religion is the answer.”
Getting rid of hate is like pulling weeds. It’s like pursuing democracy. It’s a terribly ambitious project, an elusive goal, and a constant struggle. You don’t want to be one of those people who never stops to smell the flowers. But neither should we miss an opportunity to pull some weeds.
Watch closely as this story about the Orlando massacre continues to unfold.
And when you can, like when you hear somebody tell you this was a human tragedy, not a gay tragedy, give a good yank.
photo credit: from the website of thenon-profit organization
REVEL & RIOT