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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
He stared at me in
Why, he wondered, would
anybody go back into the closet once he’s out?
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
Or go back to the America of
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
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
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.”
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
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
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
Note, however, as you watch that
coverage, that she’s leaving open the possibility of a shift of focus to
Mateen’s internalized homophobia.
least she leaves the back door open and suggests there is more of the story to
The fact that Omar Mateen was Muslim does not make this an
act of Islamic terrorism.
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.
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.
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
Another source reports
was actually actively dating gay men and showing up regularly at the Pulse
“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
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.
political arena, an article in The
some time ago took note of sixteen antigay leaders
who, it turns out, were gay
Projection of internalized
homophobia is clearly alive and well in Washington.
Love the sinner but hate the sin, the churches preach to
It sounds at first like a reasonable
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
That twisting of love into hate didn’t come
It came from the religious
teachings of the three abrahamic religions that undergird the civilization in
which we live.
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
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
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 the
REVEL & RIOT