Violence. It hovers over gay life like a dark cloud.
Police cars and armored vehicles sped by. We watched their bright alarms echoing down the street. It was Sunday morning in LA, I woke to news of a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando. In California, police caught a young man with explosives and guns on his way to the LA Pride March. My best friend was planning to go. I was planning to go. We could have been killed.
Violence. It hovers over queer life like a dark cloud. Freedom. LGTB people have more rights in the West than ever. These opposing poles are connected by a deep dynamic of counter-reaction. In order to hold power, corrupt elites and conservatives have channeled populist anxiety into sexual and gender fundamentalism. They have framed homosexuality as perversion or decadence and promoted tradition as a container for resentment. The result is the bloodbath of hetero-terrorism.
Life Under Siege
Every. Single. Day. Queer people are killed, beaten, fired, insulted, raped and threatened. Many victims don’t feel safe reporting crimes to the police. Will they be believed? Will they be laughed at or dismissed? A few do and those numbers, scanty and sporadic, paint a horrifying picture.
The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs tallied roughly 2,000 hate crimes against LGTB people a year from 2011 to 2013 in the United States alone. It averaged five a day until 2015, when it dipped to a little under four a day. Even so, the hardest hit were people of color, transgender women and, tragically, the point where targets of hate overlap, transgender women of color, who were killed most and often brutally.
On June 6, days before the Orlando Massacre, a transgender woman in Houston was lured into an apartment by a man and beaten. He broke her nose and eye socket. She barely escaped. On June 15, three days after the Orlando massacre, a man shouted, “fuck you faggots” inside a gay bar in Bushwick, N.Y. He threatened to come back, “Orlando style.”
When Omar Mateen fired his AR-15 rifle into the Pulse nightclub, killing 49 people and injuring 53, his spectacle of violence made visible how dangerous everyday life is for the 9 million gay people in America. Of course, Mateen, born in Queens, raised in the United States derived part of his identity from extremist Islam, even while being a self-hating gay man who frequented the nightclub he terrorized. When we pull the lens back to include not just the Middle East but whole swaths of the world, we see millions of gay people are afraid — living in literal states of terror.
In Saudi Arabia, homosexuality is punishable by death. In Iran, homosexuality is punishable by death. In Jamaica, mobs, whipped into a frenzy by fanatic Christians, chase and kill LGTB youth. In the Sudan, homosexuality is punishable by death. In Zimbabwe, the president has publicly threatened to behead gays. In Russia, anti-gay laws are written and violence stoked by politicians.
Hetero-terrorism: the use of violence by straight people to achieve the re-closeting of queers. Why reframe terrorism? To highlight sexuality- and gender-based violence that rips lives apart. To show the top-down dynamic of religious and secular authorities who send agents of the state or wink at informal, street-level brutality. And the use of force to shape a social order, so the full spectrum of desire is violently sublimated into a thin bandwidth of heterosexuality. Hetero-terrorism cuts across religious and national lines so that enemies like the Christian Right and Jihadists show deep commonalities. And finally, the target is the body and its ability to feel directionless pleasure, its unpredictable, often quirky, attachment to fetish objects and how it loves without boundaries.
Post-9/11, our media show terrorists as members of shadowy groups plotting to kill innocent civilians. Al Qaeda. ISIS. So when Mateen wrote on Facebook that he wanted us to taste “Islamic State Vengeance” and condemned the “filthy ways of the West,” he fit into this narrative. And he is in the tradition of the founder of Islamist ideology, Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian author, who wrote a travelogue of his 1948 trip to the United States, The America I Have Seen. He condemned our open sexuality, saying, “The American girl is well acquainted with her body’s seductive capacity… she knows all this and does not hide it.”
Again the disgust with the body. Again the creating of a moral self in contrast to the Other. Again the evidence of an inverted desire in the meticulous detailing of sin in Qutb’s text and the surveillance of gay life by Mateen, two men obsessed with the very behavior that was supposed to be abhorrent.
But there’s also American hetero-terrorism, reflected in police raids on queer bars, culminating in 1969’s Stonewall riots. It’s the anti-sodomy laws. It’s the 1973 arson attack that killed 32 patrons of the Upstairs Lounge and homophobic churches that refused to bury the dead. It’s Christian extremist, Eric Rudolph, bombing the lesbian club, The Otherside, in 1997, injuring five. Alongside attacks on queer spaces were beatings, insults, job firings, “corrective rapes” and unseen murders. All of it justified by a theological disgust of the free body, spoken of by conservative Brian Fischer, who wrote on the 2015 legalization of gay marriage, “The Supreme Court became moral jihadists who blasted the twin pillars of truth and righteousness … by imposing sodomy-based marriage on the United States.”
Hetero-terrorism, the use of violence by straight people to re-closet queers. Cutting across religious and national lines, empowered by power structures searching for a scapegoat. In the face of poverty or ethnic tension or technological change or cultural innovation, it gives anxious people a stable identity by invoking sexual and gender fundamentalism. Hate the gay. Ban transgender people. Fire the bi-sexual. Curse the transvestite.
The terror comes as it grants informal deputy powers to anyone and everyone to uphold the moral order. It begins with the erotic closure of the body. It ends with the sadistic pleasure of the mob. Or the lone wolf killer.
How to Misread a Massacre
As bodies were carried out of Pulse, some Christian extremists thought not enough gays were killed. “The tragedy is that more of them didn’t die,” said Pastor Roger Jimenez of Verity Baptist Church “these people are predators.”
He is not alone. Just the most vocal among those who believe homosexuality is a vector for infectious sin.
The Right saw the massacre a part of the War on Terrorism. In the National Review, gays were chided for not seeing that the real enemy is Islam. In the article, “Killing Muslims is not ISIS Law, it is Muslim Law,” readers were reminded that in Sharia law, homosexuals must be put to death. The argument creates an implicit bridge to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims. Modern conservativism sees the world through a mix of ethnic essentialism, religious End Times fanaticism and the Hobbesian state of nature, where man is in a constant war against man.
Looking at the same mass shooting, liberals called for a ban on assault weapons and more gun control in general. We see it in The Guardian publishing America’s mass shooting statistics and in the staid New York Times editors. The call was repeated in the mournful openings on latenight TV by Conan O’Brien or the enraged Samantha Bee. Implicit here is that the nation has been mismanaged and allowed to be flooded with guns. But with sound policy, the social contract can be repaired.
The Left, which is closer to the victims because it is the vehicle of protest for minority rights, quickly called out the Right’s hypocrisy. It cited how most mass shootings in America are done by angry, white men. And how conservatives fought gay liberation every step of the way. The Left shields Muslims from the bigoted, broad-brush attack of the Right because they see the world through lens of social construction, in which people are more complex than any one social role.
Ideology breaks an event apart, magnifies one narrative over the other. What remains invisible is the deeper relationship between those political positions. When liberals call for gun control, they do so in terms of public health. They miss how the gun is an American fetish. It is the required accessary for the performance of American machismo, whose primal scene is the colonial settler, looking at the New World horizon, looking for savages.
So when Mateen posed for a selfie in the mirror, smug and wearing an NYPD shirt, he may have dedicated himself to Islam but he was acting a very American, colonial masculinity. Except the “savages” were not Native peoples nor he a settler. Now they were criminals and he was the cop. Now they were “filthy” gays and he was the God-fearing straight man. They were disorder and he was the law.
The gun is the fetish object in the overlapping world of religious, conservative, colonial masculinity. The liberal call for gun control may or may not result in new law. But America’s romance with the gun won’t end until the mirror is turned around and conservatives are forced to see that they are the threat. They are the savages. They are the terrorists.