Orlando shooting and the pink elephant in the room

Responses to the mass shooting show just how uncomfortable some are with alternative sexuality

WrittenBy:Sandip Roy
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It’s still the love that dares not speak its name.

Narendra Modi was quick to condemn the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando that left some 49 people dead and 53 wounded. But he was equally careful not to use the ‘G-word’.

“Shocked at the shootout in Orlando, USA. My thoughts & prayers are with the bereaved families and the injured,” tweeted Modi.

The alleged killer did not just choose a nightclub. He chose a specific nightclub — Pulse, because it was a gay club. He had been looking for a gay club. Another gay club owner said he had a friend request from him on Facebook a few days earlier. The killer swore allegiance to ISIS, but his father said he was disgusted because he had seen two men kissing in Miami, kissing in front of his young son.

But the carnage he has wrought comes with very inconvenient baggage for many political leaders. He killed gay people or at least people he thought were gay. Many of us do not like to talk about LGBT people, except as a problem, an issue. We deny them their identity, their humanity.

Modi was trolled for condoling the deaths in Orlando in a country that still upholds Section 377. That was unfair. Even with Section 377 on the books, Modi could (and arguably should) condemn the grisly massacre of homosexuals. At least India is not Iran or Yemen or Nigeria or Sudan, where homosexuality can be punishable by death. But how to condemn the deaths without condoning the sexuality of the dead?

To mask their unease, politicians perform the dance of identities. Suddenly the victims are humans first and gay second. But sometimes a desperate focus on that humanity can become an excuse to not confront their queer identity, a smokescreen behind which to hide our own unease.

Modi is not alone in that careful calibration of words.

“I unequivocally condemn the horrific attack,” said Afghan president Ashraf Ghani. “Targeting civilians is not justifiable under any circumstances whatsoever.”

“This does not represent the will of a vast majority of Muslims. It is just another representation of the cancer of radicalization,” said Nawaz Sharif, prime minister of Pakistan.

“Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism,” tweeted Donald Trump who called it a “horrific incident”. “I don’t want congrats, I want toughness and vigilance. We must be smart!” A day later he finally called it at an attack on the LGBT community, spelling out the letters with grave deliberation.

A few world leaders had the gumption — and yes, the humanity — to call it what it was: an attack motivated by hate, targeting the LGBT community.

In India, Janata Dal (United) was the only political party to use the much-avoided acronym, when it tweeted, “Janata Dal (United) is saddened by the tragic deaths in Orlando, Florida. We share the grief of the affected families and the LGBT community.” Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu extended “his deepest condolences to the American people following last night’s horrific attack on the LGBT community in Orlando.” Canada’s Justin Trudeau said it was “appalling that as many as 50 lives have been lost to this domestic terror attack targeting the LGBTQ community.” Hillary Clinton told the LGBT community specifically, “We will keep fighting for your right to live freely, openly and without fear. Hate has absolutely no place in America.”

But for most politicians, sexuality is the pink elephant in the room. Trump has spoken against same-sex marriage and Mexican immigrants, and now has to deal with the inconvenient truth of dead gay Latinos. Politicians who have used gays as whipping boys and scapegoats would rather rail at immigration, gun laws, ISIS, Syrian refugees; talking about everything but homosexuality.

Yet imagine if the killer had not been of Afghan descent, if he had not called 911 and pledged allegiance to ISIS.

In a country where a young gay man like Mathew Shepard was beaten, tortured and tied to a fence in Wyoming like a battered scarecrow, hate crimes against LGBT persons, targeted just because of their sexuality, are not unimaginable at all. If the killer had not had a Muslim last name, but was an angry white man like a Timothy McVeigh, he would have been probably called a “lone wolf” and been described as an unhinged homophobe as opposed to a jihadi terrorist.  The Muslim last name of this killer makes him a domestic terrorist with an ideology, a far easier attack for the likes of Trump.

But the sexuality of the dead cannot be ignored.  Not all were gay, but in the eyes of the killer they were all equally guilty because they were dancing at a gay nightclub. Their gayness is indisputably a part of this narrative. It was their death warrant that night. It cannot be shoved out of sight as a “private matter”. We are learning their names slowly. And their stories.

Edward Sotomayor worked for a company that held gay cruises. He liked to wear silly top hats. Stanley Almodovar’s friend said he could do his own make-up better than anyone else. Juan Ramon Guerrero had told his cousin he was gay two years ago but he was worried how the rest of the family would react. Alanis Laurell was a drag queen. Oscar Aracena-Montero and his partner Simon Carrillo had just purchased a home together. Mina Justice knew her son Eddie was gay and was out at a nightclub. She was asleep when she got a text message from him at 2:06 AM. “Mommy I love you.” And then “In club. They shooting.” At 2:07 AM,  “Trapp in bathroom.” At 2:08 AM. “I’m gonna die.” He did.

In death, these people, very ordinary people who worked as accountants, bouncers, UPS deliverymen, interior designers, financial aid advisors, have been outed — not to their shame but to the shame of those who cannot say those words “Lesbian”, “gay”, “bisexual”, “transgender” without flinching.  They have been outed not as freaks or deviants or activists demanding rights but as sons, cousins, brothers, best friends, lovers, homeowners. We just cannot avoid those letters – LGBT – if we want to take full measure of what happened that night in Orlando.

The killer could have averted his eyes if those men kissing in Miami repulsed him so thoroughly. Unfortunately it seems he did not. But we need to look the horror in the face. When those who we call our leaders condemn their deaths but cannot bring themselves to confront their gayness, they are averting their eyes from the truth. And in doing so they dishonour the dead because they render their stories incomplete.

The reality of the lives of those who danced and died at Pulse that night might make some presidents and prime ministers uncomfortable. But their lives cannot be airbrushed for our comfort. They deserve justice, not erasure. When they are buried, let it be in coffins. Not closets.


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