Letter from the US: Homophobia behind Orlando killings, not 'Islamic terrorism'

The attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that left 50 dead (including the shooter) and more than 50 injured was the largest single violent attack on LGBTI people in US history. It claimed more victims than the 1973 arson at another nightclub in New Orleans that killed 32 people.

This massacre punctuated the daily instances of violence, including murder, against LGBTI people that occur frequently in the US.

The Pulse nightclub was not only a place where LGBTI people in the area could go to relax, have a drink, dance and socialise. Like many similar places, it was a venue to discuss the fight against homophobia and for equal rights.

LGBTI people targeted

The killer's motive was made clear by his target and timing. June is Gay Pride Month, during which there are many marches and other events around the country.

The shootings also happened on “Latino Night” at the Pulse club. There were many Latinos present and they made up the majority of the casualties. Twenty-three of those killed were Puerto Rican. It is not known if the shooter had hatred towards Latinos as well as LGBTI people.

On the same weekend as the Orlando shootings, 20-year-old Indiana white man James Howell was headed to a gay pride event in Los Angeles when his car was searched by police on a tip. They found three assault rifles and explosive chemicals. Had he not been stopped, it seems Orlando may not have been the only scene of a mass murder of LGBTI people in the US.

In response, across the US — and the world — LGBTI people and supporters have held mass vigils in solidarity with the victims. These vigils have expressed widespread pain and sorrow, as well as rejecting the violence LGBTI people face.

These crowds have taken to the streets to mourn collectively, raising slogans like “Don't turn homophobia into Islamophobia”, in reference to the fact that the shooter, Omar Mateen, comes from a Muslim background and reportedly pledged loyalty to ISIS before the attack.

Scapegoating Muslims

But a parade of elected officials, and much of the media, have done just that — scapegoating Muslims and Arabs, and calling for more war in the Middle East and nearby countries. Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, both joined in.

They are playing on the fact that Mateen is a Muslim whose parents emigrated from Afghanistan more than three decades ago, and his tenuous connection with ISIS, to portray the massacre as an act of “radical Islam”.

Trump doubled down on his demand that Muslims be banned from entering the US — and that all Muslims in the US be subject to police profiling and surveillance. He warned that refugees from the US-created wars in the Middle East were like a “Trojan horse”, infiltrating terrorists like Mateen into the country.

Ignoring that the 29-year-old Mateen was born in the US, Trump then said that if his ban had been in force when his parents emigrated, Mateen would never have been here.

Trump also ominously raised doubts about US President Barack Obama's ties to “terrorists”, saying “something is going on” with Obama. He also said the president should “step down” for not using the words “Radical Islam”.

Trump made the same charge against Clinton. She responded by saying that was not true, and then began using an equivalent expression herself.

Trump is fanning the flames of the Islamophobia engulfing his base and beyond, while Clinton has focused on the need to step up the US war in the Middle East. Both promote the idea of the threat of “Islamic terrorism” — supposedly the main motive of Mateen, as opposed to homophobia. This is the political purpose of Trump's rants, despite many reports that Mateen had been a “regular” for a long time at the club.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has emerged as a Trump spokesperson, made a warmongering contribution, saying: “It is not our fault this [Islamic] hate exists in the world. But it is our responsibility to eradicate this hate in the world … You've got to get over there and make them pay where they live.”

Christie is wrong. It is the fault of the perpetual US wars in the whole region, which has caused millions of deaths and refugees and vast destruction. This has alienated Muslims from many regions.

In the absence of any significant revolutionary socialist or even nationalist forces to resist the imperialist onslaught, reactionary pro-capitalist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS step into the vacuum, falsely claiming to be anti-imperialist.

Homophobic backlash

There has been growing acceptance of gays and lesbians among many Americans in recent years and some legal victories (such as legalising same-sex marriage). But there has also been a homophobic reaction that has combined the passing of anti-LGBTI laws with growing violence.

In 2005, the highest number of reported hate crimes in the US (proportionate to their population) was against Jews, with LGBTI people second, and African Americans and Muslims third and fourth. By 2014, LGBTI people were first.

It should be noted that police murders of African Americans are not counted in this statistic. Also, many crimes against LGBT people are not reported for fear of being “outed” to family members or employers. The past year also has also seen a spike in attacks on mosques.

A study of homicides of LGBTI people in 12 states from 2012 to last year found that Black transgender women were the most likely victims, a fact that Black Lives Matter spokespeople have pointed out.

Homophobic material is also a feature on social media. In one video after the Orlando shootings, a group of US soldiers in their camouflage are shown, with one of them pointing a military assault rifle at the camera, saying: “Hey gay pride – take this!” They were reportedly given a “reprimand” by the army.

In the past six months, the Christian right in the Republican Party has introduced about 200 anti-LGBTI bills in state legislatures. The highest profile bill is North Carolina, where a state law was adopted that prohibits cities from adopting any legislation banning discrimination against LGBTI people.

It became known as the “bathroom bill” because it also stipulated that transgender people must use restrooms designated by the sex listed on their birth certificates.

Mateen, it turns out according to patrons of the Pulse nightclub, was seen several times in the club. He posted his picture on gay sites, including Adam4Adam, Grindr and Jack'd, looking for dates.

Stuart Milk, president of the LGBTI rights group the Harvey Milk Foundation, said: “It is no surprise to LGBT activists around the world that this individual [Mateen] may have been dealing with his own sexuality.

“We have seen time and time again that those [gays] who come from cultures of nonacceptance of LGBT people, that oftentimes they react angrily, and that internal torment gets expressed through either verbal or physical abuse [against gays], and in extreme cases, something like what we saw happen [in Orlando].”

Mateen's own family are homophobic. After the shooting, his father said that “they” should not have been shot down here on Earth, but punished in the afterlife.

Mateen may have sought to project a “macho” image in other ways. He had a violent life. He beat his first wife so badly that she had to be rescued from him by her family.

He also liked guns and had aspirations to become a cop. He often wore T-shirts with the New York Police Department logo. It was reported that at one time he attended a police academy.

At the time of the mass shooting, Mateen was working as a security guard for the security and mercenary company G4S. As well as providing private security guards, G4S runs private prisons, immigrant detention centres and other such facilities around the world.

If it is true that the massacre was driven by his internal conflict with his sexuality, then it is clear the homophobia in much of US society — and Mateen's own family — was the key cause of the killings.

ISIS?

But what of Mateen's claim to support ISIS at the time of the shooting? His coworkers said that, at times, he said he was a member of Hezbollah and at others of al-Qaeda. Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and ISIS are all at war with each other in Syria. They have different politics.

Apparently, Mateen was not well versed in what these groups stand for. Even the FBI says he had no direct connection with any of them, and none were behind the attack.

We can only speculate why he made this claim. What is clear is the push to chalk up the Pulse killings as an act of “Islamic terror” by leading politicians and the media is driven by a desire to exploit the deaths to justify US wars — which themselves help create more support for Islamic fundamentalism.

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