Update, 21 June: This issue is getting more contentious by the day. An interview by Univision (additional reporting) of a man claiming to be Mateen’s former friend-with-benefits has been released, again suggesting the circumstances described in this post. I suspect I’ll need to do a follow-up post when all this dust settles.
Update, 20 June: Various sources now have contradictory information about the Pulse Orlando gunman. U.S. government agencies claim there was no connection from him either to ISIL/ISIS or to gay hookup apps, e.g., he acted in isolation and was not actually a regular at the club. With this context added, I am leaving this post as it was originally written, because it still has an important message to convey.
I’m still fidgeting with the wedding ring on my left hand way too much. It feels alien to be there all the time, because I’ve only been wearing it for ten months. This despite the fact that Adam and I are only one month short of our twentieth real anniversary, since the simple act of marrying my husband wasn’t legal here until last year.
After the events of this past weekend, when nearly 50 people were gunned down in an Orlando, Florida gay bar, I longed to get back to writing. The massacre hit a little close to home, because it wasn’t so long ago that I was living in Orlando myself and scared for my future.
So with this post, I reopen my heart and my blog.
Post edited on 19 June to clarify the killer’s mental justification, with related reporting on intelligence agency reports.
Omar Mateen and the gay walk-in closet
Only a few days after the massacre at Pulse Orlando, strongly compelling evidence came out that the shooter was actually gay or bisexual, hiding this fact from his family and friends. To someone born in the 1990s or later, and living in a well-educated city or suburb, being so firmly in the closet like this might seem incomprehensible.
But to those of us who grew up before the late 1990s, this is as unsurprising as it gets: a gay man with a heteronormative family, questioning his sexuality by indulging alternatives from time to time, away from family and friends who might recognize him for fear of being discovered. He might even believe himself to be totally straight on a typical day, but when he feels the need to explore the taboo world of homosexual contact, he hates himself for it the whole time.
A few decades ago, that used to be the norm for gay people. To this day, we even see politicians and others in power regularly discovered to be quite hypocritically anti-gay by hiding their own true selves.
While the terrorist state ISIL/ISIS was quick to take credit for the killings at Pulse Orlando thanks the shooter claiming allegiance before and during the attack, that appears to have been entirely a convenient mental justification to kill, with no basis in truth. In reality, Omar Mateen was afflicted by something still far too common, internalized homophobia. Tragically, he projected his self-loathing onto others as a way of dissociating himself. It’s the most extreme case the world has seen in recent times, but the correct name for the Orlando massacre was a well-known hate crime:
The Pulse Orlando case of hyper-deadly gay bashing is not isolated, even for this year. A sparsely reported killing just three weeks earlier at a bar in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico (“La Madame”) was reported by many patrons to be just as random as the killings at Pulse Orlando, not organized crime related as claimed by the local authorities.
This is the true face of LGBT+ oppression, a face which is rarely highlighted in news media. It’s new to some of you, but it’s why so many of us have lived with an overhanging fear for all our lives.
Taking Pride in Orlando
For a moment, let me tell a local story that is much less terrifying.
The 1990s were a time of great progress for LGBT+ Americans. With a few notable events in the early part of the decade, such as Brandon Teena’s murder and the Baehr v. Miike lawsuit both in 1993, we became a regular part of the national discussion. Utter condemnation of the “sickening lifestyle” was on its way out, and recognition of innate sexual orientation on its way in. TV shows, plays, and movies featured gay lead characters and started to address the stigma of HIV.
This was also my time of awakening; I first came out, to a now-estranged friend, in 1992 when I was 16. After that, it was only a matter of time before I started being more honest about myself. After all, I don’t like to fit into other people’s molds.
My very first time at a Pride event was in Orlando, Florida, in 1998. The Pride festival that year drew national and international attention, all over the mundane subject of the now-iconic rainbow flag.
(Image credit: GLBT History Museum of Central Florida)
In May of that year, Watermark Media got a permit to hang rainbow flags from the city’s downtown light posts, the way event or holiday themed banners often hang, for the month of June. This was an accomplishment then unheard-of for the southern United States.
Evangelists protested. A sadly indoctrinated kid near my age tore down some of the flags, claiming Pat Robertson — who threatened that God would basically smite Florida — told him to do it. Op-Ed news pieces were everywhere, debating both sides of the “flag issue”. In general, the public was overwhelmingly biased against the flags hanging in downtown Orlando, and there was no lack of hate groups spreading the message that gay people should be dead.
That made going to Pride, for the first time, a lot more intimidating than it already was. Still, 18 years ago, on June 27, 1998, I wasn’t watching the Pride parade in downtown Orlando; I was marching in it. A friend asked my now-husband and me to be in the parade, dressed as clowns, throwing confetti and knickknacks as we passed spectators. I’m not sure why I said yes, but that changed my life forever. My fear of going to Pride was masked partly by a layer of colorful makeup, but mostly by a newly lit feeling of defiance against the oppression playing out in the media.
I got my first real taste of freedom then. I finally understood why it was so important to rail against the hate and stand up for self-identity.
Stand up for yourself, for all of us
I might have felt like the world was opening up in 1998, but reality was much more subdued. The Orlando Pride festival and parade were tiny in scope compared to Pride festivals held in various cities now. The controversy over flying the rainbow flag from Orlando city property was cut short too, when the city government changed rules in August to allow only banners recognizing official city-run events. The whole situation irked people to the point that the “liberal” Orlando Sentinel newspaper ran an internally written Op-Ed praising this backhanded rule change as a boon for the local economy.
Then October 1998 dealt a great blow to morale. I was slightly too young and naïve to comprehend the gravity of Brandon Teena’s death at the time, but the brutal bashing murder of Matthew Shepard was a grim reminder that being gay in America was far from smooth sailing.
That was when I decided never to hide myself or be apologetic for who I am. I would forever stand up for myself, if not for my own well-being, then for all those like me who couldn’t do the same. I’d start working with Pride events, political advocacy groups, youth-support organizations, whatever it would take to push back against the old hatreds and make the world more supportive of LGBT+ people for generations to come.
Even in these changing times, I know not everyone who might read this article is able to be so honest with the world. For those of you who can be confident in yourselves, who can go to a Pride event or work with a group furthering equality and acceptance,
The rest of the world would rather, if given the chance, forget that we exist. It’s only through continuous visibility that we can continue to break down the forces of hate and gain true acceptance, true equality. Never forget our tragedies, but stand up for your self-expression for all of us.
I want to see you marching down a city street, with that same smile of confidence I first found in Orlando many years ago.
A short note about verbiage
The world of non-straight people is much more diverse than the colors of the rainbow flag. That makes it quite clumsy to come up with an acronym which reasonably includes gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered people, intersexed people, those who are questioning, those whose gender identity is not so clear, and more facets of identity. Sometimes I humorously refer to this problem of labels as the “gay alphabet soup.”
In order to keep it manageable, I sometimes use the term “LGBT+” to show that this is about more than just four letter labels. For better readability, I also use the word “gay” more often as a stand-in for this acronym. While other terms have come back in vogue for this concept (especially “queer”), I’m writing from the perspective of my age demographic. To us, “gay” is a versatile, inclusive adjective, and it should be read that way.