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Three Truths From Orlando That Many Are Getting Wrong - And One Big Mystery

Posted on July 11, 2016 at 2:10 PM

By Dennis Stone


The essential reality of politics and psychology in today’s America can be summed up in one short sentence: people believe what they want to believe. Those of us who call ourselves progressive tend to believe that sentence, but only about those on the right side of the political spectrum. Global warming is a classic case. But we are prone to it as well. In fact, as the 21st century evolves I am beginning to think we are almost equally guilty.


The internet makes the situation worse. In theory it exposes people to new and alternate ideas, but as used by many in 2016 it serves instead to allow people to restrict their exposure primarily to others who reinforce their beliefs. Challenging views have become stressful, and we can just ignore them. It’s pleasant in our little echo chambers, and it feels good to be told we’re right about the big issues of the day. We can get on comment sections, tell each other how right and wise we are, and lambaste people with alternate opinions as idiots.


This phenomenon has been evident in the various reactions to the Orlando tragedy. The right wing has focused primarily on Islam, with some talking about travel bans and profiling. As a preemptive reaction to what they knew was coming from the left they made the case that the only gun issue of importance was that more guns in the hands of the citizenry would help to counter terrorists.




Reactions on the left focused instantly and overwhelmingly on the need for enhanced gun control. Others focused on the hate crime aspect of the attack, worried about a renewed vulnerability of the queer community, or cautioned against scapegoating Islam.


I am here to tell you that both sides are viewing the incident too one dimensionally, colored by their biases and unquestioned assumptions. They are both getting it wrong.


By profession I am a statistical analyst and researcher. I am paid to look beyond surface indications and expectations, to remove the colored prisms that distort perceptions, and to coldly analyze what is really happening. When I do that in regard to the common reactions to the Orlando massacre (as best I can - it’s a difficult thing to do) I see three areas where a lot of my fellow queers and progressives are allowing their preconceptions to lead them to conclusions I don’t think are valid.


1. Let’s start with the trickiest and most controversial issue, at least for those of us on the left: the impact of Islam on this tragedy. Many have been concerned about people scapegoating Muslims for the Orlando attack. In the era of Trump there is certainly legitimate reason for concern. However, in the interest of that worthy goal we are minimizing the impact of Islam on this particular incident and on queer liberation in general. And many are going further and transferring the guilt to more palatable subjects: Christians and American society in general.


In a conversation with the New York Times shortly after the shooting, professor and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt predicted just such a reaction. “The left is very worried about homophobia,” he said, “but it’s also very worried about Islamophobia, so there is going to be some real cognitive dissonance on the left as people talk about a Muslim killing many gay people. When we hear news reports, we don’t decide what happened and then decide what to do about it. Rather, we know what we want to do, and we interpret what happened in the way that will best help us do what we want to do.”A few quotes that resulted from that cognitive dissonance are illustrative:


Writer and comedian Kristen Becker: “The man who pulled the trigger might have identified as Muslim, and a perversion of Islam even so, but Christian rhetoric really killed 50 people on Sunday — the fruit of the last two years of conservative vitriol lays on an Orlando dance floor this morning, covered in innocent blood.”


Attorney Chase Strangio of the ACLU: “The Christian Right has introduced 200 anti-LGBT bills in the last six months, and people are blaming Islam for this. No.”


Jonathan Katz, Associate Professor at Buffalo University: “What we are trying to do here is camouflage the root of the problem, which is a long history of violent political rhetoric and homophobic policies by Republican officials and their conservative allies. The ISIS thing is a distraction and it allows this tragedy to be reconfigured into a political argument against terror instead of looking at the long legacy of anti-gay violence in this country that has itself been stoked and promoted by the Christian right.”


Transgender activist Mischa Hal: “I blame Ted Cruz, Pat McCrory, and every single politician in America and around the world who has promoted fear and hatred against the LGBTQ community in attempt to garner more votes.”


We are back to the fact of human nature with which I began this piece: people believe what they want to believe. There is no rational way to make the case about the ultimate cause of Mateen’s horrific act that many of my fellow queers and progressives are trying to make. In the interest of looking for the truth as opposed to indulging our preconceptions let’s look at a few facts.


Omar Mateen was raised in a strict Muslim family with a father who has expressed support for the Taliban in Afghanistan, and has always passionately opposed homosexuality on religious grounds. Omar attended mosque regularly, and twice traveled to Saudi Arabia for religious pilgrimages.


An anti-western outlook may have developed quite early in his life. Several high school classmates say that he expressed celebration after the 9-11 World Trade Center attacks. His more recent Facebook posts reflected the same attitude. In one he wrote that “real Muslims will never accept the filthy ways of the West.” He was associated with the first American known to have carried out a suicide bombing in the Middle East. He was investigated twice as a potential terrorist. And as we know, he overtly proclaimed allegiance to ISIS in 911 calls during his murder spree and in conversations with police negotiators.


At the same time Mateen was opposed to the Christians and conservatives that some are trying to blame for generating his actions. (For what it’s worth, he was a registered Democrat.) The idea that they and their assorted anti-gay bills aroused his homophobic ire to the point of mass murder is ludicrous.


Imagine a world where the burgeoning gay acceptance of the past ten years was shared by both left and right, where even evangelical Christians supported full equality, and where all anti-gay laws had been repealed. (Yeah, I know, it’s almost orgasmic to think about!) In that world Omar Mateen would still have been antagonistic to western society, would still have been anti-gay because of his religious views, would still have supported ISIS, and would still have attacked Pulse.


Christians in America have a hell of a lot to answer for regarding society’s treatment of LGBT people over the years, but the Orlando attack is not on that list.


On a larger level an honest understanding of the world has to look at the attitude toward homosexuality of the Islamic faith and Muslims around the world. I refuse to believe what I want to believe, and so the picture I see is not a pretty one. All major branches of Islam are harshly antagonistic toward homosexuality. Sharia law mandates death as punishment for acts (as opposed to feelings that aren’t acted upon), and ten Muslim countries do indeed have the death penalty in their legal codes for gay activity. Punishments in other countries are also harsh.


A Pew Research Center survey in 2013 found that 83% of people in the seven Muslim countries in the survey were opposed to societal acceptance of homosexuality. 


When Russia passed new anti-gay laws in 2013 we as a community raised quite a stink, with boycotts, dumping of Russian alcohol, pressure to withdraw from the Moscow Olympics, etc. However, anti-gay laws in Muslim countries are significantly worse than the Russian laws. But we as a community have been eerily silent about how those countries treat our queer brothers and sisters. I think it’s time that we as a country, we as queer organizations, and we as individuals begin to confront those countries (and homophobic groups and leaders in the United States as well).


We have to continue to fight against Islamaphobia in all its forms, we have to recognize and stress the fact that Muslims as a group were predominantly horrified by Orlando. But at the same time we should understand and confront the homophobic attitudes of much of the Muslim world. We can do both at the same time, and we on the left need a better balance than we’ve had.


2. There has been considerable concern among my fellow queers that Orlando represents some sort of return to the bad old days of an earlier era, with rampant fear and necks sore from constantly looking over our shoulders. Many have said that we once again have a target on our backs.


Two of the LGBT organizations to which I belong sent out emails with that type of language, one referring to Orlando being emblematic of an “epidemic” of anti-queer violence. A TV news report about our local Pride celebration included a comment from one person that Orlando showed how dangerous it is to be gay in this country. Another person said “these gay killings have to stop.”


Those fears are widespread, but they are unfounded. Take off those tinted lenses and consider the most important fact in this whole situation. Omar Mateen was ONE troubled man. Orlando, as horrific as it was, was one incident. ISIS has not issued a call for the killing of American gays. The acceptance of gays in American society has never been greater, and societal trends continue to push in that direction. There simply is no rational way to say that there is an “epidemic of violence.”


One reason why some felt more vulnerable was the arrest of James Wesley Howell shortly after the Orlando killings. Howell was arrested for possession of multiple guns and other suspicious items while on his way to the Los Angeles Pride celebration. The police department originally tweeted that Howell had said he wanted to “harm” the parade. At that point gay fears began to rise dramatically. The ultimate safe space of a gay club had just been viciously violated, and now a second person had apparently been intending to commit similar mass murder.


However, it soon came out that the police tweet was erroneous, and Holmes had not expressed an intent. More importantly, Holmes was either gay or bisexual (different friends used different terms), and in fact had been living with a boyfriend until recently. Interestingly, as soon as those facts came out Holmes rapidly disappeared from the news cycle.


With Holmes out of the picture, the scenario of multiple homophobic attackers reverted to being a scenario with one self-radicalized and rather unbalanced man. Or possibly a closeted, guilt-ridden and conflicted gay man. (More on that speculation later.) Again, there is no trend, there is no epidemic, there is no need for the fear and unease we’ve been experiencing.


A word of caution is wise, however. With any high profile event there is some danger of a copycat. And since ISIS has executed several men simply for being gay, and Islam as practiced by many around the world is strongly anti-gay, there is a danger that people seeking to further the radical agenda could choose additional gay targets. But as of now those concerns are theoretical.


3. Conservatives have spewed a lot of nonsense about gun control - from saying that talking about it is politicizing a tragedy to suggesting that a heavily armed citizenry would be a good idea to claiming that any reasonable gun restrictions would have no impact on mass killings. I could write a whole piece contesting those arguments, but that would be preaching to the choir, and the world has too much of that already.


Rather, I want to talk about how we on the left react to the confluence of the gun issue and mass shootings. Immediately following the Orlando attack the dominant reaction can be summed up as follows: “Here we go again. What can we do to stop these attacks?” President Obama and many others had a ready answer. “If we want to stop incidents like this we have to do something about the guns.”


I’ve been a passionate gun control supporter for years. If I had my way we’d have licenses, mandatory training, extensive background checks, and bans on assault-type weapons and large magazines. But the simple reality is that gun control won’t have a significant impact on the types of attacks we’ve seen with depressing frequency over the past few years. Expanded background checks, extension of the terror watch list to gun purchases, waiting periods, closing the gun show loophole - none of these would have had any impact on Omar Mateen, or the San Bernardino terrorists, or the Sandy Hook killer, or many more.


There is some evidence that a ban on assault type weapons could have SOME impact. There were somewhat fewer incidents fitting the FBI definition of “mass shootings” during the ten years of the assault weapons ban that was on the books from 1994-2004 as opposed to the ten year periods both before and after the ban. I’m all in favor of instituting a similar ban, but consider the reality. There are already huge numbers of these guns in circulation, and a black market of both those and illegal imports would thrive. Further, as a Facebook acquaintance who served in the military pointed out to me, the lethal AR-15 is not classed as an assault rifle, and there are a lot of weapons that fall short of the assault weapons category that can do a lot of damage. Dylann Roof used a .45-caliber handgun in the Charleston church murders.


The best we can say about gun control is that it’s a place to start, and will perhaps save a few lives. That is certainly worthwhile, and is worth pursuing. But as the primary solution to stopping mass attacks? Alas, no.


The big mystery in this whole story is this: was Omar Mateen gay or bisexual? If so, what role did that play in his decision to kill 49 of his fellow human beings, most of whom were queer? And why are our reactions to this question all wrong?


Beginning shortly after the attack reports came in from multiple people, including two performers at the club, that Mateen had been at Pulse several times over a period of years. Other gay men said they had interacted with him on gay dating or chat apps. And, most astonishing of all, a heavily disguised man gave an interview to Univision in which he claimed Mateen was gay, and his attack at Pulse on Hispanic night was revenge for being spurned, and for being told that an Hispanic man he had sex with had tested positive for HIV.


Wow! If true that would dramatically change the entire narrative. But was it true? The FBI interviewed the Univision interviewee and the people who claimed prior communications with Mateen. They inspected his internet searches and worked with gay app companies to try to find overt proof of a gay past. So far they have reported no evidence to indicate that he had participated in any gay activity.


My own feeling is that there is about a 50% chance he was gay or bisexual. It is rare that in a situation with so much smoke - multiple witnesses and multiple claimants of prior contact, many of whom have been willing to go on the record - there is not some sort of fire. And someone with a huge conflict between his religion and his urges, who felt shame for those urges, would be extraordinarily careful to cover his tracks in the digital world.


Further, the FBI has not covered itself in glory regarding its earlier interactions with Mateen, having interviewed him several times, and then removed him from the terrorist watch list. So far they have not been forthcoming about details of what they’ve found or whom they’ve interviewed. At least a couple of men who claimed prior contact say they have not been interviewed.


I have been both amused and disconcerted by several online fights, replete with typical name calling, that I’ve seen on gay sites regarding the question of Mateen’s sexuality. People who don’t want the shooter to be gay are quite vociferous about attacking as “self-loathing” those who do think he was likely gay. And the latter attack the former for having their heads in the sand and being unwilling to see the truth.


Why is it so hard to withhold judgment, to leave the question hanging since we don’t have a definitive answer? I’m especially amused by those who stridently claim Mateen couldn’t have been gay, that the “proof” is so flimsy, that the multiple people claiming prior contact mean nothing. These are likely the same people who adamantly claim that certain celebrities are gay because a friend of a cousin heard somewhere that the celebrity had been seen in a gay bar.


But wait, here is the important fact that everyone is missing: IT ABSOLUTELY DOESN’T MATTER whether Mateen was gay or bisexual. As I said previously, he was just one man. If he was gay it says nothing about gay people. We’ve known for decades that there is often an internal struggle for gay people who are also deeply religious. If ONE MAN allowed that struggle to lead to murder it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, and it doesn’t tell us anything about the queer community as a whole. The most important truism of statistical analysis is that a single occurrence means absolutely nothing. That is even more true when the single occurrence is impacted by the chaos of one man’s troubled mind.


Orlando was a shattering, tragic event. Many beautiful people were taken away from us forever. But don’t invest the event with more power than it had. Don’t let it change you, don’t let it make you afraid. Our inexorable and unstoppable march toward true queer liberation and equality continues as before. 

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