Understanding the Orlando Tragedy Through Contexts of Culture, Religion and Rejection

Could the rejection of Omar Mateen’s sexuality by his family and society have led him to kill 49 people at gay night club Pulse?

Omar Mateen in a file photo. Reuters

Omar Mateen in a file photo. Reuters

The motivations of the killer and the cultural context of the June 12 Orlando shooting will be discussed for years to come. The terror of that night in Orlando is chilling: Omar Mateen shot dead 49 people and wounded 50 in the gay nightclub Pulse, with a high-capacity assault rifle and a pistol, over three dreadful hours.

Mateen may have been conflicted about his sexuality. When news broke out about this, my Facebook feed, like that of many other gay men, featured many “I knew it” statements. There was something about those initial pictures – posing, masculinity and looks included – that we recognised. But to perpetuate such horrific violence from a repressed sexuality was shockingly unrecognisable. As we mourned, media pages filled with political talk about the culture of guns, religion and flags that led to this massacre.

Now the picture keeps getting filled in. Mateen may have been gay. His overbearing father, Seddique Mateen, has given several interviews to the media. The paternal assertions of the son’s heterosexuality have been almost as vehement as the denunciation of the son’s deeds. The son must be remembered as a straight murderer. A few accounts reveal that Mateen would get drunk and complain about his father. This heinous tragedy was written a long time ago. Mateen might have killed the very people he loved and redeemed his father. It now remains to the father to save the son’s ‘masculinity’.

There exist many literary and visual narratives of rejection from family and society that feature violence. They are mostly about self-destruction and many feature romantic and erotic fulfilment. Fugitives run from the law and meet a tragic end. Thelma and Louise‘s end is redemptive. In the Argentinian film, Burnt Money, based on a true story, two gay lovers rob a bank and flee to Punta del Este, Uruguay and die in a shootout on a street now featured in tourist books. There is a dark story from Jean Genet, with a film version from Rainer Fassbinder, where Querelle, the gay sailor is a murderer. Submitting to gay sex is his salvation. Yukio Mishima’s reactionary versions of nationalism and Samurai violence contain visions of homoerotic masculinities. None of these historical and fictional narratives prepared any of us for the tragic violence in Orlando.

There is also an important narrative of rejection of a particular type of gay masculinity from within the gay community. While June is often the month of celebrating gay pride, the LGBT community is self-aware that many of the spaces of gay pride foster a specific type of hyper-sexuality. Pictures of chiseled and mostly white gay men, atop gay pride floats or on the dance floors of clubs reinforce this narrative. There are accounts of Mateen, sitting in a corner of the Orlando gay club and drinking heavily, that could speak to this rejection.

The tragic result of the rejection of Mateen’s sexuality by his family or the gay community – although there is no evidence of the latter – does not correlate with the typical story in the gay community. Every gay man has experienced familial and social rejection. Some have sat in a corner drinking, others have attempted suicide and the same people have risen to fame and fortune, written works of poetry and fiction, or participated in social movements and activist politics.

Mateen did not seek his redemption in love, poetry or fame. He picked up an assault rifle and a pistol and killed dozens, while calling a friend on the phone and using Facebook to announce his allegiance to the terrorist group ISIS. This is the work of a deranged man. Most of the dead came from US minorities. A friend who seldom goes to gay nightclubs remarked that Orlando’s Pulse was the kind of multicultural gay club he would have visited. Mateen carried out his massacre in a place that would have accepted him.

The cultural meanings of the Mateen story will not stop with the killer’s pathology. The cultural contexts within which this story is re-interpreted are going to be different from the psychological and strictly legal interpretations of this shooting. It is important that we keep them separate to not simplistically ascribe any religious or cultural motivation to the cold-bloodied massacre.

Cultural contexts are, nevertheless, important for understanding the lenses through which we understand this tragedy. Culture is often about politics and religion. The outpouring of love and sympathy from politics and religion of all stripes in the US is truly remarkable. So is the evolving affixation of this tragedy in Islamic terrorism versus gun violence terms, played out across the political divides in the US.

This human tragedy has not deterred the demagogues and fundamentalists.

Foul-mouthed warrior Donald Trump was the first to shoot off his mouth and blame all of Islam and President Barack Obama for the tragedy. Several Christian fundamentalist preachers and elected representatives came next. They denounced the gay community and the people who were killed. Then, of course, there is the culture of violence. An overwhelming majority of the American population wants gun controls but the well-funded gun lobby in the US will brook no dissent in selling even assault rifles to the American population with little or no background checks. The LGBT community has rightly pointed out that LGBT people and clubs have been the sites and target of shootings and hate crimes for a long time.

The most difficult question remains that of Islamic fundamentalism, which like its other religious counterparts, continues to denounce homosexuality. This puts Muslim LGBT activists in the most unfortunate position: that of arresting the stereotypes with which Muslim community is often perceived in large chunks of American society and media while at the same time challenging the operational mores of Islam on homosexuality. Like every other religion, there are moderate and historical antecedents to the vast diversity and scriptural codes underlying Islam. The religion I was raised in, Sikhism, quotes Islamic Sufi poetry to manifest its openness to God, wonder and love.

Nevertheless, the Orlando shooting has also brought to the forefront the non-acceptance of homosexuality among Islamic societies. Muslim LGBT and human rights activists know this already and do not need the paternal authority of non-Muslim writers such as myself to remind them. Nevertheless, their task moving forward is complicated. For Muslim activists to deny the bigotry within pockets of Islam toward homosexuality would be akin to a progressive gender activist claiming that women in India are not oppressed. To quote scripture to denounce a woman who has been raped is horrific. As is the act of citing a Quran, a Bible, or a Granth Sahib to condemn or kill gay people.

Omar’s father Seddique Mateen referenced religion on CNN to clarify a homophobic claim he had made. It is up to God to judge and punish the gays, he said. He also repeated his claim that the son was repulsed at the sight of two men kissing each other. We now know that his son was frequently around men kissing and loving each other. Culturally, we are now left with two conflicting but linked and unresolved narratives.

J. P. Singh is Professor of Global Affairs and Cultural Studies at George Mason University. Many of his scholarly books and articles are about the politics of cultural identity.