Madeleine Holden examines the damaging narratives that have surfaced in response to Orlando attacker Omar Mateen’s personal life.
In the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history, reports are surfacing that the Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen, was gay—or, at least, struggled with his sexuality and frequented gay clubs, with accounts on gay hook-up apps like Grindr. Some people have made the (good, valid, necessary) point that this complicates the mainstream media’s narrative that Mateen was motivated by his allegiance to “radical Islam”, and they have criticised the knee-jerk racism and xenophobia present in much of the mainstream media after the attack.
Unfortunately, many people have also declared that Mateen was clearly a “closet homosexual”, and that his shooting was fuelled by psychotic self-hatred and mental illness. Comments sections are teeming with announcements like, “I called it!!”, “that was obvious”, “he’s clearly mentally ill” and “the biggest homophobes are always closet gays”.
There are multiple problems with this line of reasoning. To begin with, let’s get a quick terminological point out of the way: we should talk about gay people, not “gays” and “homosexuals”, unless we want to dehumanise LGBT people by conflating their entire identities with their sexuality. Despite the (sometimes understandable) feeling that “language policing” has proliferated out of control in these “PC times”, the words we use to describe each other are the most basic foundation for how we understand and treat each other. In other words, language matters.
Moreover, these glib, self-congratulatory sentiments betray a harmful misunderstanding of both mental illness and sexuality, each of which can be dealt with in turn.
Firstly, mental illness. It is reasonable to assume that any person who commits mass murder is seriously disturbed and has a dangerous, anti-social personality, but the knee-jerk, wildly unspecific claim that Mateen must have been “mentally ill” does much more harm than good. For a start, it’s a meaningless, inaccurate claim based on little more than armchair psychology, but it has the terrible side effect of further stigmatising all people with mental illnesses, suggesting that this already maligned and marginalised group is untrustworthy and prone to violence.
In fact, the vast majority of people with mental illnesses are not violent—and are, in fact, more likely than others to be victims of violence—and most violent people are not mentally ill. Amateur diagnoses by armchair psychologists only serve to perpetuate myths and stigmas about mood and psychotic disorders like bipolar and schizophrenia, so we should stop doing it.
Secondly, let’s turn to sexuality; and, in particular, the depressingly common trope that “the biggest homophobes are always closet gays.” Let’s be perfectly clear: homophobia is not a gay problem. While some LGBT people who are struggling with their identities certainly exhibit internalised homophobia (and transphobia), homophobia is a widespread, institutional problem most often perpetuated by straight people.
Homophobia taints every aspect of society, from our laws to our family structures, art and languages. Powerful people who are tasked with creating and upholding these institutions—judges, politicians, police, screenwriters and CEOs—are overwhelmingly straight. Most people who bash gay men in the streets and call them “faggots” are straight men. Most people who try to rape lesbians straight are straight men. Most people who murder trans women are straight men.
The idea that most homophobic attacks are committed by closeted gay people is not only factually incorrect, it also has the unfortunate effect of casting the victims of homophobia as perpetrators; a tidy little rhetorical device that lets straight people off the hook for how LGBT people are treated.
The short point is, we are not in a position to wax lyrical about the motives of mass murderers like Mateen, whether he’s gay or not. If you gleefully announced that you “called it” when he was reported to be gay, or you felt the need to say that it was “obvious” or “made sense”, you haven’t revealed yourself to be a prescient predictor of world affairs; you’ve only contributed to a limited and stereotyped understanding of sexuality and homophobia, internalised or otherwise.
Let’s not add uninformed, harmful narratives about mental illness and sexuality to the damaging narratives already propagated about “radical Islam” and the supposedly unique levels of homophobia among Muslims. We don’t need to rush to pretend that we understand the motives of Mateen and people like him, especially if our language throws the LGBT community and people with mental illnesses under the bus.
Perhaps we don’t need to say much at all about the surfacing news about Mateen’s sexuality, except to continue to express our overwhelming compassion, support and love for those affected by this tragedy, and all the other tragedies like it.