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Fear and Loathing in Orlando

[Vigil in Orlando commemorating victims of Pulse Mass Shooting. [Vigil in Orlando commemorating victims of Pulse Mass Shooting.

The drumbeats have started. Almost immediately after a mass shooting that left over fifty people dead on Latin night in a Florida gay nightclub, Pulse, the news shifted to the identity of the shooter himself. As soon as his name and the fact that his father immigrated (long ago) from Afghanistan was announced, the narrative began unfolding as Naeem Mohaiemen put it, on cue: This must be a terrorist attack. This is clearly an ISIS attack, or an attack pledging allegiance to ISIS, or someone who followed a feed of jihadi kittens a little too far down the twitter-hole. It smelled of ISIS, and the smell was coming, radiating off of the race and religion of the shooter. That same day a white man was stopped with a stockpile of weapons near LA Pride, but he was different—he was clearly disturbed—the news never became a narrative and quickly disappeared off our screens and thought pieces.

Newer reports emphasize that the killer may himself have had same sex desires and perhaps experiences. There is now another layer to this narrative: perhaps the killer was secretly gay and so self-loathing (because of his religion and “cultural” background”) that he walked into a packed nightclub with an assault rifle and shot out his frustration. Again, the cause of his inability to accept himself is the same culprit, Islam and “Muslim culture,” and not, as Lisa Duggan put it, the toxic masculinity that pervades a gun-obsessed and masculinist US security state at a time of war and empire. The United States is in the midst of an election cycle where bigotry, racism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-immigration, Islamophobia, gun-love, imperial hubris, and sexism are political platforms—and political and national culture is not something one can “opt out” or into depending on ethnicity, race, religion, sex, gender, or even “free will.”

There is a fascination with the fate of queer Muslims, and of the “fate” of LGBTQ individuals “in” Islam. Just today, before writing this piece, I rejected emails from three journalists who comments solely on “homophobia in Islam.” I have no problem stating the obvious: Islam is not welcoming to LGBTQ individuals or communities. My problem is that the rest of that sentence—that neither Judaism nor Christianity are— will not be heard or if heard, will be seen as a deluded apology. This fascination with the fate of queers “in” Islam or (slightly more carefully) “in the Middle East” is built on orientalist fantasies of sexual licentiousness and repression, as argued persuasively by Said and Massad. It is coupled with the strategic goals of a devastating war on terror that is being sold to the “civilized” world as a public good in service of human and sexual rights. This package is also built on the good intentions of homonationalist (and homophobic) assumptions that queers everywhere want the same things, face the same struggles (which are solely discrimination based on sexuality) and value their lives and those of their communities based solely through their experiences of their sexuality.   But homophobia is not geographically, or religiously, or racially, or class-distributed. It is pervasive, structural, super-structural, hegemonic, invisible, unavoidable. More than anyone else, queers know this. Queers are used to being told they are unnatural, monstrous, and dangerous to "the good life" or the order of things—whether it is science, government, religion, media, or society, or even lovers and friends and families and situations that remind you that you will never be anything other than "different."

There are no triangles, circles or other geographic shapes that can demarcate a population or religion or phenotype or (gasp) civilization as “the homophobic one.”  The sad truth is that homophobia and misogyny are unavoidable global hegemonic forces that shape everyday life. The United States is no exception to this rule. In the past six months over one hundred anti-LGBTQ bills and laws have been tabled and discussed across the United States. These are governmental and structural manifestations of the devaluing of queer life. The most prominent of these laws are all out assaults on trans bodies and their uses of bathrooms. This law will ensure that trans people will experience even more violence and hatred than they already do, and in an already vulnerable space (bathrooms). Queers of color, queer women of color, and trans people of color (especially trans black women) are daily assaulted, killed, incarcerated, criminalized, brutalized, and raped across this country. The criminalization and wholesale removal of homeless populations from our cities also disproportionately targets queers, and those that are most vulnerable, young queers of color. Yet these daily and hourly attacks (often against the more and most vulnerable within the LGBTQ community) rarely inspire national outrage, as Sima Shasksari reminds us. They do not elicit twenty-four news hour cycles or “special programming” on mainstream news outlets.

LGBTQ Arabs and Muslims are being scripted (just as women have been and continue to be) into a discourse that uses their bodies as barometers of how civilized and/or modern our communities are. This is happening when their communities are living through a war on terror that has killed at least one and a half million people, incarcerated and wounded many more. This war on terror has made the hyphen that holds together a “Muslim-American” an oxymoron. The hyphen is a source wonder and suspicion.  Moreover, Islamophobia and its twinning with homophobia (they are homophobic, therefore we can be Islamophobic) is a global phenomenon.  In Germany, the Netherlands, and many other “secular” European countries, Arab and Muslim immigrants are tested on how homophobic and/or sexist they are during the citizenship application process. Refugees fleeing war-torn Syria and Afghanistan, many of whom are currently sequestered in highly securitized camps across Europe, are spoken of as “dangers’ to a European culture of sexual rights and homosexual liberation. Part of their “training” and “screening” includes being watched as they watch homosexuals kissing and female nudity. It is perhaps no accident that in the center of Berlin there is a holocaust memorial dedicated to the queers (and suspected queers) who were detained, abused, killed and moved to concentration camps under Nazi Germany. This memorial consists of a video loop of two men kissing in a park while dressed in clothes from the 1930s, as Haritawarn has written. Thus the sins of Nazi Germany and the fears of far right resurgence in Germany are transposed (and erased), onto the bodies of Muslim applicants seeking citizenship or residency or refugee status. The Canadian government has also suggested that when accepting Syrian refugees, the priority would be for (heteronormative) families and gay individuals.

Are queer Arabs and Muslims and South Asians dehumanized to the extent that they are imagined to be individuals who can only be the victims (not for example, producers or leaders or simply lovers) of their communities and cultures? That the only way to live a valid (and not suspicious) queer life is to “come out” according to an American script that was and is written in the language of class, gender, and race-exclusion?  That we are so deeply hated and traumatized (but only by homophobia, for example, not by war or occupation or deportation or anti-immigration election platforms) that we can be separated from our communities, our loved ones, our families, in order to find safety in countries that are waging or enabling war against those very same loved ones? The fantasy here is of an individual who can be removed without being uprooted, who can be “saved” in pieces, and who must not demonstrate fear for their loved ones, but only fear of them.

The mass shooting in a gay club is Orlando is shocking in its spectacle and terrifying in its scope and in its’ targeting of Pride Month. In its wake, those that sit at that increasingly jagged intersection of Muslim and queer look over their shoulder even as they cry in mourning. We do not shed our religions or our races or our nationalities when we enter a gay bar, and we do not and cannot shed our queer selves on demand. Nobody can shake off any of the communities that made us, and the fantasy that we can or should be able to has destroyed many lives, families, and love-stories. We cannot choose to unbecome or for that matter, become— nobody can opt out of life-history. We are not sovereign autonomous entities bumping into, or walking past, each other, and as Judith Butler has written, why the hell would we want to be?

The stakes invovled in the twinning of Islamophobia and Homophobia, or, as Jaspir Puar has written, the use of homophobia as an excuse or cover for racism, are familiar.  These stakes put us in a place where we have to apologize or explain or disavow the actions of one man with an assault weapon who happens to be a brown and Muslim American, and perhaps even someone who “could not” reconcile his sexual and emotional desires with his religion or culture. But the killer was an American man, from Florida via Queens, and in a statement to the press his father expressed a grudging and smug “tolerance” of homosexuality by stating that humans should not punish each other for the sin of homosexuality because punishment for sin is the purview of God. Is this sentiment so different from the rhetoric of “love the sinner, hate the sin” that pervades church sermons and political speeches and dinner tables with equal measure across these United States?

Muslims and Arabs and South Asians are an integral part of the LGBTQ community in the United States, just as LGBTQs are integral members of their Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities. There is no irreconcilable difference between Islam and homosexuality beyond the fact that all major religions reject and violently condemn homosexuality. This fact has never stopped people of (or born into) all major religions from affiliating with the LGBTQ community. And it has never stopped religious extremists of all religions from threatening and enacting violence towards queer people of all religions. Homophobia is not a slur, it is not exceptional, it is not the same as a hate crime. It is pervasive, internalized, and perverse to the extent that when Arab heads of state that criminalize non-heteronormative sex reach out to the US government (which is currently struggling with 100 different anti-LGBTQ bills and laws) to express their condolences, no one blinks an eye. When representatives mainstream Muslim-American communities all of a sudden discover that "LGBTQs" are deserving of "tolerance," and when pro-gun and anti-gun safety government representatives denouncing violence against them in order to cover up their own complicity in mass shootings,  they expect applause.  But we know that violence against queers is violence against queers, whether the boot at your neck belongs to a man with mental problems, a border security guard or a woman delivering a deportation order, a man who is part of a terrorist network, a garden-variety homophobe, a closet case, or a man in some form of state uniform (judicial, police, correctional). Spare us your crocodile tears.

If queer lives matter, they should matter every day, not just on a day when the religion of the perpetrator of an atrocious mass killing serves the purposes of the local and transnational military industrial complex and the war on terror. Where is the outrage against the anti-trans agenda currently being pushed by state and federal representatives? If you care about the integrity of queer life and are outraged by violence and homophobia and the devaluing of queer life—that outrage should be constant. It should not only emerge when the perpetrator of the violence is politically expedient or fits neatly into a war on terror packaging of the world, a world where the clash of civilizations is fought on the surface of bodies already ravaged by heteropatriarchy.  

Or are queers only deserving of your prayers when someone even more feared and loathed by the United States mainstream kills them? 

This article is only made possible by long and inspiring, loving, and challenging conversations and silences with Sherene Seikaly and Rasha Moumneh.

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