Five things the Orlando massacre taught us about homophobia

It’s always a bit discomforting, hearing straight people talk about homophobia. As though it were an abstraction, an academic concept to be proved or not proved, and not a daily, lived experience, felt in bones, over years.

Not a dancefloor slippery with blood in Florida. Or a stream of still, bodies borne out of a dark club, where hours before they danced.

When my best friend came out in her early 20s, I felt every slight; the arched eyebrows of snobbish childhood acquaintances, the turned back of an old friend at a wedding, the stupid mocking of stupid boys she had spurned. The faces that stared or leered when she held hands with her girlfriend.

And I knew the only place she really felt safe was in the clubs that flashed and pulsed and shook with music.

Our dancing – for hours on end, greeting sunrises – was a joyful escape for me. For her, it was sweet liberation, safety, and solidarity, though those words seem inadequate to describe the bliss I saw on her face when she found her tribe, one that shone and shimmied and laughed in the face of everything.

So when we talk about what happened in Orlando, the fact that many straight people have been denying the potency and direct targeting of the violence at the LGBTQI community is risible.

Yes, I am straight too, and have not been persecuted for my sexuality, so I can’t claim special insights into what it means to be hated for who you are.

But I spent many years in those clubs as my friends bloomed, spun and grinned the hours away in places where they felt free.

And last weekend, those same friends wept and raged as they tried to fathom what was both the worst gun massacre in recent US history and the greatest atrocity committed against LGBTI people on American soil.

Deliberately targeted, gunned down by a man who seems to have been sick with self-loathing because he, too, had been to the club many times.

So why was the fact that this was a slaughter of LGBTI people erased from some official reports, and diminished by commentators?

Isn’t this the time to stand shoulder to shoulder? It is against the law to be gay in 73 countries: you can be killed for it in ten of them.

We tout our freedom as a sign of the superiority of the West – but are the roots of our tolerance as shallow as the Guardian has claimed?

There were legion examples of people applauding the deaths of LGBTQI people which frankly don’t merit repeating.

One witless Baptist pastor from Sacramento even thanked God for the deaths, saying: “The tragedy is that more of them didn’t die…”

Surely this nightmarish episode has taught us not just that American gun laws are (still) desperately in need of reform, and that terror occurs in many rapidly morphing forms, but about homophobia, too.

Here are a few of the things we have learnt.

1. You will not fully comprehend what it is like to grieve fifty tribes-people if you are not part of that tribe.

As columnist Owen Jones said in understandable fury before storming off the set of a Sky News interview, you will not understand if you are not gay what it means that a large crowd of gay people were slaughtered.


Surely this is an obvious point. It does not mean that we are not all horrified and angry. But it means that if persecuted people are targeted, we have to pay witness to that persecution – otherwise, however unwittingly, we will add to it.

2. It must be named.

If it is not, then people will not understand what it is.

Take the repellent tweet from Family First Senate candidate Peter Madden: “Though Orlando is abhorrent, it doesn’t change the real & present dangers of the gay marriage agenda to Aus children.”

Madden has since apologised, but in doing so, he said he had “no idea that it would offend so many people.” To not know this is stunning.

3. Being deliberately targeted for murder feels like hate. And hate is taught.

As Chad Griffin, the head of Human Rights Campaign said: “The maniac who did this was somehow conditioned to believe that LGBT people deserve to be massacred. And he wasn’t just hearing these messages from ISIL. He was hearing it from politicians and radical anti-LGBT extremists here in our own country.

“Every time we see legislation that puts a target on the back of LGBT people; every time a preacher spews hate from the pulpit; every time a county clerk says that acknowledging our relationships violates her ‘religious beliefs’ – it sends a signal that LGBT people should be treated differently, and worse.”

4. As with many ugly thoughts, homophobia can be internalised.

You can teach gay people to hate themselves by debating their “worth”, value and existence in public. You can teach them to hate their desires and their loves by debating whether or not they should be recognised as valid, legal, real, enduring and permanent.

As my friend wrote to me from Paris this week: “We know we’re hated, we know it every day, people tell us regularly how much they hate us and we are expected to be still and quiet and calm and not hysterical and just accept that we are hated for what we are. And sometimes we hate ourselves. Hardly surprising with the things people say about us every bloody day.

“And we live with it and we laugh and we work and we strive and we dance and we try to have some sense of community, although we are a raggedy bunch who do not agree on many things. And then we are attacked. This is not new, we have been attacked and killed for what we are for many, many years, sometimes under legislation, sometimes by strangers, sometimes by the police force, sometimes by our families.

“These things we live with because we know the vast majority of people are with us and we are not interested in being victims.”

5. We should apply the bystander approach to all instances of homophobia – the standard you walk by is the standard you accept.

The CEO of Stonewall, Ruth Hunt wrote in the Telegraph that: “Although attacks like these are certainly the most horrific and deadly form of homophobia, we must not forget that they are part of a continuum that starts in smaller and sometimes hidden instances of discrimination.

“We must never be complacent about those, write them off as banter or ‘one offs’ or shy away from calling something out for fear of being labelled overly sensitive.

“It’s paramount that we recognise the fact that these instances are linked and, while not putting ourselves in direct danger, do what we can to intervene and prevent discrimination taking place around us.

“Call out your friend’s transphobic joke he makes in the pub. Explain to your colleague why saying something ‘is gay’ is unacceptable, and report any instance of hate crime you witness to the police.”

We all agree we must fight the grotesque barbarity of terror. And most of us – at least in this country – that reform of gun laws is imperative to preventing massacres.

Surely we can also agree that, from the brutal to the banal, we should expose and fight homophobia in all its ugly forms.