We know a lot about Omar Mateen, the man accused of the attack on Pulse during Lantix Night. We know he beat his wife. We know he idolized the NYPD and the US army. We know he worked in a juvenile detention center. He was trained by G4S, a major player in the global prison system and operator of prisons and detention centers where torture is practiced. We know he idolized authority. This is what we know.
Mateen may have been queer himself. We don’t know. And yet, this possibility captivates us. Many people are already casting his alleged homosexuality as a reason for his violence. Despite the other substantiated explanations for his attack on the people at Pulse, many people are hypothesizing that he was a self-hating gay man whose inability to accept himself drove him to kill his own.
Curious that we would focus on this explanation for Mateen’s violence, in light of all other possible reasons for his actions, no? Well, as a student of history, I’m not surprised that we are fascinated with this possibility. Disturbed, but not surprised.
US culture is filled of images of queer and trans people as self-loathing and driven to violence, especially violence against each other. In their book Queer (In)justice, Andrea J. Ritchie, Joey L. Mogul, and Kay Whitlock call this depiction a “queer criminal archetype.” Beyond mere stereotypes, queer criminal archetypes are powerful cultural stories about queer and trans people that serve to justify criminal prosecution, especially of queer and trans people of color. Understanding these archetypes can help us identify rhetoric that serves to criminalize queer and trans people of color and understand important ways that racism and heterosexism intersect.
Ritchie, Mogul, and Whitlock identify the archetype of the “queer killer,” saying that this archetype “frames queers as people who torture, kill, and consume lives, not only for the sheer erotic thrill of it, but also to annihilate heterosexual enemies, lovers who disappoint, and anyone who thwarts the fulfillment of their unnatural, immature desires or seems like a useful stand-in for self-hating, symbolic suicide. When faced with an emotional dilemma, murder is the predictable ‘queer’ response” (Ritchie, et. al, 25 emphasis mine).
For examples of this archetype, think Leopold and Loeb, and John Wayne Gayce, two stories of “gay killers” that fascinated the American public. Or look at fiction like Buffalo Bill in “Silence of the Lambs” (a quintessential example of transmisogyny). I think that this portrayal of Mateen falls into the same pattern.
Actually, Arab men have been an especial target of this archetype. Take the classic of pinkwashing cinema “The Bubble,” which tells a fictional story about a gay Palestinian man as driven to become a suicide bomber because of homophobia. He dies in the arms of his Israeli boyfriend, the only two victims of his failed bombing in the heart of Tel Aviv.
When we consider this context, our fascination with Mateen’s alleged sexuality starts to seem to mean more than meets the eye. If we look further, we can see that some extremely racist people are using the Orlando violence to their own ends. Take Israeli President Netanyahu’s statement after the Pulse massacre:
“Why did the terrorist murder them? Because he was driven by a fanatical hatred…Now, the murderer wasn’t alone. Regimes and terrorist organizations around the world ruthlessly persecute the LGBT community. In Syria, ISIS throws gays off rooftops. In Iran, the regime hangs gays from cranes…Radical Islamist terror makes no distinction between shades of infidel…All of us are targets. We believe that all people are created in the image of God. ISIS, by contrast, believes that all people who aren’t just like them deserve to die. We will not be terrified into submission. We will fight back. And we will triumph.”
That’s a clear call for violence against Arab and Muslim people.
Drawing a conclusion from this context isn’t simple, but I’ll do my best: I think the narrative that Mateen did it because he was a self-hating gay guy is attractive because we’ve heard this story before. It’s a story that at its heart is homophobic and has been used to justify the criminal prosecution of queer people, especially people of color. We should consider whose interests it serves. And really, there is so much we know about Mateen. Why are we focused on the one piece we will never know?