49 dead. 53 wounded. The biggest mass killing of Americans since 9/11/2001. The descriptions of the survivors of the mass shooting in Pulse nightclub in Orlando testify to the terror that was inflicted on the patrons for three hours until the police broke into the building and killed Omar Mateen. It was a gay nightclub. People are asking: Does this venue have any special significance?
The Orlando massacre in the Pulse nightclub is added to the list of terrorist attacks in the U.S. by homegrown terrorists with radical Islamic sympathies if not recruitment: Fort Hood, Boston Marathon, San Bernardino, among others. We experience each local attack as an attack on all of us as well as on particular communities. Our hearts ache for the families of the deceased and our prayers are raised for physical healing and for eventual mental healing for the wounded.
The question asked whether the fact that the massacre in Orlando happened in a gay night club has any special significance. Certainly the shootings were especially devastating to the gay community. That’s what I want to address in this article.
We now know the basic facts. Omar Mateen was an American, born in New York City to Afghan immigrant parents. He was a Muslim who had been married twice. Omar had shown an interest in some of the Islamic terrorist groups and tweeted his allegiance to ISIS from within the nightclub as he was shooting patrons. Possible connections, either direct or indirect, with terrorist groups will be ascertained by FBI investigators.
What was in his head that may have motivated this horrendous act will be harder to discern since he is dead. However, a profile of Omar as a bullied child craving acceptance and insecure about his masculinity seems to be emerging.
Was Omar Mateen secretly gay or was he, as one acquaintance suggested, sexually confused? It’s been reported that he hung out with gay friends, frequented a gay online dating service, but does not seem to have had a homosexual relationship. People have come forward to say that he had a history of visiting gay bars and night clubs, including the Pulse, where he was a known patron and that he used gay dating service apps. His ex-wife speculated about whether he might have been gay but his father said he was angry about seeing two men kiss each other in Miami. Did he specifically target the Pulse nightclub because it was a gay venue or because it was a place he knew well and at which he could inflict maximum killing as an expression of his professed commitment to the cause of ISIS?
It seems that Afghan culture was promoted in the Mateen household. Did that include Afghan attitudes about sexuality? Afghanistan is one of 10 nations in the Middle East and Africa in which homosexual activity is punishable by death. But the situation in Afghanistan is more ambiguous. U.S. and Western troops in Afghanistan have encountered a culture in which pederasty is tolerated and boys are used as sex toys by Afghan men. I remember reading a story about this in the New York Times. Searching the internet I found the article reported by Rick Westhead, “Chaplain says senior officer aware of rapes by Afghans,” published on Sunday Dec 14 2008 by the South Asia Bureau of the Toronto Star. See http://www.thestar.com/Article/553558.
The Canadian soldiers who witnessed acts of sodomy by Afghan interpreters and soldiers were understandably disgusted by it but were told to look the other way because this is just a “cultural difference”. It is said one of the country’s favorite sayings is “women are for children, boys are for pleasure”. Read more: http://www.theworldweekly.com/reader/view/magazine/2015-04-30/afghanistans-abused-boys/3688 In this view sex with boys and men is not considered homosexual if it is for pleasure, only if it is for love. Another article reported on a study of sexual identity issues among Afghan men. See http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2010/01/28/afghan-men-struggle-sexual-identity-study-finds.html.
The use of boys as sex slaves is a custom of long standing in Afghan culture.
PBS did a documentary on “The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan.” These “dancing boys” bacha bazi are recruited from the streets and promised an education. In Afghanistan women are not allowed to dance in public, but boys are trained to dance in women’s clothing and they may be abused sexually by men after the party.
We can’t know whether this ambiguous sexual culture played any role in the formation of Omar Mateen as the son of immigrants. The Taliban reacted to this culture and tried to suppress it and if Mateen was imbibing the radical Islamic agendas he may have been opposed to any expressions of homosexuality. With the suppression of the Taliban the exploitation of boys is being revived again, as the PBS documentary demonstrated. ISIS is also clamping down on this culture in Syria and Iraq. Men condemned for homosexual activity by ISIS have been hung, stoned, and thrown off buildings. Middle Eastern radical Islamists have supported Omar Mateen’s rampage in the Pulse nightclub with vile tweets like the following.
Since Omar Mateen must have known he was on a suicide mission and texted his allegiance to the Islamic State from within the Pulse as he was killing people, one wonders whether his murder of the patrons of the gay nightclub was a final act of personal purification, even a kind of perverse atonement for possible same-sex attractions of his past life, or just a more general radical Islamic contempt for homosexual activity.
We will never know. What we do know is that he assaulted an institution that has been considered a safe place for LGBTQ people—the gay bar. This is as much a violation of “sanctuary” as Dylann Roof’s murder of participants in a Bible study in an African-American church. It was a year ago today (June 17, 2015) that Dylann killed nine people, including the pastor, in “Mother Emanuel” AME Church in Charleston. (See “Frank Answers About Why a Church-Raised Youth Would Commit Racist Murders.”)
It may seem shocking to compare a Bible study in a church with dancing in a gay bar. I am not suggesting that there is any moral equivalency, only that both have been considered “safe places,” like schools and hospitals, which have also been targeted by shooters. Gay bars were sanctuaries—safe places—in which gay people could “come out” and “act out.”
In the early 1980s I was pastor of Christ the Mediator Lutheran Church on the near south side of Chicago. We became the second Lutheran “Reconciled in Christ” congregation in Chicago (actually in Illinois). I also had to deal with the death from AIDS of two black members of the congregation who were brothers. One night a gay member of the congregation took me and another member of the congregation on a tour of Chicago gay bars from about 10 p.m.-2 p.m. so we could see where gay men met others, socialized, and solicited dates. By the time we got to the last one, guys were hopping on the dance floor. Whatever was going on in the back room (when I asked my tour guide he said, “pastor, you don’t want to know”), they felt safe in doing it.
My point in making this comparison is simply that both churches and gay bars have been places of relative safety for their communities. Historically, churches have been places of sanctuary that have been generally respected as such (even by the Nazis!). And gay bars since the 1940s have been places where even closeted gay people could “come out” of the closet for a night. Oh, yes, there were instances of bombings of African American Churches by racists, and the police raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village on June 28, 1969 was the event that ignited the gay rights movement. But a terrorist act is even more terrible when places of assumed sanctuary are violated. If Christians cannot feel safe in churches, Jews in synagogues, Muslims in mosques, students in schools, workers in work places, gays in gay bars, where does that leave us? Exposed and afraid, even in places where we thought we were safe.
As the parents of two gay sons, my wife and I are glad they grew up in the safety and support of the Evanston, Illinois community. But LGBTQ people have not always been safe and secure in the U.S., and they aren’t in 76 nations in which homosexual activity is illegal. We remember the Matthew Shepard murder in Wyoming in 1998 that spurred the enactment of hate crime law. The 22-year old student was solicited by two men who pretended to be gay in order to rob him, and when he touched the knee of one of them their homophobia kicked in and they pistol-whipped him into unconsciousness and hung him on a fence, leaving him to die. The massacre at the Pulse certainly raises safety concerns for LGBTQ people who could be assaulted and even killed in many parts of the world just because of their sexuality. Unfortunately, reactions to the Orlando massacre have included vile homophobic statements from many Americans, especially from some fundamentalist Christians, who apparently think it is OK to kill gays.
Matthew Shepard (1976-1998)
What can we do in response to this terrible event? We need to pray for our divisions to cease. We can go to our prayer services and candlelight vigils. Maybe in support of the LGBTQ community we can attend or march in a Gay Pride Parade. Maybe we can get over our own homophobia enough to accept that gay couples might hold hands, hug, or kiss in public places just as straight couples do.
As a measure with wider application in American society, but raised again in the Orlando massacre, we should definitely sign a petition calling on Congress to ban private ownership of military-type assault weapons. To put it in 1791 terms when the Bill of Rights was adopted, the second amendment allowed citizens to keep their musket and pistol (bearing arms), they but they didn’t need a cannon for hunting or protecting their home (practical reasons for bearing arms on the frontier). There are probably some other steps that can be taken with regard to gun ownership. But with these mass killings, and indiscriminate gang-related killings in south and west side Chicago neighborhoods where children are gunned down in playgrounds and on their front porches (more places of sanctuary), we are driven to ask: when will enough be enough?
Pastor Frank Senn
Rally in Minneapolis