The Orlando Shooter Was Born into America's Culture of Violence

Much has been made of the killer's apparent interest in ISIS, but less time has been spent looking at the ways Mateen fit other patterns of violence.

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Jun 17 2016, 4:00am

Photos of Omar Mateen taken from his MySpace account

In the days since the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, much has been made of Omar Mateen's sexuality, as well as his alleged ISIS connections (or lack thereof). Depending on the person you're listening to, he was either a closeted homosexual lashing out, or a religious fanatic inspired by ISIS propaganda. While either or both of those things may well be true, Mateen was also surrounded by other forms of violence and bigotry that might help to paint a picture of his warped worldview. According to his ex-wife, Mateen had a history of domestic violence. He also spent most of his life in a state notorious for its antiquated views on sexuality. In fact, there is still an anti-sodomy law on the books in Florida, despite the Supreme Court having ruled that such laws were illegal in 2003. And according to Equality Florida, 22 percent of hate crimes in the state are motivated by homophobia and/or transphobia. Nationwide, violence against the LGBTQ community was the most common form of hate crime tracked by the FBI in 2014.

The fact that the attack occurred on a Latin night also fits into this country's traditional narrative of violence. Earlier this week, a report released by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (a group that "works to prevent, respond to, and end all forms of violence against and within LGBTQ communities") stated that more than 62 percent of anti-queer homicides in 2015 was aimed at queer people of color. Although Mateen apparently told victims he "didn't have a problem with black people," the vast majority of the dead and wounded were people of color.

Was Mateen a closeted gay man who put himself through the ringer of American masculinity in an attempt to fit in, before finally denying his true feelings in the most violent way imaginable? Was he just your garden-variety murderous straight man (98 percent of all mass shootings in America are committed by men)? Was he radicalized by ISIS, or was ISIS a prop to express violent and homophobic feelings he already harbored inside?

We might never know the answers to those questions. What we do know is that America still has some unsavory attitudes toward the LGBTQ community, even from the state level, and that we live in a very violent society—more than 33,000 Americans were killed in 2013 by guns, and the US leads high-income countries in the world in total firearm death rate. I sat down with Beverly Tillery, the executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP), to discuss how Mateen's acts fit into the broader pattern of anti-queer violence in America.

VICE: Let's start with the basics. How prevalent is anti-queer violence today?
Beverly Tillery: Unfortunately, hate violence is still very common. AVP coordinates a national coalition of anti-violence programs, and we track incidences of hate violence and other forms of violence against LGBT people. We are all seeing high numbers of instances of hate violence all across the country. It's still a reality for a lot of LGBT people. One of the things that we're seeing is that violence is particularly impacting LGBT communities of color, LGBT youth, transgender, and gender nonconforming people especially, and transgender women of color/women of color especially. The most vulnerable among us.

What's causing this violence?
A lot of things. We need to talk about the larger questions of what behavior is considered acceptable and what's not acceptable. I would say that the climate of violence is encouraged by the anti-LGBT laws that are sweeping this country. People are saying, "We think this is a group of people that does not deserve to have rights, and we're going to do whatever we can to make sure they don't have rights." Which is really the same as saying, "We don't see these people as the same as us, as fully worthy and human." This tells people that we're not protecting this group, and that it's OK to be violent to LGBT people.

"We want to change attitudes and the way people see LGBT people. The answer is not to lock everybody up who is not supportive or hasn't had an opportunity to deal in a really deep way with their homophobia."

What is internalized homophobia's role in anti-queer violence?
I don't want to make assumptions about this case, but I will say that if you are living in a society that tells you that it is not OK to be LGBT, whether you're on the outside of the community or part of the community, you're getting those messages. And those messages are powerful.

That doesn't mean that you're necessarily going to be violent. But it is certainly the case that we all are absorbing those messages of hate. How that plays out for somebody who may be questioning their identity? Well, it doesn't make you feel like the world is a safe place for you! We know that youth who do not get the support of their families and their communities are at risk for dangerous behaviors, and they're at risk to end up on the street. It puts us at risk when we are trying to figure out who we are, and society tells us that what we think we are is not good. So it does contribute to again a climate of both lack of security for LGBT people and violence.

In many of these situations, having someone just stand up and say this is not OK would make a huge difference.

What do you think about hate-crimes legislation as a way to combat anti-queer violence?
We really caution against any solution that contributes to criminalizing more people in our society. The LGBT community and communities of color are already devastated by criminalization, and we do not want to add any more people to the list of groups who are being overly policed, overly criminalized.

We want to change attitudes and the way people see LGBT people. The answer is not to lock everybody up who is not supportive or hasn't had an opportunity to deal in a really deep way with their homophobia. We really have to figure out how do we dismantle systems of oppression and hate, because that's the only way we're going to be able to build a better society and communities where we can all live together safely.

What can people who are concerned about anti-queer violence do?
There is so much that is happening in our country that we all need to pay attention to! I think it is in some ways easy for people to get distracted by saying that this was such a huge tragedy, and there is nothing anyone could have done to prevent it.

But violence is happening every day, and it's happening in all kinds of ways, throughout our communities, and there are ways people can intervene. People can stand up and let survivors of this violence know that they are not alone, that other people are watching and paying attention. In many of these situations, having someone just stand up and say this is not OK would make a huge difference.

Follow Hugh Ryan on Twitter.

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