Before we even knew how many innocent lives were lost in the massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando on Sunday, many were already rushing to lay blame. Media commentators, politicians and bystanders alike speculated out loud. Anyone who could do something like this, many agreed, couldn’t be one of us. Our kind could never be capable of such inhumanity. It must be a Muslim, a maniac, an immigrant, an other. And while the gunman claimed to be Muslim, and according to an ex-wife at least, appeared to have had bipolar disorder—he was also an American, born and raised.
As an unabashed Muslim-American manic-depressive who has never attempted to kill anyone besides herself, I ask my fellow Americans to reconsider how quickly they rush to blame the presumed other for fostering the ideology that inspired this attack.
No doubt, like people of every major religion, many Muslims have been beyond unkind toward members of the LGBT community, perpetuating hatred and violence instead of the love and compassion that our faith commands. And while people with psychiatric conditions can also be violent, the vast majority of us are not.
Ultimately, the culpability for the 49 innocent lives lost and the dozens of others injured last weekend rests neither with Islam nor with mental illness, but with a single person: the shooter himself, Omar Mateen.
Still, as long as we’re playing the blame game and in light of the fact that neither Islam nor mental illness necessitates brutality, why not consider the shooter’s gender, nationality and sexual orientation as well?
Men, it turns out, are far more likely to be violent than women—both against themselves and others. Furthermore, Americans are far more violent than citizens of other so-called developed nations. Of course, neither maleness nor Americanness demands violence any more than Muslimness or mental illness.
Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that as an American, Mateen was legally entitled to gun ownership by an outdated Constitutional Amendment that is defended literally to the death by one of the most powerful lobbies in the country. Likewise, as an American, Mateen was subject to the same rampant societal racism and homophobia as the rest of us—a reality that it’s hard to imagine didn’t somehow influence his choice to attack a gay nightclub on “Latin night.”
Moreover, as a man, Mateen was of course a product of patriarchy and its double-edged sword, encouraging men to be men. Translation: violence against men is respectable if you’re wearing a uniform; violence against women is acceptable if you’re at home, and of course, don’t cry, don’t emote and above all, don’t be gay.
So it should come as no surprise that a potentially closeted self-hating homosexual man may well have been the fanatical homophobe behind what nearly every major media outlet has been so quick to call the “deadliest mass shooting in American history,” conveniently forgetting a bevy of Native American massacresupon which this nation was built. Reports are now emerging that Mateen frequented Pulse, the same gay nightclub he subsequently terrorized, and that he had his own profile on a gay dating app.
Of course, were Mateen gay, this wouldn’t be the first time we saw a homosexual man viciously attack other homosexuals. Some of the most rabidly antigay conservatives, men who have fiercely fought LGBT rights tooth and nail, have turned out to be gay. We point to these men as the personifications of hypocrisy, while our society continues to soak in a fetid cesspool of homophobia. Is it any wonder that some homosexuals would react to that homophobia by internalizing it, lionizing it and then inflicting it on others?
For all the innocent people who have lost their lives as a result of what may well have been Mateen’s internalized homophobia turned outward, countless others lose their lives every day as a result of internalized homophobia and transphobia turned inward.
While it rarely makes headlines, suicide is far more common than homicide. In the US, more than 60 percent of all gun fatalities are suicides and more than half of all suicides are gun-related. Furthermore, among the LGBT community, suicide is nearly an epidemic. I know this because I have seen the statistics, but also because I’ve seen what these statistics look like up close and personal.
For years, I’ve fought for LGBT rights as a dedicated ally. I have urged Muslim-majority countries to recognize and respect LGBT rights, just as I have urged my current home state of North Carolina to do the same. Along the way—through my writing, speaking and yelling in the streets—I have made some extraordinary friends.
As a result, I was recently invited to speak in my capacity as a mental health advocate at an LGBT Muslim Retreat. I knew that two hours wouldn’t be nearly enough for my session, but I did my best within the time allotted to counter the brutal shame and stigma surrounding mental illness, particularly in Muslim and other minority communities. I spent the rest of the retreat fielding questions and bearing witness to people’s mental health histories, including suicidality and all sorts of unimaginable traumas endured largely as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
At the end of that weekend, I felt both empowered and exhausted. Having received death threats for my own LGBT activism, I was well aware of why we were asked to disable the GPS on our phones and avoid posting photos that might reveal our location. Even still, I knew that the greatest threat to this community wasn’t a random act of bigotry and violence, but rather a targeted act of socially constructed self-destruction.
The night before I left, I spent several hours in conversation with a transgender man who was actively suicidal. Having been hospitalized before, he had been raped on a psychiatric ward, held for weeks against his will and repeatedly violated emotionally at the hands of people who were supposed to be helping and protecting him. Nothing I said could convince him to seek help from a system that had already failed him beyond measure, and I knew that sending him back to a psychiatric facility would all but ensure his suicide. So I did the only thing I could: I listened.
Like me and like Omar Mateen, he too had grown up in the miasma of sexism, racism, colonialism, Islamophobia and homophobia that has combined to create the America we know and love today, full of people who want to restore our “greatness” (read, imported whiteness), via vehement xenophobia. But what these same Americans fail to see is that our “greatness,” borne of genocide and built on stolen land, is killing us.
We cannot deny, as columnist Charles Blow so keenly noted in noted in the The New York Times on Thursday, that Omar Mateen was indeed an American-made monster—as much a product of American culture, American homophobia and American foreign policy as of his proclaimed religion, his mental health status and his Y chromosome.
Don’t get me wrong. I am a proud American who thanks God for all of the freedoms that this extraordinary country has afforded me, including the freedom to write and publish this. In plenty of other countries, including the one from which my parents emigrated, this kind of criticism might easily earn me a visit from some not-so-secret police.
Still, as a proud Iranian-American-Muslim who refuses to lose the hyphens, I believe in this infant nation, and I want it to grow up and make something of itself. For that to happen, however, we Americans need to take a long hard look in the mirror.
In our reflection, we find a country that is more divided than ever, and yet one that longs to be united, to truly stand for justice and liberty for all. So far, we have fallen painfully short of that aim, but hope is not lost. We are not merely the country that created Omar Mateen; we are also the country that created Muhammad Ali.
It’s time to pull ourselves together and recognize that our reflection extends far beyond the white, straight, able-bodied, cisgender, neurotypical, male ideal. It’s time for America to make room for everyone. It’s time to grow up. It’s time to listen. For like it or not, those of us who don’t fit within that inane ideal are already here, standing our ground and constructing our own definitions and aspirations of greatness.