By Sofa Gradin and Koen Slootmaeckers
Now that the immediate shock and grief at the homophobic attacks at Pulse in Orlando have started to settle, we can start to look beyond those first reactions. The vigils we have attended in the past week have been important spaces both for expressing our grief, and for public displays of solidarity and political anger. There is more we can and should do, however, to create a society where murders and attacks like these do not happen.
Western governments and mainstream media have been keen to portray the homophobic mass shooting as an Islamic attack on Western values. But reducing the motives to religious extremism does not capture the bigger picture. For starters, although there are sometimes links between religion and homophobia, Islam, like other religions, does not inherently incite violence or hatred against LGBT people. A lot comes down to the interpretation of the scriptures, which can go either way. Many muslim LGBTQI people gain inspiration and energy from their religion. More importantly, however, the actions of Omar Mateen make it almost impossible to justify such an interpretation. He was not a practicing Muslim. His last-minute references to ISIS and other militant organisations are better interpreted as a search for meaning and belonging than as anything religiously or ideologically informed – especially since the different organisations he pledged allegiance to (including ISIS, Al Qaeda and Hezbollah) are in conflict with each other. Taking this into consideration, it becomes clear that insisting on calling the mass shooting a Islamic attack on Western values is a political act, designed to serve nationalistic and militaristic interests rather than the interests of an open and safe society.
After it emerged that Omar Mateen frequented Pulse and used LGBT dating apps, another explanation quickly emerged and grew in popularity. In this interpretation, Mateen was a closeted gay who struggled to cope with his desires. His actions were said to be inspired by internalised homophobia. This explanation, however, makes too many unfounded assumptions and simplifications about his sexual preferences, and about identities of sexuality more generally. What is forgotten or ignored in this explanation is that sexual practices are far from always identical to a person’s sexual identity. For example, in Western culture men often masturbate together without considering themselves anything other than heterosexual, and in non-Western cultures (as well as in Western culture a century ago) identities of sexual orientation are either different from the LGBT umbrella we take for granted in Europe, or they are colonial impositions.
Whilst religion and (alleged) sexual desires are certainly part of the explanation, singling them out as the sole explanation deflects attention away from other pieces of the puzzle, avoiding any self-criticism of Western society. The reality is that this attack was not primarily caused by the supposedly external threat of Islamic radicalism, nor by the internal pathology of one erratic individual. If we put up a mirror to our own society, we can see several structures that produce the bases for recurrent shootings, attacks and murders.
One of the obvious problems in relation to Pulse Orlando is the issue of lax US gun laws. But the availability of guns cannot explain why such attacks happen, only the specifics of how they happen.
To find the underlying causes of the attack we must look deeper into the fabric of our society. Considering other mass shootings and attacks, one cannot ignore the fact that these are predominantly carried out by men. Most often these are individuals who have been facing obstacles on their road to achieving the identity of the ‘successful man’, and who overcompensate by turning to a violent expression of masculinity. Indeed, some blogs and articles on the Pulse shooting have already drawn attention to what they call ‘toxic masculinity’ – a type of masculinity that overemphasises superiority, physical dominance and aggression. Whilst such an analysis has not reached the mainstream, it is important to consider since it highlights the bloody and violent reality of our society’s gendered and hierarchical structure.
As masculinities scholars long have argued, achieving the status of a ‘successful’ masculine man is an uncertain and difficult endeavour. In fact, masculinity is not something a that is acquired like a possession, but it is something that is constantly struggled for and re-enacted. It is constantly questioned by other men who bestow their approval of your masculinity based on whether you can live up to hegemonic conceptions about what it means to be a man – in most Western societies these conceptions include being strong, assertive, rich, intelligent, and white. Whilst most white and middle class men experience little resistance in aligning with these ideals, for others living up to them is difficult. For example, for those with the ‘wrong’ desires, ‘wrong’ appearance, ‘wrong’ class background, ‘wrong’ skills – getting the perfect job, perfect body and perfect family is complicated, and is a pursuit riddled with obstacles, as well as hate and abuse from nationalists and xenophobes. The inability to live up to these expectations can drive men to seek other ways of achieving masculinity. As the ‘toxic masculinity’ commentators have pointed out, this also often involves a glorification of military violence and physical aggression.
While questioning and rethinking masculinity is perhaps the most important step to preventing further similar attacks, it is difficult to do so without also calling capitalism and racism into question. Capitalism might be a specific economic model in the narrow sense (a model where a business is owned by the rich rather than by the workers, which means that all profit goes to the business owners rather than to the workers who produced it). But this economic model is closely entangled with society’s hegemonic masculinity: in fact, the key capitalist values of competition and wealth accumulation are strikingly similar to the key values of hegemonic masculinity. It is equally entangled with racism: we must not forget that the economic theory that underlies capitalism was written during European colonialism as a way to codify white masculine values into supposedly scientific economic truth.
If we want attacks like the one at Pulse Orlando to stop occurring, we thus need to acknowledge the role of these social hierarchies and oppressions and address them head on. The time has come to organise as activists to challenge hierarchical social structures – gender norms in particular, but racism and capitalist economics too – to lower the pressure to conform to unattainable expectations and reduce the need for a violent counter narrative.
Gender roles have become less rigid in recent decades – which has been thanks to gender activists. For example, it has become ‘acceptable’ for men to stay at home with their children, and for girls to dress like hot dogs instead of princesses. These changes, however, remain modest, and for the most part limited to more privileged populations such as the middle class. In other demographics, however, one could argue that pressures have only increased. As the Orlando attack – and many other similar attacks – have shown, we are far from ‘there’ yet. Any further changes will happen only to the extent that we keep actively challenging gender stereotypes.
To push such social change, gender activists have been organising actions ranging from protesting at Miss World competitions, to questioning stereotyping advertising, to organising workshops that explore and critique gender norms. Most of these have focused on femininity and the harmful effects of gender roles on women – important indeed – but it has become clear that exploring masculinities and their harmful effects on men is equally important.
There are many things we can do to challenge and stop the emergence of such ‘toxic masculinity’. Rather than simply working on our own personal thoughts and behaviours in isolation, it is important to organise together with others to widen the impact of such endeavours.
For example, we can organise reading groups with friends, relatives and strangers. A list of good readings is below. Through reading about gender (facts, theories, statistics etc) – and through analysing texts or videos that are not explicitly about gender at all, but that are still full of gendered messages – we can learn to recognise the ways in which gender affects our and others’ power. We can reflect on our own positions in society and explore the ways in which we judge other people based on their background, gender performance, etc. We can avoid using gendered words to indicate inferiority (e.g. refraining from using phrases like ‘that is so gay’, or ‘don’t be a pussy’).
We can also use theatre, role-play and drag to gain a deeper understanding of how gendered expectations colonise our bodies, and how we can subvert and resist them. There are many brilliant films documenting drag kings and queens of all sexes and genders – the 2002 film Venus Boyz is particularly good – which explore the ways in which their dragging practices help to draw attention to gendered expectations. By using elements of drag show or gender re-enactment in workshops and discussions we can pull to the surface our hidden gendered assumptions. For example, think of the way in which a stereotypical man and a stereotypical woman would chat someone up in a bar. Do the ways in which they would do this differ? Why? What broader social norms and arrangements are in place that enable these differences? Would the chat-up be different depending on the ethnicity or class of the man or woman? Perhaps even the bar would be a different one? By asking ourselves such questions, and by experimenting with different behaviours in practice, we can gain new understandings of the ways in which gender, race and class fit together to distribute power and wealth unequally in our society.
Though it is an uncomfortable truth, this type of organising is what is needed for future Orlando attacks to be avoided. We cannot blame these repeated violent outbursts on ‘foreign’ religions, or on the pathology of specific individuals. There is a reason why gender activists, radical lefties and antiracists have been organising relentlessly for decades – and it is not because they enjoy being annoying. Violence and death is the reality behind our society’s hierarchical structures. We have mourned Orlando – now it is time to organise.
Useful readings and videos:
Organisations in London doing work on this: