Yesterday, Elliot Morales, a 36-year-old New Yorker with a history of violent assault, was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the murder of a gay black man in Greenwich Village three years ago. The defendant, who self-identified as bisexual and referred to himself as “part of the LGBT community,” had cornered the victim and a friend and, according to several witnesses, shouted anti-gay slurs at the couple before drawing his gun. In yesterday’s sentencing the judge drew an overt parallel to Sunday’s massacre at the gay club Pulse in Orlando: “That parallel,” he said, “is revealed in hatred, self-loathing, fear, and death.”
That self-loathing folded into the framing of Morales’ sentencing was a function of its timing as much as anything else; it’s only since late Monday that Omar Mateen’s sexual identity has become a major focal point, as reports emerge that the perpetrator of the largest mass shooting in U.S. history was a familiar figure to many at Pulse and may have been gay. But just because Mateen may have been gay doesn’t mean he isn’t a product of a homophobic society.
As the Intercept noted, speculations about Mateen’s motive and the cultural narrative it implied took a swift turn in the hours after sources were quoted on the subject of the killer’s “anger and shame.” In one much-cited AP interview, a Pulse regular speculated on Mateen’s inner demons; less sensitive news reports focus on his “secret life,” which included not just a gay club but chat rooms and dating apps as well.
These reports have been met with less surprise than one might expect; in America, the idea of a violent closeted homophobe is, if statistically difficult to measure, at least something of a staple in public life. Anti-LGBT lawmakers and hardcore anti-gay religious figures are regularly exposed as hypocrites; “there seems to be none more hostile,” writes one Gawker commenter, “than the self-hating.”
Already, there have been attempts to pathologize Mateen’s motives similarly. Some err into the well-worn territory of pop psychology: Outlets quote mental health professionals on the subject of self-hating individuals using violence as a force of control to “restore their sense of significance.” In an interview with the ABC News, a psychologist outlines how people struggling to come to terms with their sexual identity “react by doing the exact opposite, which could be to become more masculine or more vocal about the ideals of a traditional family.” Experts place scrutiny on the killer’s family and religious community; one study from a few years ago, often cited in cases like this, correlates anti-gay sentiments in some cases with “autonomy-thwarting parents” who lead their children not just to conceal but overcorrect their sexual identity.
Given his widely reported bigoted comments—among them that “only God can punish homosexuality”—Mateen’s father was probably an autonomy-thwarting parent. But the danger in focusing on the psychology of an act like this is forgetting that we live in an autonomy-thwarting country, to focus on hate turned inward rather than the very real climate in which tragedies like this occur.
The early framing of the massacre as anything but a hate crime against queer people of color is only the most recent example; we live in a country where more than 200 anti-LGBT bills have been proposed in the last year alone, where it is fantastically unsafe to be a person of color, where people who identify as LGBTQ are discouraged from seeking therapy, where even in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s shooting a federal law banned an entire swath of the community from donating blood in Orlando. That many Americans were shocked to learn of the latter only reinforces the centrality of policy, rather than the spectre of a sole self-loathing individual, to what happened on Sunday. After all, loathing like that doesn’t come out of nowhere; it’s a reflection of the climate in which it was grown.
Recently, members of the Southern Poverty Law Center spoke to PBS and foregrounded not just the spike in violence against LGBTQ people across the country in recent years, but the relationship between institutional change and backlash. Following early gains in marriage equality, they’d seen increases both in violence against the community and in the rash of anti-LGBTQ legislation; other work by the center has confirmed this trend. If we focus on internalized homophobia and place the blame on Mateen’s (or Morales’) “self-loathing issues” or “conflicted sexual identities,” even as details continue to emerge, we’re ignoring these far more pressing problems. It’s a transference of blame rather than a recognition of how violence is reproduced—through willful ignorance and the systematic dehumanization of millions of Americans.