The Orlando Selfie

June 29, 2017

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While I was dancing at a gay bar without a care in the world, an Islamist gunman stormed a gay club and slaughtered 49 people and severely injured another 58 in Orlando.

For the “crime” of queer decadence, over one hundred patrons of the Pulse Nightclub faced an onslaught of bullets from a Sig Sauer MCX, a semi-automatic rifle. The incident is the worst case of terrorism on American soil since 9/11. The shooter, Omar Seddique Mateen, chose a symbolic target to carry out mass carnage. A gay club embodies the spirit of progress and sexual pluralism that is anathema to puritanical, religious fundamentalists.

We later learned that Mateen pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group and its caliph, or leader, during the attack. “The real Muslims will never accept the filthy way of the west,” Mateen wrote on Facebook during or before the shooting, according to Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson. “Now taste the Islamic State vengeance.”

One week after the attack, I attended Portland Pride for the first time. Even though I came out in 2009, I’ve always struggled to understand why I should celebrate being gay. It wasn’t a personal accomplishment and I rarely experienced anti-gay discrimination in my life. The Orlando Pulse Nightclub attack changed everything for me. It showed me that I was naive, and it placed my complacency in perspective. Around the world, nine countries (ten if the U.A.E. is included) can punish homosexual acts with the death penalty. All of them are Muslim-majority and most derive their draconian punishments from an interpretation of Shari’a, or Islamic law.

At my first Portland Pride, I made a sign that read, “Human beings have rights, religious sensibilities do not.” It was important to me that my sentiment extends beyond the borders of this country to include sexual minorities affected by religious fundamentalism everywhere. My message was lost on some of the event’s attendees. A woman stopped marching to hold her sign in front of me for an extended moment while appearing upset. “Solidarity, not Islamophobia,” her sign stated.   

In the days, weeks and now year since the attack, gay activists and LGBT organizations have wrestled on how to respond. Most focused on gun violence, Islamophobia, or generic platitudes (e.g., “No hate!”) rather than the religious extremism that motivated Mateen to kill. While it is imperative to prevent and condemn discrimination against Muslims, why does that have to come at the cost of speaking openly about religious fundamentalism, particularly Islamism? Those who do so, such as ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali and interim CFI UN representative Raheel Raza, are often branded “Islamophobes.” Muslim reformers and liberals like Maajid Nawaz and Asra Nomani, who advocate for a humanistic Islam, are called inauthentic or “uncle Toms” by co-religionists.

Within my own queer community, I’m not sure if the discourse has changed at all in the past year. At an Orlando anniversary vigil last month outside the iconic Stonewall Inn, speakers rallied against guns and Donald Trump. There was no mention of religious extremism. The desire to not cast collective blame, or the fear of being labeled “Islamophobes,” have caused many of us to turn a blind eye to the problems that do exist.

In the early hours of the anniversary, I couldn’t sleep. As I laid in bed—in the silence—all I could hear was the loud beat of the Pulse. Can others hear it too, or will they continue to sleepwalk towards the next car ramming, stabbing, shooting, or bombing?