Terrorism and the Violence of Otherness: Response to the Orlando Pulse Massacre

TW: Orlando Massacre, violence

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In the early hours of Sunday, June 12, 2016, just after last call, a gunman entered the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The rest, now, is history. Media coverage of this massacre has been unrelenting and unreliable, treading often in intellectual territory that made the Pulse massacre possible in the first place. This was the act of one man, but discourse of violence against the Other propagated all over our society is just as much to blame.

The racism, sexism, classism, religious bias, and queerphobia of American society is well-documented and has been inextricably linked Her history and fabric. The same news outlets that only last week covered the multi-state battle on restroom usage for the transgender community with vitriol while fondly remembering unapologetic Muslim Mohammed Ali, diverted all of their energy and hatred toward American Muslims, another marginalized group, supposedly on behalf of queer people.

There are so many intersecting issues in the Orlando massacre that the vast majority of people are going to take pieces of analysis that fit their pre-established narratives. Many people only mock the concept of intersectionality, or that there is more than one major social influence affecting a particular person or event. This case is as intersectional as anything can be. To ignore even one element of the issue is to create a false narrative.

The shooter was born in New Hyde Park, New York, a municipality on the border between Northeastern Queens and Northwestern Nassau County, Long Island. He lived in Queens and Nassau most of his life. He was an American citizen. His parents were Afghani immigrants. The media would have you believe that the single best way to understand this tragedy is only to understand that the shooter was of foreign origins, that the shooter was brown, and that the shooter was Muslim. This is a gross oversimplification.

The shooter was unstable and violent. His ex-wife accused him of domestic violence, and described a scenario in which her family had to literally pull her from his arms as he was choking her. She describes him as having bipolar with bouts of psychotic rage. She described his as extremely secular.

He was fascinated to the point of obsession with both guns and the profession of law enforcement. The guns he used to carry out this grievous attack were purchased legally.

Many were quick to brand this attack “radical Islamist terrorism,” as if Islamist terrorism is somehow indicative of Islam as a total faith. Minimal research into the faith would yield their incompatibility, especially now during the Holy Month of Ramadan, during which it is forbidden to commit acts of violence. The shooter’s family has apologized on behalf of the family and the faith—a burden we do not require for members of other faiths.

It has been reported that the shooter pledged allegiance to Daesh in his 911 call. Another report claimed that he told one of the victims that he was committing the crime in retaliation for the U.S.’s ongoing drone war in Afghanistan. Do I believe this information was fabricated by the media to add to the easy, Muslim-as-terrorist narrative? No. He probably did do either or both of these things, but our common media narrative about the motives of those who join these groups is fundamentally flawed. The shooter, like most 18-39 year old men from Western cultures who join Islamist terror groups do not join for religious purity. They join for power, a sense of belonging, and egotistically narcissism that comes from believing to be on the brutish “moral high ground” over a world superpower. They join because they feel invisible and hypervisible at the same time in the West. They feel powerless and use the Western modality to create their own power: easy biases like racism, misogyny, and homophobia. These ideologies, as well as the promise of “real” power, both in this world and the next is what brings them there.

There is speculation that the primary motive of this atrocity was actually homophobia. The shooter’s father said that his son became enraged seeing two men kiss when the family visited Miami. He grew up in the New York City region, are we to believe that he had never seen two men kiss prior to this incident? That hardly seems feasible. There are many theories swirling about this.

It has been reported that the shooter visited his target location many times and maintained a profile on the gay hookup app, Grindr. One theory about the motivation behind this crime is that the shooter was closeted. This is among the most controversial of theories. Many see it as media narrative-building to make the attack even more one of the Other attacking the Other, as a way to absolve the media and the larger heterosexual community of any contributing homophobia. Many see the shooter’s behavior as little more than scoping out a target of violence.

If the shooter truly was closeted, the motivation may be more complex than just homophobia. Miami is a city with a very large Latinx community. The shooter deliberately chose Latin Night at the Pulse Nightclub as his target. In many minority communities in the West, there is a common theory that homosexuality is a “white” thing. It could be possible that the shooter was jealous of the Latinx LGBT folks for being so free while he was so repressed.

In the end, however, it serves no real purpose understanding why this tragedy happened. Nothing will bring back the forty-nine people he murdered in cold blood during Pride month. They are the newest victims in an ongoing war against queerness. Trans women of color are murdered at an exponentially higher rate in proportion to the rest of society. Hate crimes still occur in the most liberal of cities, including my own. This war was started long before the shooter purchased an AR-15 and created terror in Orlando. This war will continue beyond him, no matter how much our elected officials posture and claim to support the LGBT community. We are still considered Other. The Other is always a threat to the status quo. That is the American way. That has been the American way for centuries.

My fellow queer people: protect yourselves at all costs. If it is not safe for you to come out, don’t. Get self-defense training. If you are able, shout your queerness from the rooftops. If you are able, join groups like Black Lives Matter. Create coalitions with other marginalized groups. There are more of us than there are of them. We can keep ourselves safe if we protect each other.

Do not allow the nastiness of American culture to taint us. We are not bound by the biases of our nation. We will not play into the hand of Islamophobia. We will stand against homophobia, which is, of course, far bigger than one religion.

My thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families, and their friends.

Charlie Sheen and the Rise of Poz Phobia

It seems the 1980s are back, and I don’t mean in a fun, big hair and heavy metal kind of way. I mean in a vitriolic, public outing, shame on you sort of way. After a “shocking” expose published by the infamous grocery store checkout line tabloid The National Enquirer recently made headlines, Charlie Sheen—the actor known best for his role in Two and a Half Men as well as his very public, drug-induced meltdown involving tiger blood and ‘winning’—was forced to come out about his HIV status. After the Enquirer’s article, Sheen was terrorized by everyone, constantly asked deeply personal, medical questions by paparazzi. He came out about his status on an exclusive interview with NBC’s TODAY Show.

As someone who works often in the HIV space, I know first-hand how much ignorance, misinformation, and downright stupidity that exists around HIV. I have not seen it this bad in my entire tenure as a queer advocate and activist.

So I, your friendly neighborhood queer, am here to clear the air and explain a little bit about HIV and why Charlie Sheen, as the Caitlyn Jenner of the poz community, should be critiqued and supported, but never ever mocked or ridiculed for his status. A lot of what I’ll be saying, you’ve probably heard before—from me, if you’re a longtime reader. A lot of what I’ll be saying bears repeating until more people understand.

Charlie Sheen is probably the worst poster boy for an HIV-positive person. He is not exactly what anyone would call a perfect victim. That is okay. As a matter of fact, that he does not fit the stereotype is a good thing. He, just by being who and what he is for better or worse, stands as a foil to the traditional model of the HIV-positive person, and thereby begins to dismantle it in the minds of those who are paying attention.

You may be wondering which stereotypes I’m referring to. There are a couple different ones. Each distinct social group has a different stereotype of who is and who is not HIV-positive. To the vast majority of the straight world, only gay men can have HIV. Even many queer people ascribe to that stereotype. This stereotype is wrong, manufactured by the government when they originally referred to HIV as GRID (gay-related immunodeficiency, which was considered a cancer.) It is harmful. There are thousands of young women in this country who don’t know their status because they think they can’t get HIV. Young men, young women, children, everyone dies of HIV’s effects. Africa is ravaged with the disease.

Since the National Enquirer broke the story about Sheen’s sero-status, the grocery store tabloids have gone hog wild trying to “break” the “truth” about how he could have seroconverted. It’s 2015, HIV has been part of our collective consciousness for nearly forty years, and people still have no idea how the disease works. I’ve seen tabloids suggest that Sheen had an affair with a man, with “transsexuals,” that he’d done too many drugs and seroconverted due to a dirty syringe. No one wants to know anything about HIV when it doesn’t affect one’s own life and can’t be spoken of in the dark, dank comment sections of the internet. As an educator, this crawling-out-of-the-woodwork is extremely frustrating.

If you’ve got your fingers poised over your keyboards ready to scream about all the pseudoscience you think you know about HIV to try to scream me down, stop while you’re ahead.

Our knowledge and understanding of HIV has matured over the past forty years. There is not, and cannot be, room for medical and academic discourse for the bigoted, biased information that has been repeated on the internet. That there are those who still see HIV as a “gay disease” is, at best, morally troubling. It is as worst a willful rejection of fact to maintain an incorrect worldview. The demographic with the most new HIV cases in modernity are not gay men. They are not transgender women. They are heterosexual, cisgender women. The story that’s been told a million times about how a woman can’t get HIV is wrong. Women in sub-Saharan Africa have seroconverted with the highest incidence of all demographics on Earth.

Does gay sex transmit the virus? Yes, it can if unsafe sex is practiced. Do all gay men have HIV? Absolutely not. Does all drug use transmit the virus? No Only drug use in which blood could be present. I cannot and will not speculate as to how Mr. Sheen seroconverted. It’s none of my business. It’s none of anybody’s business. If he identifies as straight, we should, of course, take him at his word. After all, in the twenty-first century, there are worse things to be than a cis, white, rich gay man. For an increasingly irrelevant Hollywood fixture, it would probably help his career if he came out as gay. Conversely, if the rumor is true that he slept with a trans woman, his heterosexuality is all but proven. Trans women are women, regardless what the comment sections and TERFs of the world say. The further into this line of thought we go, the more intrusive it becomes. If we would not want our personal, romantic, sexual, or medical information in the papers, we should not, by our own demands, put anyone else’s there.

Another highly contested side of Charlie Sheen’s sero-status outing has been largely perpetrated by his past partners, wives, and girlfriends. Many have come out, very angry for the cameras to claim that he never told them that he was HIV-positive. This controversy throws into the spotlight an issue that has been roiling in the activist community for years: disclosure.

The disclosure issue has been raging since the time that the current treatment cocktail was perfected. Reeling from the stigma of HIV/AIDS, newly treated and no longer infectious with an undetectable viral load, many wanted the freedom of not being associated with HIV—to be an individual before a disease. Unfortunately, many, no matter how safe they are, are unable to escape from the scarlet letter of their sero-status due to HIV-criminalization laws.

Many of these laws are, as you would expect, products of a bygone era, informed by a lack of understanding and blinding fear. They remain law because lawmakers are too fearful and political to pass an already existing bill that would do just that. The REPEAL Act, a bill that has been flailing in Congress for years. This bill would repeal many laws that make the act of having HIV a crime, save for the malicious and intentional transmission of the disease.

This may seem very theoretical, but HIV criminalization laws have very real, very concrete consequences for those who get hit with them. The primary element of these laws are to do with non-disclosure. Perhaps the most famous example of these laws in action in recent years is that of Michael Johnson, known online as Tiger Mandingo. He operated profiles on a variety of hookup apps. He was receiving treatment for his HIV. He did not tell his partners about his sero-status. He did not transmit the virus to anyone else. He was arrested by University Police at his school in St. Louis, Missouri. His trial was a very public spectacle. He was ultimately sentenced to thirty and a half years in prison. HIV-criminalization laws played a very large part in the man’s ruining. He had not, after all, harmed anyone. As a black man, systemic racism undoubtedly played a very large part in his conviction, but that discussion is for another post.

I struggle with my own position on the disclosure debate. Just as it is wholly possible and immutably human to forget safety during the heat of a sexual moment, so too would it be for disclosure. I believe that, by and large, one should be open about his/her/their sero-status at some point during a sexual encounter or relationship. I do see all sides of the argument, of course. I believe that stigmatizing those who are HIV+ and refusing their sexual companionship on only the grounds of their status is wrong, especially when they have undetectable viral loads. I also understand that we cannot take everyone at their word. I also recognize that finding out that a partner who didn’t disclose was poz after the fact can be psychologically traumatic.

Charlie Sheen’s recent interview with Dr. Oz has also brought up another very fracturing debate within the HIV space, albeit on a much more positive note. HIV drugs are not particularly fun. They do not give one euphoria by any stretch of the imagination. They often are accompanied by crippling side effects that directly interfere with one’s quality of life. Sheen, who lives in Malibu or some such ‘burb of LA, was faced with pressure by other members of the HIV+ community to try alternative medicine. They are all the rage among the very wealthy. Sheen tried them, apparently, as a way to escape the side effects. He had been undetectable for years before trying them. He is detectable now. He promised Dr. Oz he would return to the tried-and-true cocktail of drugs that kept him well. This is a very positive message to send to the HIV+ community, especially to the young men and women who may be facing similar pressure to forego proven medical interventions.

Charlie Sheen has many problems. He is in no way a “perfect victim.” He is a wild child (although he recently revealed that he has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, so I may be out of line with my previous statement). He has engaged in a lot of misogyny, homophobia, racism, and transphobia over his long career and in his humor. It is probably not something to be particularly proud of to aspire to be Charlie Sheen. He does not identify as queer. He has not, as far as a cursory Google search would reveal, done anything particularly spectacular in the way of being an LGBT ally. However, he is poz. He is part of our community, whether he identifies as such or not. We must support him. We must shut down the assholes in our lives who crack jokes about how there must be a Charlie Sheen gay sex tape. We must shut down the uninformed people we encounter who do not understand the complexities of HIV. We must not allow the climate of our society to become toxic for those with HIV who are not famous and who are struggling. We must show our support publicly for Sheen so that we may make a difference in the life of a young poz person who needs someone to understand.

A Few Words Regarding Terrorism

I’m a New Yorker now, but I wasn’t on 9/11. I have only ever experienced terrorism from a distance. But that’s the thing about terrorism, isn’t it? It’s fucking terrifying. Terrorism, beyond its capacity to elicit terror in all who see it, is really asymmetrical guerilla warfare waged against a group, a nation, or an ideology.

In our world right now, terrorism is waged on a daily basis. The United States may no longer utilize the infamous “threat level indicator” (or, the mood ring of doom), but terrorism still reigns, and it’s only getting stronger.

Mostly everyone on this planet—well, everyone with access to a television, radio, or computer—knows about the attacks that occurred last weekend in Paris. If you are unfamiliar with what happened in Paris, a group of fighters—now believed to be from the terrorist organization ISIS—carried out a coordinated, deadly attack on soft targets (civilian targets) in Paris. There were suicide bombs outside of the Stade d’France during a football match between France and Germany. There were gunmen bursting their way into restaurants in a very popular neighborhood, killing many people in their path. There were two gunmen that broke into a concert hall during a heavy metal show. The gunmen kept all of the concertgoers as hostages, over 1,000 in all. They killed over one hundred, execution style.

In the wake of these attacks, the western world is in panic. Many Americans want to drop a nuclear weapon in the Middle East. France wants to ‘wipe out’ ISIS. By all accounts, these terrorists got what they wanted; people are frightened. The outpouring of that fear and grief from the nearly 130 deaths in the wake of the Paris attack has been in the forefront of western minds. There have been many reactions to this tragedy, and many of them are incredibly dangerous.

Friday night, one hundred and thirty people died in a terrorist attack in Paris. Everyone in the Western world saw the footage of the aftermath of that tragedy. Everyone in the western world was forced to listen to commentary about the attacks for days afterward. The media engineered this attention. News organizations interrupted their normal Friday-night lineups in favor of live coverage and analysis of the Parisian attacks. MSNBC, for example, allowed Rachel Maddow to broadcast, commercial-free, for three hours. Facebook immediately created the ‘check-in as safe’ feature for people living in Paris, and a French flag profile photo filter for the rest of us. Meanwhile, terrorist attacks in non-Western, non-white parts of the world come and go with little—if any—fanfare. In the month of  October alone, there were attacks in Lebanon, Nigeria, and Egypt, which is not even to mention the attacks that occur in Syria, Libya, and Iraq every day. In Baghdad, two days before the attacks on Paris, a suicide bomber targeted a funeral. Nineteen people are dead. It is fucked up that we only have wall-to-wall coverage of terror when it affects “our own,” since all people are ours.

In the wake of the attacks on Paris, several United States politicians have been screaming about how this proves that we shouldn’t be accepting any Syrian refugees. The Islamophobia that has been spewed from all directions in the wake of this tragedy is disgusting. Twenty-six governors of U.S. states declared that they would not accept any refugees. They don’t have the authority to do that, so they will have to, but just imagine the vitriol those refugees are going to be subjected to. I can’t even imagine.

However, it isn’t only the right-wing that has gone too far in some of their rhetoric about this tragedy. There are those on the left-wing fringes who should be just as ashamed of themselves. If I had a dollar for every time I heard or read someone say that we should not pray for Paris because they “got what they deserved,” I would have a disturbing amount of money. These so-called, self-proclaimed radicals believe that because France was a colonial power once and did hold land and persecute many people in the Muslim world, that they deserve the terror. The one hundred and thirty people who were killed in 2015 have no bearing and no responsibility for the colonialism of their ancestors, and they do not deserve to die. To kill an innocent is wrong, no matter how “enlightened” you believe your rhetoric to be. The children cannot be held responsible for the crimes of their fathers.

Both of these reactions to this tragedy are wrong. We cannot slip into the trap of Islamophobia. We cannot either excuse terrorism and murder. We must mourn the dead, both victim and killer. We must not alienate the Muslim world. We must not allow our human siblings die at the hands of those who would control the world. We cannot be callous or suspicious. Caution, in moderation, is acceptable. Soft Islamophobia is not.

The rhetoric on both sides about this tragedy makes me want to scream and tear out my hair.

Beware the Bio-PIc

Later this year, a highly problematic film will hit cinemas around the world. It’s the newest film by the blockbuster director Roland Emmerich of The Patriot, Independence Day, and 2012 fame. Apparently, Emmerich is gay, and has taken it on himself to make a “fictionalized drama” about the Stonewall riots. Emmerich’s films are often picked up by huge production studios and millions of dollars are used in their casting, production, and distribution. (I mean, come on, have you seen Independence Day?)

This is very, very troubling.

To add insult to this Hollywood monstrosity of an injury, the story of Emmerich’s bio-pic centers around a fictional, cisgender, white gay male character from the Midwest. The trailer for the film makes it look like all of the film’s major characters are of the same persuasion as its Midwestern protagonist. This is fucked up on so many levels, I don’t know where to begin.

After some thought, it seems apparent that the historical context of the riots may be the best place to begin. Stonewall, as you all  know by this point, is located in what is now New York City’s West Village. This part of the city was not, unlike today, considered a desirable neighborhood to leave, work, and hang out. It was a gay ghetto, and as such, the moral squads of the New York City Police Department targeted bars, clubs, and other gathering spots in that neighborhood with much higher frequency and intensity than other parts of New York City.

By the 1960s, same-sex behavior was no longer illegal. It was considered taboo by the larger society, and there were no legal rights whatsoever, but the act of engaging in same-gender sex was not a crime. There were, however, several other laws on the books meant to target the queer community, to force us out of public spaces, and to pretend that we weren’t there. Many of these rules focused on those of us who were transgender or gender non-conforming. A law was created, both in New York, and in many places around the world in which queers sought refuge, that would allow the police to arrest anyone who was not wearing three articles of clothing that “corresponded to one’s birth sex.” These types of laws, of course, had a disparate impact on trans people of all stripes, on drag queens and kings, and butch lesbians.

It was those who were gender non-conforming that bore the brunt of police brutality: beatings, sexual assault, deprivation, even murder. It was they who had the most to gain from a full scale uprising.

It was, in fact, a black trans woman by the name of Marsha P. Johnson that threw the brick that launched a revolution. She does not appear in the trailer of “Stonewall,” neither does Sylvia Rivera. Historical revisionism is not ethical filmmaking. People are often under-informed by nature. People will see a film like this and believe that it represents truth, a fallacy that will inevitably be used to further erase trans people of color from our history. This cannot be permitted.

It is mind boggling to me that any filmmaker who wanted to make a film as important as this one would be so lazy as to need a stereotypical, fictional protagonist for a very real event. There are any number of so-called “Stonewall Veterans” still alive. I have had the distinct and utmost honor of knowing a few of them. How many of them were consulted on the accuracy or relevance of such a contrived protagonist?

It should come as no surprise that there is a growing movement among the queer community and the racial justice community to boycott this film for its whitewashing, historical revisionism. I am inclined to agree with their position. It is possible that you’ve seen the rallying cry to boycott “Stonewall” on your social media feeds, I know it’s nearly hit critical mass over here.

The director, having presumably seen the outrage about the film he’s dedicated however long to creating, “responded” to the criticism about the film over the weekend in such a way that was obviously meant to minimize the anger. Emmerich said that all of the historical figures, people like Sylvia and Marsha, are given “reverence” in the film, even though their characters are minor by comparison. He responded to the criticism about his film by fundamentally misunderstanding what Stonewall was really about. He said that the protagonist of his film is not anachronistic or out of place because he had been kicked out of his Midwestern home by his parents. He saw a Stonewall film as an opportunity to discuss the homelessness and familial excommunication of the LGBTQ community; not to discuss homelessness that leads to many queer children living and engaging in sex work for survival on Christopher Piers, but the homelessness of a well-off cis, white guy who can afford to move to NYC after he’s kicked out.  It’s noble that Emmerich wants to bring attention to the scourge of LGBTQ homelessness and the absolute tragedy of queer people being kicked out and disowned by their families, even at very early ages. It is. However, that’s not what Stonewall was about. Homelessness, financial and housing insecurity, and isolation from the mainstream may have been peripheral factors, but they were not why the riots happened. To say that this is the case is to say that the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore in recent months are about overwhelmingly European standards of beauty.

I think that the revision of history to imply that Stonewall was about people who have been disowned by their families is disgusting. It erases the very visceral, very ugly truth that queer people have been victims of violence at the hands of their fellow humans and by those who are supposed to protect and serve for a very long time.

I will probably see this movie, in all honesty, so that I can more thoroughly refute its points, and that, I believe is a responsibility we all have. We can boycott or we can refute, but we cannot abdicate our responsibility to tell the truth and to give credit where credit is due.

The World Mourns

There are entirely too many atrocious things happening in the world right now. On top of the unfortunately routine tragedies of suicide, addiction, illness, and death, there are wars all over the world and planes being shot out of the sky.

There are ongoing wars in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine that continue to kill, wound, disrupt, and terrify people every day. Ground war has broken out between Hamas and Israel in Gaza, and the death toll has been rising steadily. My heart weeps for all affected.

Perhaps the most shocking and heartbreaking development in the world in the last few days is the shooting down of commercial, civilian Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17. The flight departed Amsterdam headed for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It was apparently shot down by a land-to-air missile as it passed over Ukrainian airspace near the Russian border. It is unclear who perpetrated this unprovoked attack that killed two hundred and ninety-five men, women, and children. Sources in the United States seem to believe that Ukrainian separatists are to blame, but it is unclear whether or not this was an accident.

Most American televised news services are focusing on the ‘whodunits’ and the one American casualty, extending general sympathies to the families of all those onboard. However, there’s a piece of this story that’s been largely glossed over that has a profound impact on the LGBTQH community.

It’s been reported that nearly one-third—roughly one hundred people—of those onboard the flight were headed for this weekend’s 2014 International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia. Among them were Dutch governmental officials, delegates from the World Health Organization (WHO), and famous HIV researcher Joseph “Joep” Lange.

Dr. Lange had been working on developing HIV treatment and searching for a cure since 1983, nearly the beginning of the global AIDS pandemic. Among many other laudable things, he advocated for combination retroviral drugs in the treatment of HIV, founded non-profits who help distribute HIV medications to patients in developing countries, participated in research on how to prevent the transmission of HIV between mother and child, advocated the use of PrEP, and participated in HIV/AIDS symposiums and conferences all over the world.

The LGBT community mourns with all of the families who lost loved ones, with the countries most heavily affected by this tragedy—The Netherlands, Australia, and Malaysia—and with our HIV affected brothers and sisters who lost a great scientist and one hundred advocates in this senseless tragedy. As we mourn this loss of life, of intellect, and of advocacy, we must recognize that it is also a call to action. One hundred HIV advocates and researchers were killed; we must each, in our own way, step in to take their place. The world needs more microbiologists, immunologists, activists, and policy-makers to defend our HIV+ community as well as search steadfastly for a cure. We must advocate understanding and seek to put an end to all this death.

RIP.

 

 

 

BRIEF ASIDE—I am home from my purgatorial and closeted vacation with my family. I am okay, but still trying to work through the many thoughts and feelings that were borne from it. A post on this topic is forthcoming.