After Orlando, Standing Together Against a Specter of Hate

To make sense of a tragedy, an Afghan artists’ group urges inclusivity.
A pride flag stands at half-mast during a memorial service in San Diego on June 12 for the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting. (Photo: Sandy Huffaker/AFP/Getty Images)
Jun 13, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Guns. Homophobia. Mental illness. Islamophobia. Hatred. Domestic violence. Racism. Though talking heads might try, there is no singular lens through which to reflect on Sunday morning’s horrific mass shooting at a gay club in Orlando, Florida, that left 49 people dead and another 53 wounded. Untangling this senseless violence is a daunting struggle for Americans, especially those who fear that there could be more—whether at the hands of copycats repeating the shooter’s heinous acts, or by politicians whose vitriol toward American Muslims may increase.

Within 24 hours of the attack, the Islamic State had publicly claimed the shooter—29-year-old Omar Mateen—as one of their own, sparking promises from presidential hopefuls to defeat the terrorist group.

Amid many expressions of grief, the Afghan American Artists and Writers Association stepped in Monday morning to express its “deepest solidarity with the largely queer people of color who were the victims of (the shooting) and their families.” It was Latin night at Pulse—the club where the attack took place—a night frequented predominantly by queer, trans black and Latino members of the LGBT community.

The group, which formed to support and amplify the work of artists and writers of Afghan descent, anticipated backlash when it learned Mateen’s parents were from Afghanistan. Some members of the small organization are also Muslim and can speak to the fears that are growing in a community that has increasingly been the target of isolationist political rhetoric.

“We all recognize that there’s going to be serious blowback and that things are not going to get any better in this current political climate,” Wazhmah Osman, a spokesperson for and member of the group, told TakePart. “After every incident of this kind, there’s an escalation of attacks and violence toward Muslims.”

For Osman, an academic and a filmmaker who was born in Afghanistan and grew up in New Jersey, the attacks were doubly personal because she identifies as queer. (Disclosure: Osman is a friend of the writer’s.) With her peers in the AAAWA, she penned a response to the massacre in hopes of pushing back against anticipated anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence against their community.

Osman’s fears are well founded. In 2015, there were approximately 174 incidents of anti-Muslim violence and vandalism, including 12 murders and 29 physical assaults, according to research from Georgetown University on the 2016 elections and rising violence targeting Muslims. That marks a surge from 2014, when 154 such incidents were recorded. Georgetown’s researchers note that a spike in Islamophobic political rhetoric—largely among the broad slate of Republican presidential hopefuls—began in early September 2015, coinciding with Europe’s refugee crisis.

Violent attacks are also all too common in the LGBT community, which was Mateen’s intended target. After the attack, Mateen’s father, Mir Seddique, told NBC News that his son had recently seen “two men kissing” in Miami and became “very angry.”

In spite of a steady increase in tolerance toward the LGBT community from all religious groups, antigay hate crimes are still disturbingly common. LGBT people are 2.4 times more likely to be targets of violent hate-crime attacks than Jews or black people, according to a 2011 analysis of FBI hate crimes by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Black and Latino people in the LGBT community are nearly two times more likely to experience this kind of violence as their queer white peers, according to a 2013 report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.

“This attack was years in the making, based off of hundreds and hundreds of years of oppression and violence targeted toward queer and trans people of color,” said a participant in a video project shared on Sunday by the organization Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement.

It’s impossible to discern whether Mateen’s alleged allegiance to the Islamic State or homophobic anger was the primary driver of what was the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. But the fact remains that he targeted a gay club during pride month.

“This is what disgusts me the most about this tragedy: The maniac who did this was somehow conditioned to believe that LGBTQ people deserve to be massacred and that they are less-than in this society,” Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, told reporters during a press conference on Sunday. “And he wasn’t just hearing this message from faraway terrorist organizations. He was hearing it from politicians and radical anti-LGBTQ extremists right here in our own country.”

Sunday morning’s bloodshed touched numerous communities, making it even more apparent to advocates that efforts to stem hatred must be multifaceted and inclusive.

“We can no longer have an effective or moral LGBT movement unless it is also an antiracism movement, an antipoverty movement, a pro-immigrant movement, a pro-disability rights movement, a pro-worker movement, and a pro-women’s movement,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “There are people who want to come for all of us. We have to be standing there together.”

As fingers are pointed and tears are shed, Osman hopes her collective of writers and artists can push the national conversation away from drawing connections between Mateen’s Afghan descent and his act of hatred and violence.

“Mateen was born and raised in the U.S.,” she said. “In spite of what the media is spinning, a lot of his beliefs have to do with American militarization, access to weapons, and American notions of masculinity that aren’t necessarily [related to his being] Afghan. People are quick to say Muslim people who grow up in Western society become radicalized through their contact with the Islamic state, but a lot of it is their contact with the American state.”