Since news first broke Sunday morning of the mass shooting in a gay nightclub in Orlando that left 50 people dead, there has been a concerted effort from conservative politicians, religious groups, celebrities, and even the media to erase LGBT people from the story.
This is not a coincidence nor an accident. In fact, it’s simply a continuation of the tactics regularly used to perpetuate stigma and discrimination against the LGBT community.
The most evident example of this erasure came from the Republican Party. Immediately after the shooting, there was a stark difference between the way that Democrats and Republicans responded to the tragedy — most Democrats mentioned that LGBT people were targeted, while Republicans elided this fact. As became clear later in the week, this was not by pure chance.
The Republican National Committee’s original statement on Sunday in response to the shooting included the statement, “Violence against any group of people simply for their lifestyle or orientation has no place in America or anywhere else.” The problematic term “lifestyle” aside, the statement at least acknowledged that because Pulse was a gay nightclub, the victims were unarguably targeted for their identities.
By Monday, however, the statement changed and the sentence mentioning “orientation” was gone. Any allusion to the specific community that was attacked was literally deleted. This deletion was even publicly acknowledged and defended. RNC spokesperson Lindsay Walters confirmed to Mashable that the statement had been revised to refer to “a terrorist attack against any American” so as to be more inclusive. Walters said the new language “invoked a common humanity and referenced all Americans instead of singling out LGBT people,” as Mashable reported.
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) took it a step further, openly denying that Pulse was a gay club mere hours before blocking an LGBT protections amendment from advancing in his committee.
This dynamic wasn’t limited to political officials. Religious organizations that typically advocate against LGBT equality similarly ignored that this was an attack on the LGBT community.
The Vatican’s statement about the shooting, for example, referred only to “innocent victims.” The Southern Baptist Convention’s resolution read, “We regard those affected by this tragedy as fellow image-bearers of God and our neighbors.” Shortly thereafter, the Convention approved a resolution committed to various forms of discrimination against LGBT people.
Culture has not been immune either. As Cyd Ziegler thoroughly documented for OutSports, even Orlando’s professional sports teams have struggled to actually name LGBT people in their responses to the shooting. The Orlando Magic, for example, released a generic statement and retweeted various athletes and media personalities’ responses, but specifically avoided the few that actually referred to the LGBT community, such as Shaquille O’Neal’s:
My thoughts & prayers go out to my Orlando LGBT community brothers and sister during this senseless act of violence.
Love is Love!
— SHAQ (@SHAQ) June 12, 2016
Celebrities have likewise been called out for not responding to the shooting. As Daniel D’Addario wrote at TIME, “It’s ungracious to keep score, but these stars are so vocal about so many other issues that it’s a bit striking to see silence here.”
Some news media has engaged in this erasure. CNN was among many outlets that was criticized for not providing the context that Pulse was a gay club in its initial reporting.
The CNN website article on the shooting in Orlando doesn't mention once that the club was a gay bar. Seems relevant to me.
— Darren Elmore (@darrenelmore) June 12, 2016
Owen Jones, who writes for The Guardian and is gay, actually walked off of a Sky News television interview because the host kept insisting that the Orlando shooting shouldn’t be called an attack on LGBT people. He thought it instead should be framed as an attack “against human beings” and “the freedom of all people to try to enjoy themselves.”
Following his walk-off, Jones laid out his counterargument: “If a terrorist with a track record of expressing hatred of and disgust at Jewish people had walked into a synagogue and murdered 50 Jewish people, we would rightly describe it as both terrorism and an antisemitic attack. If a Jewish guest on television had tried to describe it as such, it would be disgraceful if they were not only contradicted, but shouted down as they did so. But this is what happened on Sky News with a gay man talking about the mass murder of LGBT people.”
But identifying Pulse as a gay bar is fundamental to understanding both the shooting and its aftermath. Ignoring that fact ignores why the 49 dead and 53 wounded were in a place that was so vulnerable to attack. It ignores the significance of that space, and the impact that the Pulse shooting has on every other LGBT person who finds safety, comfort, and community in such spaces. In fact, it reinforces the cultural invisibility that makes gay bars such crucial social sanctuaries. And most importantly, it ignores the reality that LGBT people are still a persecuted group in society.
If you can't wrap your head around a bar or club as a sanctuary, you've probably never been afraid to hold someone's hand in public.
— Jeramey Kraatz (@jerameykraatz) June 12, 2016
The erasure may feel unique to the extremity of this particular tragedy — but it’s actually at the crux of the entire struggle for full LGBT equality. The modern movement opposing LGBT equality is built entirely upon the strategy of framing non-LGBT people as victims.
During the fight for marriage equality, for example, opponents argued that giving same-sex couples the right to marry would actively harm a variety of groups — including the children of same-sex couples, who will receive inferior parenting; different-sex couples, who will be discouraged from marrying; the children of different-sex couples, who will be less likely to have parents who are married; the entire population, because fewer married couples means fewer children born at all; anybody who opposes marriage equality, because they will be targeted for harassment; and any business that refuses to serve same-sex couples because they’ll all be “shut down.” All of those arguments proved to be false, of course.
Similar self-victimizing arguments have been invented about other LGBT issues (e.g. repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will hurt “unit cohesion”) and against other members of the community (e.g. transgender equality will harm women and children in bathrooms).
Casting non-LGBT people as victims is now a necessary part of the conservative strategy. As recently as 20 years ago, blatant bigotry against LGBT people was still generally acceptable in society. When that started to change, conservatives began to instead argue that anybody could be a victim except LGBT people. Indeed, LGBT people had to be portrayed as the villains who will destroy society and undermine “religious liberty.”
Despite Rep. Session’s foolhardy attempt, it’s impossible to actually deny that the LGBT community was targeted in this shooting; LGBT people were the victims. The only way for conservatives to maintain their position that LGBT people are not victims worthy of protections they still need is to simply not identify the Orlando shooting victims as LGBT. Whether intentional or not, the erasure that’s been on display this week reinforces the very homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia responsible for the violence and discrimination LGBT people experience all the time. Keeping the LGBT community invisible either intentionally obstructs equality or negligently delays it.
Some politicians may be coming around to acknowledging the specific nature of the Orlando shooting. Rep. Steve King (R-IA), a longtime opponent of LGBT equality, surprisingly said this week, “I think it’s clear that gays were targeted in Orlando. It does matter.” He just might not realize how much.