In the wake of a tragedy, there is almost always an onslaught of public opinion articles, media coverage, and public commentary. In many cases, the media and the public respond to tragedy in a way that either supports state institutions or minimizes their negative functions and actions. This support for the state, its projects, and values can be harmful, though, especially when that tragedy involves marginalized communities that are systematically oppressed by the state.
State oppression of the LGBTQ+ community should be obvious. Until very recently in American history, LGBTQ+ folk had very few basic rights. Even now, the most privileged LGBTQ+ person does not have the same basic rights as straight people in many areas of the US and faces higher risk of abuse from police. Thus, support for the state in the wake of LGBTQ+ tragedy, like the Pulse nightclub shooting, has the potential to perpetuate harm against LGBTQ+ communities.
Such favorable association of LGBTQ+ culture, community, movements, and tragedy with nationalistic ideals, institutions, and projects is called homonationalism. Whether intentional or not, homonationalism entrenches the idea of the state as protector and minimizes the very real claims that the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized communities have against state abuse. If one cares about those communities that have suffered from state oppression, one needs to become aware of and counteract homonationalism.
Homonationalism in the Media
The Pulse shooting provides a prime example of homonationalist narratives at work. Most reports on the Pulse shooting have described it as the largest mass shooting in US history. However, the state sanctioned massacre of American Indians at Sand Creek in 1864, Clear Lake in 1850, and Wounded Knee in 1890 all had more victims. Furthermore, critiques of this misleading attribution have noted that “death tolls…were much higher in other shootings more than a century ago, including race riots and labor disputes in the early 1900s and massacres perpetrated by the U.S. Army or settlers in the American West.” Thus, describing the Pulse shooting as the worst mass shooting obscures state violence, protects the image of the state, and minimizes or erases the oppression of indigenous people and racial minorities.
Responses to the Pulse shooting strengthen and protect not only the image of the state but its officials. Police and politicians often get good press by expressing their sympathy and solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community, even as they remain unapologetic and unresponsive in regards to oppressive policies and actions, like the Stonewall riots, abuse of trans folk, and restrictions on LGBTQ+ rights and protections. The discrepancy between rhetoric and actual treatment reveals the hypocrisy of their “support” for the LGBTQ+ community. This hypocrisy often strengthens their public image, making it even more difficult to gain allies, counter injustice, and secure equal rights and protections.
Tragedies often contribute to false binaries—an “us” vs. “them” mentality. In the case of the Pulse shooting, the binary quickly became homosexuals vs. Muslims. The media and public were quick to accept the legitimacy and import of Omar Mateen’s pledged allegiances to Islamic radical groups, when it is not clear at all that Mateen knew much about the various groups he allied himself with or was consistent in those allegiances (Washington Post). Perhaps the most problematic effect of this is erasure of LGBTQ+ muslims and their LGBTQ+ allies. Very few news outlets even acknowledged the existence of LGBTQ+ muslims or the public condemnations of homophobia from across the Muslim community. Instead, there was mostly social backlash against Muslims in general, and policy recommendations like a ban on Muslim immigrants, increased policing of Muslim citizens, and escalation of American military action in the Middle East. These responses ignore the complex identities of LGBTQ+ and Muslim people, and merely shift marginalization and blanket condemnation instead of eliminating it.
The call for more police “protection” of the LGBTQ+ community is short-sighted, as it ignores the history of police abuse of LGBTQ+ people and perpetuates the image of the police as protectors of all—and so ignores a history of actual abuses. A recent article about police presence during Pride events sums up these sentiments well: “Since when do we accept celebrating ourselves, our lives and the fight for LGBTQ liberation under the eyes of a violent police state that continues to be a large part of violence against queer and transgender people, especially queer and transgender people of color? …The very idea that we are protected by the police is a result of homonationalism and, often, one’s own privilege — especially considering Pride events now are largely dominated by upper-class, white, cisgender, gay white men and women,” a demographic that does not face as much abuse as LGBTQ+ people of color.
Solidarity on social media rallied around #weareorlando and expressions of sadness at this attack on “all Americans.” But these responses effectively erase the victims’ identities: the victims weren’t just random Americans anywhere in America or Orlando, they were primarily Latinx, LGBTQ+ people at a gay nightclub. Furthermore, these responses set up the false pretense that all Americans are supportive of the LGBTQ+ community in the face of oppression, when many LGBTQ+ folk are harassed daily by fellow citizens and the state. How can we suffer as Orlandians, Floridans, or Americans, when these places have largely fostered homophobia and transphobia, both legally and culturally? Minimizing or erasing the identity of the victims does nothing to help the LGBTQ+ community: in order to counter abuse and oppression, one must recognize where it is coming from and who it is affecting most.
These examples of homonationalism should make us more aware of dominant narratives and their impact on LGBTQ+ and other marginalized communities. Noticing and then challenging homonationalist narratives is an important way to support the LGBTQ+ community, but there are also important alternative actions and narratives that can and should be privileged after LGBTQ+ tragedy.
First of all, we ought to listen to and privilege the victims of tragedies. LGBTQ+ folk, mostly latinx, were the victims in the Pulse shooting. LGBTQ+ folk were, appropriately, some of the loudest voices calling out police, politicians, and the problematic discourse and actions that shifted focus away from LGBTQ+ perspectives and state abuse (The Blaze, Workers.org, Fusion).
Secondly, we can seek alternatives to the state for protection and support. A comprehensive list and explanation of alternatives would call for several more articles, but one might start by supporting those private institutions that are created for and by the LGBTQ+ community. For example, one might donate to Pulse of Orlando, a “local, grassroots 501(c)(3) non-profit created to reach out with expeditious allocation of funds for the victims, survivors and families of the Pulse tragedy.”
Finally, it’s important to remember that homonationalist narratives are widespread; they are not deployed just in response to tragedy. With all this in mind, we can better oppose state oppression, the transference of marginalization, and the erasure of past and present abuse.