Reacting to a Mass Shooting from Overseas

– How living in America has made these events suddenly seem so much more real to me

By Joanna Leigh

Everyone in the UK who is vaguely aware of current events knows that America has a gun problem. In fact, many of us probably know the names ‘Sandy Hook’ and ‘Virginia Tech’ even if we’re not necessarily aware of the exact events that took place at these schools.

However, it is not something that I, at least, have ever really been involved in. I heard the news and admitted they were awful events, but they have hardly ever affected me personally. Even when I was living in the US and the shootings happened in California, most recently at UCLA, I sighed and my stomach would drop and I would be sad for a day, maybe. But these shootings had become part of daily life and I became desensitised to it – or so I thought.

At first the reports of the shooting in Orlando on Sunday said that there had been around 20 people killed – a high number, but not unheard of, so I briefly watched the news and moved on with my day. But as the reports continued to come in and I heard that it was the worst mass shooting in US history, I paused for a little longer, my stomach dropping in the same familiar way, until I realised I had other things to do; further evidence that I had become desensitised to the whole situation.

It wasn’t until I scrolled through Twitter at night that my heart truly broke. An American friend had texted me earlier in the day asking if I had heard about the shooting, and that he was at a loss, as there was really nothing he could do. I comforted him and admitted it was awful and then decided I would jump on Twitter to read some about the shooting to see if there was any hope.

I’m still not entirely sure what is really bothering me about the shooting. I keep trying to stay off social media to save myself from all the awful things I am reading but I can’t seem to stay away. Eventually I realised that it’s probably that I identify as bi/pan/I-haven’t-really-worked-it-out-yet-sexual and this attack felt significantly more personal than others.

I can’t say that I am the most affected by this – I have read countless times that you can never really understand unless you have been in the position where you step into a gay club and suddenly feel safe. This safe place for LGBTQI people was taken hostage, and in this time when they need refuge and support, they have nowhere they can really go.

I say ‘they’ rather than ‘us’ because I have not come out, not needed to come out and I have never needed a safe place to go. I am so straight-passing, that I sometimes forget that I’m queer in the first place. I have that privilege of not needing to tell people that I’m not straight – I’m sure there are only a handful of people that know and even the ones that do probably forget – and so I don’t want to group myself with people who have gone through the experiences of coming out, of homophobic hate, of feeling unsafe for being themselves in public. I don’t think I deserve to be included.

However, this didn’t stop the shooting feeling any less personal. The details make it so much worse: I have heard that the club was named after the owner’s brother who died, that this is the second worse mass shooting in the history of the world (second only to shootings in Norway in 2011), that it is the worst attack on the LGBTQI community on US soil.

The club name ‘Pulse’ is the same as one of the gay clubs in my hometown. I don’t know why that makes it worse.

I cannot adequately explain why this feels more like my tragedy than the other shootings; should I not have been more affected by the shooting at Sandy Hook, an elementary school that left 27 dead, 20 of whom were chilren? Or even the Virginia Tech or any other university shooting? I think it is because those shootings did not seem real.

The first time the idea of a mass shooting seemed real was on my second day of orientation in an American college, when one of the campus police came to speak to us about safety on campus. He explained the simple things, such as not walking alone in the dark and knowing where and how you could contact the police. Then he also told us that we should all keep up with the university alerts, just in case there was ever an active shooter situation on campus. Now, sitting in a room full of international students, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was astounded by the casual way he made that statement. As if it were an everyday occurrence.

In 2015, there were 371 mass shootings in the US, according to massshootingtracker.org, a website I kind of wish I didn’t know existed (this website also told me that 469 people were killed and 1262 were injured last year and that the events in Orlando would mark the 176th shooting this year). Now, according to Wikipedia, there is no dictionary definition for a ‘mass shooting’ although apparently the number of people that have to be shot at is 4 for it to be ‘mass’. So these numbers don’t even include times when between 1 and 3 people have been shot at.

Yet, the US still isn’t doing anything about it. Instead, every time this happens they make excuses. We all know the way it goes by now: if the shooter is white then they have mental health issues; if the shooter is black then they are a ‘thug’; if the shooter is brown then they have multiple ties to ISIS and Islamic fundamentalism.

But people cannot do anything safely without being shot at – they cannot go to school (see any of the hundreds of school shootings), they cannot go to church (June 17, 2015 – Charleston, South Carolina), they cannot go to the cinema (July 20, 2012 – Aurora, Colorado) and now they cannot dance and drink and be themselves in a space that was specifically designed to keep them safe.

With the shooting on Sunday, many media outlets have blamed the shooter’s past, making sure everyone knows he is a homophobic Muslim with Afghan roots. But a homophobic attack like this could have easily been done by a white, right wing fundamentalist similar to Robert Dear, Jr. the man who was convicted for the Planned Parenthood shooting in November 2015.

Everyone, by now, is aware of the supposed phone call to the police during which Omar Mateen confirmed his alleged ties to ISIS; however, even though ISIS claimed responsibility, and Mateen pledged allegiance to ISIS, there is still no proof of contact between the two entities. Media outlets have done all they can to tell us that Mateen is not an American. There are even reports that he frequented Pulse and had profiles on gay dating sites. Is it possible that his homophobia stems from hating his own sexuality?

Many media outlets have also denied calling this story what it really is: a homophobic terrorist attack. There is a clip of Owen Jones walking off the set of Sky News on Sunday night, as the hosts refused to acknowledge that this was an attack on the LGBTQI community, instead branding it an attack on human beings, and thus completely ignoring the real point of the matter. Rather, they are focusing on ISIS and many, including D*nald Tr*mp are making sure everyone knows that they hated Muslims all along.

American media and politicians want to make this about everyone other than themselves. They focus on what the American public can easily swallow: hatred toward minority groups, something that the US probably holds the trophy on (not that the UK is any better, but that is a discussion for another time). So, instead of addressing the matter at hand (which would be political suicide in a country that values their second amendment right over real human lives), they pit these two vulnerable minorities against each other. They spout hateful rhetoric about how the Qur’an preaches against homosexuality and that Islam is all about hatred. Or they talk in coded language about how the LGBTQI community is an abomination and that they should not be parading their abnormality in public.

But the problem is, they were not parading themselves around in public. Mateen sought them out. They were hidden away, in their safe place; some of them may not have even come out to anyone outside of the club they were in, yet Mateen, armed with an assault rifle, went to them in order to incite terror and cause irreparable harm. And now the very community that was targeted cannot even help the 50 who were injured, because there is still a ban on sexually active gay and bisexual men giving blood.

And the worst thing is, Mateen has arguably caused more harm to the Muslim population than the LGBTQI community. I am worried for my best friend, a Muslim in America who has, at the young age of 21, already experienced horrific things. She has told me terrifying stories of student Muslim associations being targeted with poison in books and hate mail. And I can only see this getting so much worse – I cannot even imagine the hatred directed at women who wear hijabs, especially as I have seen people targeted simply for being from south Asia or the Middle East, when they have no affiliation with the Islamic faith.

To the people telling everyone to stop making this a political issue: it already is one. It has been a political issue since the government decided they can control everything that the LGBTQI community does, telling them which bathrooms to use, if they can adopt and whether or not they can get married. This has been a political issue since the second amendment to the constitution was written in 1791. It has been a political issue since the government refused to make changes even after Sandy Hook when six and seven year olds were targeted. But, of course, the incident was put down to mental health issues and the real problem was once again ignored.

I urge my Americans friends and anyone American that reads this to get in touch with your local and national politicians. We must at least obtain a ban on assault rifles and automatic weapons – they are not needed for hunting or for anything that the general public would go through. The second amendment is a ridiculous part of the constitution because the general public do not need access to guns, especially in a country that preaches toxic masculinity concepts from such a young age. The bad guy with the assault rifle never meets the good guy with a hand pistol for protection and so we cannot truly argue that having a gun for protection is worth the cost of all of these terrible shootings. All these people are dying so that you can have a gun in your drawer that you never get to use, unless you toddler finds it and accidentally kills you first (109 accidental shootings by a minor in 2016 by the time of the Orlando shooting: http://everytownresearch.org/notanaccident/).

This attack is awful. There is no other way to put it. This was the worst terrorist attack in the US since 9/11, and it was directed at the LGBTQI community. This attack deeply affected LGBTQI people of colour, and although you are allowed to mourn, do not co-opt this awful tragedy and make it your own. Remember who the victims of this hateful attack were. The only thing we can do is stand in solidarity with both the LGBTQI and Muslim communities and show that terrorism in any shape or form cannot destroy our hope or the love that is present in the world, even though sometimes it doesn’t seem like it. Teach love. Stop teaching toxic masculinity and spreading hate.

I am so sad today and I know that so many all over the world are feeling the same way and probably worse. I hope none of you are too scared, we’ve all got so many people supporting us. Love is love, and today, of all days, let your loved ones know you love them.