Orlando: A community tries to heal amid a divided national debate

On the early morning of June 12, Omar Mateen stormed Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida with a semi-automatic rifle and handgun. In the next three hours, he proceeded to slaughter the gay club’s patrons which resulted in 49 deaths and 53 wounded individuals.

The nightclub shooting would become the worst terrorist attack since 9/11 and also the deadliest mass shooting by a single shooter in American history.

The attack occurred on the weekend following spring finals at Portland State. Few students were on campus over the weekend but Craig Leets, director of the Queer Resource Center, attended a candlelight vigil last Sunday night in downtown. Leets wants the PSU community to know that the QRC is open during the summer on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Smith Memorial Student Union, room 458.

In a statement provided to the Vanguard, Leets emphasized a need for continued activism against all forms of discrimination. “We are sad, we are angry, we are afraid,” Leets said. “However, it is important to recognize that this occurred on Latinx Night at Pulse and that there is specific impact to queer and trans people of color and, more specifically, Latinx queer and trans people.”

“In the coming days, weeks, months, years,” Leets continued, “we must find a way to honor this incident by fighting the homophobia, transphobia and racism that are too present in the United States.”

Community seeks healing in the midst of national debate

In the wake of this tragedy, many have discussed, surmised and debated how various factors—including theology, self-identity or prejudice—could have contributed to Mateen carrying out such an attack.

Patience Carter—a survivor of the Pulse shooting who sustained bullet wounds in both legs—recounted a phone call Mateen made to police during the attack in which he proclaimed his allegiance to the Islamic State group and its caliph. Carter said that during the phone call, Mateen stated he wanted the United States to stop bombing his country.

Head of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Ron Johnson, asked Facebook representatives to share information about the accounts associated with Mateen. According to a letter released by Johnson, Mateen made a series of posts during and/or before the attack pledging his allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State group:

“I pledge my alliance [sic] to abu bakr al Baghdadi…may Allah accept me,” according to the letter. Mateen further called for the United States and Russia to stop its military campaign against the Islamic State group. He also rebuked the West for what he viewed as its acceptance of offensive lifestyles.

“The real muslims will never accept the filthy ways of the West,” said Mateen in Johnson’s letter. “In the next few days you will see attacks from the Islamic state in the [U.S].”

Mateen was born in New York to parents from Afghanistan. Mateen’s father, Seddique Mir Mateen, has expressed public support for the Taliban in several videos posted on YouTube. The United States has continued to engage in military confrontation against the Taliban since the 2001 invasion.

In a video released last week, Mir Mateen lamented his son’s actions. “Why he has done it in the holy month of Ramadan?” asks Mir Mateen in Farsi. “The issue of homosexual [sic] and its punishment—all that they do—God himself will give punishment to homosexuality, it is not for people to decide.”

As new details have emerged about Mateen’s previous investigations by the FBI and possible collusion with his wife, Noor Salman, to carry out the attack, LGBTQ communities across the country remain rattled.

Many in the community have regarded the attack as a deliberate target on a gay establishment and its patrons.

Peter Tachell, a gay British human rights campaigner, said in an interview on BBC Radio 2, “Pulse advertised itself as a gay nightclub and as a gay community center and resource.” “Quite clearly, the gunman targeted that venue because it was gay,” Tachell said. “He didn’t choose a mixed nightclub…he went for a gay nightclub.”

Mateen traveled over 100 miles from his home in Port Saint Lucie, Florida to reach the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Noor Salman may have driven her husband to the club on a previous occasion for the purpose of scouting the building, according to intelligence and security sources in various reports.

Several regular patrons of Pulse spoke to the media about seeing Mateen frequent the gay club as a customer. There are also unconfirmed accounts by men who said they interacted with Mateen on a gay dating app.

Author, Jay Michaelson, wrote in the Daily Beast that an internalized rejection of same-sex attraction may have more strongly motivated Mateen than an Islamist ideology. Muslims for Progressive Values, a Los Angeles faith-based human rights organization, issued a press release in the wake of the attack to call for the American Muslim community to more openly confront religiously inspired homophobia.

“While we understand that every community struggles with homophobia, today it is abundantly clear why the American Muslim community needs to address homophobia in our own community and institutions,” reads the statement. “We must challenge divisive interpretations of Islam that may encourage those like the gunman in Orlando.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest national Muslim advocacy organization, issued a statement condemning the attacks.

“We stand with members of the LGBTQ community in condemning the actions of this criminal as not representative of the Islamic faith, calling for peace, love and compassion, and calling for this to not divide [us] as one humanity,” said Executive Director of CAIR-Oklahoma Adam Soltani.

This contrasted a statement made by a representative of the CAIR-Florida chapter of the organization in 2009. Chief Executive Director of CAIR-Florida, Hassan Shibly, denounced homosexuality and other perceived sins, describing them as evil.

“Alcahol [sic], Pre-Marital Sex, Homosexuality, Worshipping a Human are all evils,” Shibly said in a Facebook post. “[P]re-Marital Sex and Homosexuality are quick ways to earn God’s wrath.”

Irshad Manji, a lesbian Muslim and human rights activist, criticized CAIR’s statements to the media as rhetoric. Speaking on HLN, Manji responded to a CAIR representative’s gesture of condolence during a CNN appearance. “She did all the right things for publicity reasons,” Manji said. “What she should have been asked is, ‘Sure you condemn it, but is your organization also reaching out to mosques and asking them, in fact, demanding of them that they not preach intolerance toward gay and lesbian people?’”

Other activists of Muslim heritage continue their call for the public and Muslim community to openly discuss and combat homophobia and extremism derived from some interpretations of Islam. Speaking to the Vanguard, Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, a human rights activist who was born and raised in Iraq, said, “Beliefs matter and they drive action.”

“When the abortion clinic attack happened, all my liberal friends were very confident that the attack was partly inspired by Christian beliefs about life and abortion, and they were right. When the Orlando attack happened and the guy pledged allegiance to ISIS, my liberal friends say it has nothing to do with Islam.”

Sohail Ahmed, a former Islamist radical who has since come out as gay, told the Vanguard via a statement from London that internalized homophobia may actually drive some to more extreme forms of religiosity. “Islamic teachings on homosexuality paradoxically made me even more religious and fanatical,” Ahmed said. “Islamic scholars would say that the way to cure homosexuality is to become more religious. As a result, I became more radical in an attempt to fix or cure my same-sex attractions.”

Ahmed said that he formerly practiced Wahhabi-Salafi Islam and at one point seriously considered carrying out a terror attack with an improvised explosive device. He is now an activist against Islamist extremism and attends the Inclusive Mosque Initiative, an LGBTQ-friendly mosque in London.

Beyond the debate about the extent of how theology and ideology may or may not have played a role in the attack, politicians and analysts are discussing how to move forward.

In a statement, Oregon Governor Kate Brown, who is the first sitting governor to identify as bisexual, shifted the discussion to gun control, as did the Obama administration. “Tragically, what we are waking up to in the United States today is that the growing number of mass shootings in the U.S. increases the number of Americans with a personal connection to a Roseburg, a Charleston, a Columbine, and now, an Orlando,” Brown said. “We must take action to better protect community safety.”

As details continue to be uncovered, families of the 49 victims grieve the murder of their lost ones. The wider LGBTQ community around the country are wrestling with how to heal in light of a massacre during what is typically a month of pride, support and celebration.

The Portland Waterfront LGBTQ Pride festival and parade took place over the weekend with increased security provided by the Portland Police. Officers with PSU’s Campus Public Safety Office marched in the parade.

Portland State’s QRC remains an open and safe space for students during the summer term.