The Omar Mateen Story Is Uniquely American - A Toxic Mix of Guns, Religious Fundamentalism and Homophobia

In America, where the National Rifle Association owns a political party and there are so many mass shootings that only some of them make the national news, there are two kinds of mass killers: soft-spoken, mixed-up white loners who deserve a measure of sympathy, and evil Middle Eastern terrorists who do not.


Just after Sunday’s horrific massacre, when information was scant, the identification of a shooter with a name like Omar Mateen helped some sources quickly categorize him as the latter. Days later, conservative outlets and politicians persist in painting Mateen as a jihadist, the agent of a well-organized Middle Eastern sleeper cell, despite official reports that suggest he was unaware of the deep divides between the multiple factions to which he pledged allegiance. The subtext of these narratives is an indictment of Mateen’s Muslimness and Afghan-born parents; a hard-sell of the idea that a man born in New York and raised in Florida is somehow innately foreign by dint of heritage and religion.

There’s still more information these sources will choose to twist or ignore. Members of Orlando’s LGBT community and several people close to Mateen suggest he was gay, closeted and struggling with his sexuality. His ex-wife claims she witnessed his father wield the word “gay” as an insult toward his son on more than one occasion; she also expressed to the New York Times that Mateen might have chosen to “hide his true identity out of anger and shame.” Members of Orlando’s LGBT community report Mateen was a frequent visitor to the nightclub Pulse, dating back at least three years. A former police academy classmate says Mateen once asked him out, and others have told authorities he contacted them via gay dating apps such as Adam4Adam, Grindr and Jack’d.

Mateen’s deplorable actions are his own, and no justification could come close to absolving him of his crime. But these emerging accounts present a more complex story, one at odds with the oversimplified narrative of the single-minded Muslim extremist. Mateen worked in security and took selfies in NYPD garb. He had a father who in the aftermath of the shooting posted a video in which he declared, "God will punish those involved in homosexuality." He was allegedly violent toward his first wife, and had two gun licenses, neither of which he needed in Florida to buy the rifle he used in the massacre. The story of the Orlando mass shooting cannot be told without touching on lax gun laws, a culture rife with toxic masculinity and homophobia, weapons of war as easily available as loaves of bread, and a right wing that has relentlessly pushed religious liberty legislation and “bathroom bills” to ensure anti-LGBT discrimination is protected under the law. The preferred prefab narrative may center on Mateen’s inherent foreignness, but the full story, in its many complicating factors, is profoundly and uniquely American.

Being gay is in no way a mental illness, but sexual repression can be highly damaging to the psyche, creating inner self-loathing that manifests in anger directed outward. The pressure to deny or obscure a fundamental and wholly normal part of oneself leads to a contradictory and conflicted existence, as well as the “ever present, frightening sense that it could all crack at any moment,” writes Daily Beast contributor Jay Michaelson, who spent a decade hiding his sexuality behind a veneer of religious piety before becoming an LGBT activist. Internalized homophobia, and the self-hate that festers within it, spills out into spaces far beyond the personal. “The more internalized homophobia, the more externalized homophobia,” writes Michaelson. “The more fear of one’s own sexuality, the more condemnation of someone else’s.”

Science bears this out. Studies find a direct correlation between homophobic attitudes and homosexuality, and high levels of the former are often an indication of the latter. Two decades ago, researchers from the University of Georgia showed a group of men short videos of people engaging in straight sex, gay male sex and lesbian sex. Only the most homophobic men in the study “showed an increase in penile erection to male homosexual stimuli.” A collaborative 2012 investigation by the University of Rochester, the UK’s University of Essex and UC Santa Barbara consisted of four distinct psychological experiments, each involving roughly 160 subjects. The researchers concluded that “[h]omophobia is more pronounced in individuals with an unacknowledged attraction to the same sex and who grew up with authoritarian parents who forbade such desires.”

"Individuals who identify as straight but in psychological tests show a strong attraction to the same sex may be threatened by gays and lesbians because homosexuals remind them of similar tendencies within themselves," explained the study’s lead author, Netta Weinstein.

"In many cases these are people who are at war with themselves,” Richard Ryan, a University of Rochester psychology professor who co-authored the study, stated, “and they are turning this internal conflict outward.”

The right wing should be well familiar with this idea. Among the most hard-charging opponents of the LGBT community are a number of folks who have ultimately been revealed to be gay. From evangelical pastor Ted Haggard to Bush aide Ken Mehlman, the frontlines of the anti-gay brigade have always included those whose demonization of the queer community serves as a smokescreen to conceal their own sexuality. Desperately afraid of the judgment and homophobia imposed and instilled by friends, family, society and religion, these people are willing to destroy the lives of others to provide cover for themselves.

The cycle of learned homophobia we all internalize from the dominant culture feeds on itself, and is vicious from every angle, yielding very real consequences. If radicalization is as easy a process as so many entities in this country suggest each time a brown person with a supposed Middle Eastern name commits an act of terror, surely those who beat the drums of fear, discrimination and homophobia in this country should also be considered radicalizing forces. We have heard again and again that Mateen—whose ex-wife says he was “mentally unstable” but showed “no signs” of being a religious radical—was inspired by extremism on the internet. It seems just as likely that the cultural forces whose radical agendas include dehumanizing gay people would also have made an impact. We’re still learning, as details continue to pour in, how Mateen may have reached the point where human, and more specifically queer lives, were so anathema he was moved to snuff them out. But while we’re floating ideas, it makes sense that every potential radicalizing voice be considered.

Elite Daily cites the words of Gareth Thomas, a retired rugby star who discussed his personal battle with internalized homophobia in the documentary Coming Out: My Secret Past. Thomas came out in 2009 after spending most of his career in the closet.

“I had my first sexual encounter with a guy when I was 17. I hated myself so much. I remember trying to scrub myself clean. This is when things got tough for me. I couldn't admit even to myself that I was gay. And I started to lie to my teammates about what I was up to when we weren't together. I had a lot of anger because I didn't like who I was when I stepped off the field. I used to relish the chance of being able to try and hurt somebody in a legal way. And in the laws of the game of rugby enable you to be able to do that. There have been games I've played when I've just felt uncontrollable. If I didn’t have the rugby field to get rid of the aggression, I am sure that I would have been locked up a long time ago... And by hurting people and being aggressive, you could also be seen to be tough. And if you're known as a tough guy, it means that you’re not gay.”

Mateen, whose life seemed filled with the trappings of tough-guyness from cop gear to big guns, may have learned this lesson himself. Perhaps, ultimately, his inability to cope with the homophobia he may have felt from nearly every corner of life could have taken its toll. I cannot state enough that no matter what he endured, Mateen is solely responsible for his actions; oppression, and the anger and resentment it breeds, cannot account for Sunday’s brutal massacre. But if what his friends and colleagues say is true, the incongruity of Mateen’s feelings and outward life may only have helped worsen his mental stability. Homophobia, unfettered access to guns, religious fear, and family issues are a poisonous blend.

Ryan, the researcher from the University of Rochester, breaks down what so many already know about what internalized homophobia and the need to effectively kill off a part of ourselves can mean. "We laugh at or make fun of such blatant hypocrisy, but in a real way, these people may often themselves be victims of repression and experience exaggerated feelings of threat,” the researcher says. “Homophobia is not a laughing matter. It can sometimes have tragic consequences.”

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