What if Orlando Wasn’t an Arbitrary Anti-gay Attack After All?

If Omar Mateen was indeed a closeted gay man, the massacre’s initial symbolism as an Islamist homophobic attack has been uncomfortably overtaken by a revenge narrative. Tel Aviv’s LGBT community has been there before.

Marchers hold a rainbow flag with photos of the victims of the Orlando mass shooting during the San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade, San Francisco, California, U.S. June 26, 2016.
Elijah Nouvelage, Reuters

Seven years ago, a masked gunman walked into the Barnoar, a center for LGBT youth in Tel Aviv, and killed three people. For four years, the incident was one of Israel’s biggest unsolved mysteries and an open wound for the LGBT community. It became a rallying cry for gay rights and acceptance. But in 2013, police identified a suspect and a sordid story unfolded: The 50-year-old head of Barnoar had allegedly had a relationship with a 15-year-old whose relatives were suspected in the shooting. Police called it an act of revenge

Suddenly, the symbol of an arbitrary anti-gay attack was called into question. The Israeli LGBT community was rattled. It was no longer clear what, if anything, the Barnoar murders stood for. 

The massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando may be following a similarly confusing, albeit condensed, trajectory. Within hours, politicians were angling to control the narrative: Republicans yelled “Islamic extremism”; a disturbingly self-congratulatory Donald Trump doubled down on his anti-Muslim immigration ban. Democrats channeled public anger over lenient gun laws into dramatic action on the House floor – literally. The LGBT community and allies gathered at vigils across the country and reminded Americans that we are still the most targeted group for hate crimes

And now, several weeks later, more details are emerging that may scramble that picture. It appears that Omar Mateen, the 29-year-old Afghani-American killer, may have been a closeted gay man who frequented Pulse, had a presence on gay hookup sites, and, as alleged in a recent interview with Univision, possibly perpetrated the attack as an act of revenge on an HIV-positive partner. (FBI investigators said recently that they have not been able to substantiate those claims.) 

Does this allegation matter in how we think about Orlando? Should it? If the claims of Mateen’s personal connection are verified, does it negate his pledge to ISIS made in a phone call to police during the standoff? And how are we to reconcile the political motive he gave for the attack in that call – the United States’ ongoing military campaign in Afghanistan – with a potential personal motive that may involve internalized homophobia? With so few concrete details, is it even responsible for us to form an opinion at this point?

As a journalist who jumped into the fray shortly after the shooting and made broad statements about Islamic extremism, gun control and homophobia in the United States, it’s uncomfortable to see new evidence challenge what we all thought were the broader political questions at stake. The new information about Mateen does not make those questions obsolete, but it does push them to the sideline a bit, whether we like it or not.

When a revenge narrative creeps in, it allows people to dismiss larger social and political contexts. As Tel Aviv’s Barnoar example demonstrated, a symbol deflates when the facts become murkier and no longer adhere to a clear-cut narrative of hate. One Israeli activist called the Barnoar revelations “embarrassing” for the LGBT community; another told me that it required communal introspection. “The subject puts the spotlight on the dark side of the [LGBT] community,” she said. Both agreed Barnoar is still a symbol, but a complicated one

In the end, the same may be true of Orlando. That massacre is still a reflection of U.S. foreign policy, religiously-sowed hatred and America’s rampant, unregulated gun culture. But a narrative that also involves an individual’s psychosis makes it easier for politicians, in particular, to ignore those hard questions. Mateen’s personal demons, unfortunately, may give Americans permission to avoid facing our own.

Which is why it felt necessary to respond to Orlando right away. In anger and disbelief and confusion, those of us who weighed in tried to make sense of what happened by facing its uncomfortable implications in hopes that it would lead to important conversations about problems that need to be fixed. We grappled with the issues that appeared to be at play. And the result of these conversations is that tragedies often become symbols which bring us together and help us start to heal.  

But the responsibility of journalists – and everyone, really – is to revisit and revise our assessments as new facts come to light. Symbols can be therapeutic and empowering, as Barnoar was initially for the Israeli LGBT community, but we have to be careful about how we apply them. And we have to accept that tragedies can point to many social as well as personal problems and mean multiple things at the same time. Ultimately, they may not be perfect symbols. It will likely be a while before we have clarity on Orlando. 

But that doesn’t mean it can’t inspire real change now: After Barnoar, a number of public figures in Israel came out, and increased communal solidarity and awareness led to pressure on politicians that resulted in some legal gains for LGBT Israelis. In the United States, one promising development in the wake of the Orlando massacre is the momentum within the LGBT community is collectively taking on gun control with the skills and infrastructure we developed while successfully campaigning for same-sex marriage. 

Regardless of what we end up knowing about Mateen – if we ever know the whole story – and however complex the narrative ultimately is, we can still choose to channel the pain and symbolism of Orlando into constructive action. 

Brian Schaefer is a contributor to Haaretz, based in New York.