14 June 2016
Barack Obama has called the Orlando shooting a “hate crime” against the LGBTQ community. For LGBTQ folk, it’s just another day of violence against our tribe.
As the world expresses shock and horror over the massacre in Orlando, the LGBTQ community responds with sadness, but not with surprise. Violence against LGBTQ people is a depressingly common part of our lived experience.
From our earliest years, we are policed and criticised for inappropriate gender behaviour, and subject to physical and psychological violence, often before we have an awareness of what our sexuality is. Every grade school has them: the sensitive, unsporty boys who get beaten up for being a “faggot”, or the short-haired tomboys who are called “dykes”. This isn’t just kids being mean in the playground – it’s a product of growing up in a homophobic society that can’t tolerate sexual difference.
There are few LGBTQ people around, even in large cities like London, New York and Sydney, who don’t have some personal experience of homophobic violence. Parents and caregivers who beat us and throw us out of home; strangers who attack us; employers and landlords who refuse us jobs and accommodation; and lawmakers who do nothing to safeguard our safety. We become experts at monitoring ourselves to ward off the threat or fear of violence – screening our dress and mannerisms, being careful not to camp/butch it up in unfamiliar surroundings, and interrogating newcomers before deciding to disclose our sexuality.
Often this strategy works, but even then we’re not safe. To be LGBTQ is to live in a body that is prone to abuse. The recent blooming of trans consciousness has highlighted the especial vulnerability of trans people to attack. As the heartbreaking story of Teena Brandon reminds us, a trans body is more often than not a dead one.
Psychologist Alan Downs has written about the devastating psychological toll this vigilance places on LGBTQ people, resulting in disproportionately high incidences of drug and alcohol abuse and suicidal behaviour. It’s not surprising that the mainstay of gay male culture and pornography is the hyper-masculine aggressive top: he represents a fantasy of strength and invincibility against abuse that many gay men long to live in.
As the shooting in Orlando proves, LGBTQ people aren’t even safe in spaces they have claimed for their own – violence can come from within members of our community. Perhaps the most disturbing new development from the aftermath of the killings were reports that the gunman was a regular visitor to Pulse nightclub, had a profile on gay hook-up app Grindr, and had messaged other gay men for nearly a year before the attack.
The implications of this news are still unclear, and may never be fully understood. But this means that our earlier understanding of the gunman as a violent fanatic who reacted in disgust to the sight of two men kissing now needs to be rethought. The killer was, in some sense, one of our own.
It’s possible that the gunman was simply researching his targets, like the serial killer who stalked leather bars in William Freidkin’s 1980 film Cruising – posing as gay just long enough to lure his victims into a trap. It’s also just as plausible that he was a closeted gay or bisexual man who struggled with his sexuality, and whose self-loathing erupted in an orgy of violence.
This, again, is nothing new to LGBTQ people. Every nightclub, bar, sauna and internet chatroom has a version of this type of character – though admittedly most of them don’t tot assault rifles. There’s the married man who claims that he’s “straight” but who likes to fool around with other guys; or the man who’s managed to tiptoe out of the closet but who says he’s “straight acting”, expressing distaste for the “feminine” or camp aspects of LGBTQ culture, and insisting on taking the active role in sex because only “faggots” get penetrated. The shame created by the social unacceptability of being different leeches into our souls; sexuality becomes something to be muffled or avoided, and those of the same persuasion become enemies who must be repelled.
Our criminal law courts are filled with cases of men who have justifying the murder of LGBTQ people as a legitimate response to a real or perceived sexual advance. In British and American law, this defence was traditionally known as a crime passionel. A robustly heterosexual man comes home to find his wife in bed with another man. Shocked by this affront to his honour (or this misuse of his property), he picks up the nearest gun and shoots them both dead. Male violence was justified and partially condoned by the law as a reasonable and forgivable response to slights on a man’s heterosexual honour, or the abuse of his (female) property.
Unsurprisingly, the defence was extended to include a partial defence to men complaining of unwelcome sexual advances from LGBTQ people. The cases were nearly always the same: a young man, often a sex worker, attacked and killed an openly gay man. The cases were characterised by brutal and extreme violence, entirely out of proportion to the sexual proposition complained of. When charged with murder, the defendants would employ the legal defence of “provocation” or “diminished responsibility” to reduce their convictions from murder to the lesser crime of manslaughter.
This argument became so prevalent in murder trials in Australasia in the 1980s, that it was given a name: “Homosexual Advance Defence”, or the more insightful alternative, “Homosexual Panic Defence”. (In the UK, it was known as “the Portsmouth defence” or “the guardsman’s defence”, suggesting an over-subscription of extremely attractive guardsmen in the UK armed services).
One of the most high-profile American cases to attempt to use HAD was the 1995 murder of Scott Amedure in Michigan. Amedure appeared as a guest on TV chat show The Jenny Jones Show, admitting he had a secret crush on his (reputedly straight) friend Jonathan Schmitz. Three days after the recording, Schmitz fatally shot Amedure with a shotgun he’d purchased that morning. In his defence, Schmitz’s lawyers argued that the combination of being exposed to a gay man’s desire and the humiliation of public exposure on TV caused him to – slowly – unravel. The argument largely didn’t wash in court, and Schmitz was convicted and sentenced to 25-50 years in prison. It’s notable, though, that he was charged with “second degree murder”, which didn’t require proof of pre-meditation. Schmitz’ murderous intent was obvious, but appears to have been partially excused in yet another round of Blame It On The Gay.
Many critics of HAD noted the sexist and homophobic assumptions implicit in its argument. One commentator noted pithily that if women were able to employ the same defence every time they were the object of an unwanted sexual advance, there would be no straight men left alive. The defence inscribed heterosexual male identity as a sacred space in which any attempted breach or violation would reasonably be met by further violence.
The rise of the HAD underscored what LGBTQ people have always known – that violence is a fundamental part of living in a homophobic society and the primary means by which “normal” heterosexuality can be separated from “abnormal” homosexuality.
Another more disturbing theory, which might shed some light on the motives of the Orlando gunman, is that the attacker’s violence is a response to an internal fear. The “panic” of “Homosexual Panic Defence” comes not from the panic of being hit on by a LGBTQ person, but the panic that the subject himself might be gay or perceived as being gay.
Could it be that this was the Orlando gunman’s strategy? From what we know of his life, he appeared to live under a social code in which homosexuality was an abomination, and an impossible basis for living an authentic life. Was the massacre his attempt to push away any confusion or fear about his own sexuality with a hail of bullets?
We may never know the answer to this question. The gunman is dead, and any discussions of the massacre as a hate crime must also contend with discussions of terrorism. (Isis have, somewhat confusingly, claimed the attack as their own, despite an apparent lack of evidence connecting them directly to the gunman.).
HAD has been chipped away at over the years. After a number of brutal and high-profile cases, legislatures in New Zealand and some Australian states have repealed the defence of provocation. In 2014, California became the first and only US state to ban HAD; recommendations by the American Bar Association for other states to follow suit have not as yet been taken up.
What this history and the tragedy of Orlando remind us is that we live in a society where violence against LGBTQ people is normalised, and the law will not provide LGBTQ from the protection they deserve. More distressingly, homosexuality is still so reviled in our culture that even the possibility of a non-straight identity is enough to encourage young men to hit the destruct/self-destruct button.
It’s fine to mourn the loss of life in Orlando: to attend vigils, to light candles, to offer up prayers if you believe in a God. But we need more than these comforting platitudes. We owe it to the victims of Orlando and their families to create a better world, in which homosexuality isn’t a holy terror, and where violence isn’t acceptable as a response to sexual difference.