Orlando: a case study of sexuality & space

How do we talk about Orlando? One way is to think about how this attack highlights the relationship between sexuality and space.

It makes for sobering reading. In the early hours of Sunday morning, 29 year-old Omar Mateen entered LGBT Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and committed a mass shooting of those inside. Several hours later, 50 people, including Mateen, were lying dead, and 44 more were injured. Think about this: in the journey from nightclub to hospital alone, 9 people died. 33 remain still in hospital, with 6 critically injured. Text messages and mobile phone videos communicating with friends and family testify to the horror of the experience: dozens of people enjoying their Saturday night killed in one of the places that they felt most safe. Think, too, of this: some victims may have been ‘outed’ as LGBT for the first time to their families only by the news of their death. It tells us a lot about society and sexuality.

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Pulse nightclub shooting victims. Bearing witness to them stops it being all about their killer.

The focus of much of the media coverage following the attack has rightly been about gun ownership. As is often the case as outsiders, we in Europe (#VoteRemain) largely agree that the scale of gun-based homicide in the U.S. is extraordinary. It’s probable that in some U.S states it is easier to get a gun than an abortion. Time after time, a devastating mass shooting alerts American citizens to consider the stark reality of the status of firearms legislation across the country. Yet time after time, the issue gets kicked into the long grass by conservative Republicans in Senate. They either believe in the old trope of citizens’ right to bear arms, an idiosyncrasy leftover from the formative years of the Union, or feel manipulated by the substantial fiscal influence of the NRA (National Rifle Association). Put it this way: when House of Cards played out a similar ‘fictional’ storyline with the NRA, the script probably wrote itself.

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Economist analysis of death by firearms, U.S. 2014 – not including 2015 or 2016 shootings.

Meanwhile, the American Medical Association released a statement today that reads:

“With approximately 30,000 men, women and children dying each year at the barrel of a gun in elementary schools, movie theaters, workplaces, houses of workshop and on live television, the United States faces a public health crisis of gun violence”.

Imagine it: a public health crisis of gun violence. Welcome to 2016.

Since the attack, different rationales for the shooting have emerged, including supposed links with ISIS, which unsurprisingly have been devoured by the media. It seems more likely that Mateen was pledging allegiance rather than executing a coordinated operation. Meanwhile emerging evidence suggests that Mateen was a visitor to the nightclub himself, and that he used gay dating apps (ah, those again – you could almost write a PhD on it). But I want to bring the focus for a bit back to some reflection on the impact of the Pulse nightclub shooting for sexual minorities, because I think it’s important.

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LGBT vigil, Soho, London. Photo credit: Ray Tang/LNP

Talking to a friend yesterday, I was trying to explain why this attack was so particularly harrowing for the gay community: why many of my LGBT friends, thousands of miles from Orlando, felt vulnerable, despite our Twitter proclamations that #LoveWins and despite our measured vigil in Soho. I explained the history of ‘queer space’ as representing a safe space for sexual minorities over decades or even centuries. I lost them at the word ‘queer’, and I realised, as so often, how the terminology of contemporary theory is so poorly communicated to society sometimes, despite the best actions of activists. I’ve experienced the same impasse when explaining to audiences that my work explores the bridging of queer theory and technology. A very brief definition of queer theory is useful, not to mention rare.

Queer, a word reclaimed in the 1990s from the 19th & 20th century insult (itself rooted in “strangeness” or “peculiarity”) is basically an umbrella term for all the different types of non-heterosexuality. Meanwhile, queer theory argues that as individuals we are conditioned to think in terms of boundaries between man/woman, straight/gay. Some of queer theory’s big questions are: what would the world look like if we troubled established binaries and made room for different representations of gender, sex and sexuality? How might celebrating sexual difference, rather than sameness, help social relations between the massive variety of humans? (clue: lots). Queer theory was first defined by Teresa de Lauretis in 1990 (Differences), who developed the idea as a way of extending feminist scholarship and gay and lesbian studies into new territory. Queer theory contests the traditional idea that heterosexuality is natural or preferable, and argues that this privilege is embedded in the social structures of society. As the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood wrote back in 1973:

“so many of the things that we do in what we sadly think of as our personal lives are simply duplications of the external world of power games, power struggles” (‘Notes on Power Politics’, 43).

In an academic sense, queer theory isn’t just about LGBT issues; it can be used as a different way to read a text or a different way to make art. It can turn ideas on their head, or promote mischief: think of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s definition as “something ‘aslant’ or ‘across’ […] the Latin torquere (to twist)” (Tendencies viii).

Alas, like so much good thinking, many of the ideas of queer theory remain stuck in academia, but in recent years topics such as protest, equal rights, and scrutiny of body image have filtered through to people’s lived experience. Applied practically, queer theory encourages us to question why things are ‘the way they are’.

One way of performing this interrogation is thinking about queer space. Queer space can include nightclubs and bars but also, now and in the past, those places where people have gone to away from society’s scrutiny, like public toilets and sex work environments. It can also include places of protest and activism. After all, people who don’t match up to society’s heterosexual tick-boxes have historically existed at the limits of public space, literally ‘out of place’. In queer space, social rules are paused, so people can be themselves. Certainly, prejudice is sometimes replicated in this supposedly egalitarian space, often based on looks, ethnicity, or gender. But because the established order of things is less policed, those in the space can still feel liberated.

A gay bar, for example, is a fun place to have a drink and listen to great music with friends who share your identity and values, but it is also a place free from social disapproval. Yes, I know, there’s less and less of that disapproval, especially in cities and especially in what geographers call the ‘Global North’ (or ‘the West’, or ‘economically developed countries’), and that’s great. It’s true that as societies have increasingly welcomed non-heterosexual minorities, the need for queer space has in many ways diluted, but for lots of people, they remain a safe place of freedom and possibility. After all, you’re unlikely to get a punch for hitting on someone in a gay bar like you might do in a straight bar. Constantly assimilating yourself to what society expects you to be can get tiring, and that includes all the tiny ways like correcting colleagues about your partner’s gender, or deflecting questions about your sexuality from school students. These venues are interesting, dynamic places where, at their best, people of all ages and backgrounds mix. The perceived safety of these spaces, where you can truly be who you are, is why Orlando’s shooting was so painful for the LGBT community. As Jeramey Kraatz puts it:

“if you can’t wrap your head around the idea of a bar or club as a sanctuary, you’ve probably never been afraid to hold someone’s hand in public.”

What Guardian writer Owen Jones was trying to articulate in the Sky interview he walked out of (something he addresses in his article, available here) was that the sexualities of Orlando’s victims keep being glossed over, and this is wrong because the attack was specifically a homophobic one. People seem nervous about somehow ‘reducing’ the identities of the victims to their sexuality, but we absolutely should foreground that part of their identity, because that was what got them killed on Sunday. As Jones argues: “this was the worst mass killing of LGBT people in the west since the Holocaust”. Jones points out that people of any orientation can be, and are, upset by the attack, and that straight people are among the victims. And despite what some would have you believe, LGBT bars are not gay ghettoes: the popularity of pride parades all over the world, as well as Glastonbury and Latitude festival’s buzzing LGBT installations, testify to that (as do 99.9% of all drunk hen parties).


Pulse LGBT nightclub, Orlando

But Mateen’s aim was specifically the LGBT community. His rage was prompted in part by seeing two men kiss in Miami, tangled up in his own confused sexuality. The society he grew up in and his skewed interpretation of religion, along with poor mental health, insufficient intervention from those around him, and his easy access to destructive weapons, meant that he had an easy opportunity to wreak havoc on a community that could have welcomed him. Pulse nightclub was a particularly community-oriented venue, with an emphasis on the L, B and T of LGBT – refreshing, in a nightlife environment that still tends to cater to gay males first. It hosted a whole range of events, for all different attendees; the night of the attack was a Latin party featuring RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Kenya Michaels, since reported safe. It represented community, and our larger societies seem to be losing the thread of community in myriad different ways across numerous different populations.

Lest we forget: it was illegal to have gay sex in Florida until 1971, and a misdemeanour until 2003. It was not legal for gay couples to adopt in Florida until 2015. Gay ‘correction’ therapy for young people is legal and still attempted by many parents. In Orlando, the people who were outed by being shot in an LGBT nightclub can still be legally fired by their employer (Johann Koehle). America is in many ways an easy target, but the same scrutiny could be levelled at the U.K, Europe, or Australia with uncomfortable results –  to say nothing of the retrograde attitude to LGBT minorities flourishing elsewhere, as Amnesty’s policy work shows us.

It all testifies to the discrepancies in modern society that ostensibly accepts difference but still operates against it. Surely #lovewins.

love wins


9 thoughts on “Orlando: a case study of sexuality & space

  1. This is an incredibly thoughtful response. I think one of the interesting things queer theory lets us talk about in interesting ways is the relationship between queer selves and queer spaces, especially in ways that Michael Warner talks about in The Trouble with Normal, which may be dated, but references some of the dynamics with queer spaces that I can’t help but think about in response. What does it mean to be in a queer space, a safe space, when those spaces are geospatially bound in heteronormative cityscapes, are victim to (re)zoning, isolated, and permeable?

    All that is to say, thank you for writing this. I loved everything you said in response. Thank you for doing such thoughtful work in this post!

    Liked by 1 person

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