It has been just over two weeks since I woke up to a friend informing me that “there was a big shooting in Orlando.” I was instantly filled with anxiety as I turned over in my bed and reluctantly responded, “Oh no. I really hope it wasn’t my people.”
I could already locate in my body a well-known heaviness that precedes the media wave of causal inquiry that consistently lands in the same place, laced with its own violent punches and cheers from its fixated audience.
I knew that within hours the media would begin making connections between Islam and terrorism in ways that implicate all Muslims as a matter of course.
With this knowledge, I deliberately postponed looking at anything on social media for an entire morning.
Homophobia, Islamophobia and mental health
I quickly learned that the terrifying events targeted a queer nightclub during an event for the Latin American/Latinx community.
Reading that my heart sank. I feel connected to queer communities, and in particular racialized queers, because so many of us have had a similar struggle with coming out, family acceptance/creation, and challenging both internalized homophobia and racism all our lives.
I wrote a post of my immediate thoughts locating myself as someone needing to grieve this loss and process the gravity of this scale of homophobic/transphobic violence. I was also concerned about the ways in which Islamophobia and racism might very well be used to invalidate my grief and demand that I defend an entire religious group for the actions of a few.
I could almost taste the vacillation of emotional numbness and tears to come. To my surprise, I remained mostly “in my head” on Sunday but suddenly had difficulty getting out of bed and through my day on Monday June 13.
A delayed onset of feelings (or traumatic stress responses) had arrived and I didn’t know they would linger. The first week felt long and full of moments of sadness and solidarity both in my personal life and in my work as a counsellor.
The shift in the news cycle between “this was an act of Islamic terrorism” to “this was the product of internalized homophobia” to “Muslims hate our freedoms,” albeit predictable, was incredibly frustrating and isolating.
I shared a second post arguing that the Orlando massacre was an act of homophobia and that the language of terrorism comes with a hidden agenda.
Terrorism is a tempting term to take on because it allows us queer folk to temporarily feel like the State cares about our security and safety. But we should be cautious about legitimizing the State because it comes with an agenda only to shed more blood. And what is done in the name of security will only divide the queer community, further entrench racism, and increase social exclusion and self hate (or isolation) for queer/questioning/trans Muslims.
There has been a lot of coverage about the shooter in the Orlando massacre possibly struggling with internalized homophobia. To me, internalized homophobia is when you feel disgust and contempt for other queer people who are a mirror for everything you are that you can’t imagine openly claiming because it comes with cultural notions of being unnatural and sinful.
This is a difficult experience to endure and has clear consequences on mental health (e.g. isolation, anticipatory loss for coming out, views of the-self-as-defective, etc).
But let’s be clear: all queer people struggle with internalized homophobia even after we come out because we live in a world that would prefer us to be straight.
A world that tried relentlessly to monitor our gender expression from early ages and punished us for the way we talked, the way we walked, the clothes we wore, and for any interests we had that didn’t fit into gender norms.
So, we all know what it’s like to be the target of hate and social exclusion as well as to internalize those negative messages.
Without question, religious institutions are contributors to our internalized homophobia. We wouldn’t have ever thought we were sinners if religious systems didn’t send us that message from a young age.
Islam is probably not an exception to this for many queer Muslims. However, the overemphasis on Islam as inherently homophobic undermines all of the intellectual capacity and evolving thought of Muslim scholars, families, and communities and minimizes the toxic masculinity, systemic homophobia, and misogyny in our dominant (white) North American culture.
What could be more taxing on the mental health of a queer Muslim than this mix of homophobia and Islamophobia?
Collective trauma for queer/trans people
As a queer South Asian Muslim social worker and mental health counsellor, I began to think about the psychological impact of community-specific violence, the erasure of homophobia/transphobia, the racism that allows scapegoating, the cooptation of racialized grief, and the unaddressed social factors that drive (internalized) homophobia as well as what appears to be a predominantly North American phenomena of lone gunmen using mass shootings as a way to cope with conditions that contribute to their own mental ill health.
These examples of erasure are critical to think about. Imagine grieving a significant loss wherein media personalities and politicians decide that the events your grief centers around is theirs to define.
I can assure you that the only thing worse than trauma is unacknowledged trauma and grief because acknowledgement is where solidarity and healing begin.
The impact of the Orlando massacre was felt by queer and trans communities everywhere. In effect, we had a shared experience of trauma. We moved quickly to healing practices such as coming together in close proximity, reclaiming space, instinctively reposting expressive media on Facebook, holding vigils, and memorializing the lives lost in both mourning and solidarity. These are all important practices.
However, it’s also important to identify the ways trauma and its stress responses — whether low mood, hypervigilance, anxiety, or anger — can continue to reside in our bodies. It’s also important for us to consider how the experience of personal loss, even when it originates in a geographically distant place, brings with it various stages of grief for each of us to work through.
As queer and trans people, we are vulnerable to traumatic experience as a result of being marginalized. And many of us have (or had) core beliefs about the world being an unsafe place or seeing ourselves as unworthy or unlovable. Working through these core beliefs has taken years of unlearning heterosexism and cissexism along with community activism and increased visibility.
What took place in Orlando was specifically retraumatizing for so many queer people who have faced homophobia in their lives and have walked around with fears of being the target of violence.
Solidarity, healing, pride
Following a mass shooting rooted in homophobia, our community visibly stands strong but we may need to pay closer attention to our individual sense of self, and the wellbeing of our friends and lovers.
Let’s consider how we can support one another while struggling with the terrifying fear that our earlier core beliefs about the world as unsafe begin to reinstate themselves. Remember, these are the beliefs that trigger relentless stress responses that tax our physical body and mind on a daily basis. This is the impact of individual and shared trauma.
I’m part of one community that is experiencing loss and collective trauma. I want to mourn that loss and fight homophobia at large.
I’m part of another community that was (and is always) asked to take collective responsibility for our perceived monolithic regressive ways of being in the world.
I want instead of dichotomies a conversation about mental health, and structural and social exclusion as the factors that create the internalized homophobe and inspire both hate and violence. I want more awareness around the implications of “increased security” and the racist language of terrorism on the mental health and wellbeing of QTBIPOC folks in our community.
I want us to be in rage about homophobia, transphobia and racism. That would be healing. That would warrant a sense of pride.
Rahim Thawer is a registered social worker, consultant, post secondary instructor and mental health counsellor. He lives in Toronto and does community organizing with queer Muslim groups.
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Photo: flickr/Michael Kazarnowicz