The Toxic Nature of Bigotry

By now, all of you know that an Islamic fundamentalist named Omar Mateen shot up a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing forty-nine people and injuring fifty-three others.  Based on statements from those who knew him, his religious fundamentalism, and the location of the shooting, it is clear that Mateen was motivated by homophobia and probably internalized self-hatred due to the fact that he was a closeted gay man. It is impossible to overstate the sheer brutality of this violence, and my thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their friends and families. I have long believed that bigoted statements and actions can help create mindsets that motivate hate crimes. People who grow up in societies where the laws and/or culture denigrate people based on sexual orientation, race, gender, etc. or who are raised by parents with bigoted attitudes may one day take these warped values to the extreme and commit murder. These points, among other points, are important to remember when someone asks, “What’s the big deal about a homophobic baker denying a gay couple a cake?” or “Why was it so important to legalize gay marriage if gay people could get all the same benefits with civil unions?” There’s a line in the memoir, Night, by Elie Wiesel that has also resonated with me. When Hitler passed a law requiring all German Jews to wear a yellow star, Wiesel’s father tried to assuage Jewish fear and anger by saying, “The yellow star? So what? It’s not lethal …” Wiesel reflected, “Poor father! Of what then did you die?” The point here is that once you sanction discrimination, there is  no clear endpoint past which you can say discrimination is no longer acceptable. A society that bans same-sex marriage one day (as Hitler banned Jewish-Gentile marriage in 1935) may one day start killing gay people en masse. The slope of bigotry and discrimination is one of the slipperiest in existence.

The bigotry and self-hatred that motivated Mateen was probably bolstered from multiple sources. One source is Islamic fundamentalism. And as I discussed here, homophobia is rampant in mainstream Islam. Only a tiny number of Muslims practice violence against gay people, but many more support the basic bigoted assumptions of Mateen, and homosexuality is illegal in many Muslim countries and a capital crime in some. But what I also brought up in that blog was that not all Muslims are homophobic. Some Muslims are as supportive of gay rights as anyone. By tarring all Muslims with the same brush, we insult people such as London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, former NBA player Kareem Abdul Jabbar, scholar Reza Aslan, Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj, and the Muslim leaders described here. We insult Muslims who are themselves gay. Nevertheless, trying to explain away the role that mainstream Islam–because homophobic fundamentalism is not on the margins of the religion–plays in promoting bigotry is obfuscating part of the problem. We must also look at the rampant homophobia in American society in general, promoted by groups such as the Republican Party, the Roman Catholic Church, and evangelical Protestantism. Our largest religious denominations treat gay people as second-class citizens. In the Republican Party, anti-gay bigotry is not the exception. It is the norm. A Republican candidate has to bow before the shibboleths of homophobia if he or she wants any hope of winning the party’s presidential nomination. In many states, including Florida, businesses are permitted to discriminate based on sexual orientation. In all too many cases, gay taxpayers are forced to relinquish their hard-earned money to institutions that discriminate against them. Until just twelve years, some states, again including Florida, still had sodomy laws. Marco Rubio was on television to decry the shooting. That’s great, but it’s a little hollow coming from a man who has said gay parents are unfit to adopt or foster children, that businesses should be allowed to discriminate, and that he wants to reverse the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality. We all have a role to play in addressing bigotry in our society, and Rubio’s way has always been to try and make it worse. Jeb Bush decried the shooting on Twitter. I realize that he’s been trying to portray himself as a moderate, sensible Republican these days, but under Bush’s governorship, Florida had one of the strictest anti-gay adoption laws in the country, and he defended it. He has consistently opposed same-sex marriage. In the 1990s, he stated that gay rights would “create another class of victims.” Florida’s current Governor Rick Scott has consistently opposed marriage equality and refused to issue an executive to prevent state employees from being fired for their sexual orientation or gender identity. Donald Trump is using the shooting to try and generate support for his proposal to ban all Muslim immigrants, but he has said he hopes to appoint Supreme Court judges who will rescind gay marriage and spoke to a conservative Christian audience days ago about “marriage and family” supposedly being under attack. Every minute that people spend arguing about whether Christian or Muslim homophobia should get more attention is a distraction from the larger issue: bigotry. Bigotry is the disease. For some people, Islam is the vessel. For others, it is Roman Catholicism. For others, it is evangelical Protestantism. For others, it is any number of religions or no religion at all. I am thrilled that Anderson Cooper grilled Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi on her own history of homophobia, and I think more people need to be castigating homophobic politicians this way. All of us who believe in equality and fair treatment for people regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or sex must say “enough.” No more discrimination. No more bigotry. No more hate crimes. Bigoted/hate speech should not be censored unless it includes direct threats. A free society must allow even repugnant views to be expressed. And censoring people who advocate bigotry and hate will simply drive them underground and make it harder to identify them. But we must make it clear that there will be no treating the beliefs of bigots with respect or allowing those beliefs to be reflected in our laws.


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