More than Terrorism: Social Categorization and the Orlando Mass Shooting

Written by

Jessica Shotwell
Jessica Shotwell Jessica Shotwell is a Health Equity Intern at the Center for Global Policy Solutions, where she focuses on evidence-based policy research. Her interests include the social determinants of health, racial/ethnic health disparities, and social policy reform. She is currently a Senior at Middle Tennessee State University, and plans to attend graduate school to get her Ph.D. in Sociology and Social Policy.

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On June 12, 2016, a horrific attack at Pulse, a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, left 49 innocent people dead and 53 more wounded. Two key factors in this mass shooting warrant special attention: it occurred on Latin night at a gay bar. However, at the height of news coverage on the incident, the intersectionality of this terrible tragedy—that is, the way different markers of identity (in this case, ethnicity and sexuality) combine to yield unique forms of discrimination—seems to have been mostly unacknowledged.

The media honed in on the fact that the shooter was Muslim; appears to have been motivated by extremist propaganda; and pledged allegiance to ISIL during the hostage standoff. Subsequently, politicians focused on homeland security and the dangers of terrorist attacks. Some have also advocated stricter gun control legislation: Vice President Biden called for a ban on assault rifles; Senate Democrats held a gun control filibuster; and House Democrats even orchestrated a sit-in in an attempt to force a vote on gun control legislation.

What’s missing from this response is an acknowledgment of the multiple elements of social categorization present in the Orlando massacre including an act that targeted the Latino community and a place known to be a safe space for the LGBTQ community. While Attorney General Loretta Lynch and FBI Director James Comey described the Orlando mass shooting as a hate crime and a terrorist attack, not acknowledging the marginalization of LGBTQ people of color diminishes the complexity of the attack. The media also has a responsibility to cover this tragedy in a multi-faceted way and to highlight its significance as something much more insidious than an extremist terror attack.

We must take this tragic incident and use it to spotlight the violent implications that homophobic discourse has on people’s lives. Across our nation, policymakers have extended their prayers to the victims and their families. However, some of these are the same policymakers who advocate policies that discriminate against the LGBTQ community. An example is the infamous North Carolina bathroom law, which blocks transgender individuals from using public restrooms for the gender they identify as.

Passed by North Carolina’s General Assembly and signed by the governor in March, the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act sets a statewide policy that bans people from using a public restroom that is not consistent with the sex recorded on their birth certificate. After the Orlando mass shooting, however, North Carolina’s governor ordered that American and state flags on public property be lowered in memory of those whose lives were lost at Pulse. Yet the anti-LGBTQ bathroom law, which was reconsidered this spring, was left mostly untouched by the state legislature and sent back to the governor in July for his signature again. Laws like these instill an inexcusable fear and hatred towards the LGBTQ community. They keep the LGTBQ community from exercising their basic civil rights. In both of these ways, such laws hinder progress.

There is a twisted irony in extending prayers to the LGBTQ community while simultaneously advocating laws that further marginalize these people. This community, and especially those who also identify as people of color, deserve more than just prayers and lowered flags. They deserve progress that brings about inclusion instead of exclusion. On the 240th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Center for Global Policy Solutions launched the Declaration of Inclusion, which calls for an inclusive democracy that does not discriminate or restrict people’s freedoms. We urge policymakers to pledge to “stand for equal justice under the law” through “legal reforms that guard civil liberties and protect human rights.”

The LGTBQ community deserves legislation that will protect them from harm and state-promoted homophobia. I challenge policymakers to take the Declaration of Inclusion pledge and transform their thoughts and prayers into tangible legislative action.

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