On 12th June 2016, we saw another atrocity committed, this time at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Even in the early days, two things were clear, that this was a terrorist attack and it was an attack on the LGBT+ community. To start to understand this attack, it is crucial that we recognise both of these elements and reflect on them thoroughly. It is psychologically naive to try to focus on just one of them. Like other aspects of human behaviour, this is a multifaceted event with individual and cultural dimensions.
In a world that includes violence, fear and hate, we need to understand the full complexity of events such as these and not simply rely on the usual ‘mad or bad individual’ trope that is routinely offered. The psychological state of the individual is relevant of course, but it is far too limited to attribute everything to this. As psychologists, we know that individuals are embedded in their context and culture, we use available discourses to our own ends and contemporary ‘othering’ discourses lay the foundations for such events through their constant anti-LGBT+ negativity.
We should also understand that when media outlets are unusually slow to report the Orlando shootings as was the case in the UK, to begin with when some of them relegate such news reports to later time slots or pages within newspapers; and when they refer to the shooting solely as a terrorist attack, rather than also addressing its anti-LGBT+ focus, this is problematic. Even if one were to assume that these were all ‘accidental’ it is important to recognise that it means that once again the minority experience is minimised.
While not assuming that all media are culpable, on this occasion we even had presenters on specific news programmes refusing to recognise the fact that as well as being a terrorist incident, this was a homophobic attack. This is another occasion where we have to remind ourselves that the ‘either-this-or-that’ binary is neither helpful nor accurate. It was both of these things. Yet in some fora, this aspect was contested, sometimes forcefully and sometimes quietly, and the argument made that we should not attend to this specific aspect but see it solely as an attack on ‘people’, we should stick to the general rather than the specific.
Well-intended as this may seem it misses the point. Schoolyard bullies, sleazy tabloids, and terrorists do not do their violence just on ‘people’, they pick their target, there is meaning in these choices and unfortunately, our everyday homophobia facilitates this in the same way that everyday sexism, racism and antisemitism have been a part of other recent attacks. The specifics are meaningful.
When we downplay the specifics and focus on the general alone, we are complicit in making these groups all but invisible.
On this occasion, some commentators opted to emphasise gun control and terrorist links alone and thus made invisible the LGBT+ community. This adds to the stress and discrimination faced, but especially when it is so close to such an attack. This is important to recognise because the reporting itself will have a significant psychological impact and feed into ongoing and long-term destructive and traumatising attitudes that minorities have to navigate, day in and day out.
As I have argued elsewhere, when we overlook the specifics, discussion and insight into our cultural prejudices and practices are closed down. This is problematic. As with sexism, racism, antisemitism and other insidious forms of ‘othering’, LGBT+ experience must not be overlooked. While LGBT+ equality is still somewhat limited in the West, it is absent in many parts of the world. Even where progress has been made it remains contested. LGBT+ people are routinely discriminated against, oppressed and even killed.
I write this during a particularly hate-filled week in the UK. Violence came at us hard, fast and head-on. Football fans were involved in violent clashes on the basis of nationality at the Euro 2016 tournament, two police officers were killed in front of their child in Paris, a transwoman hunted down and attacked in Belgium, and Jo Cox a British MP was fatally shot and stabbed in her constituency. Yes, people were attacked and hurt but it was also violence perpetrated on people of specific sexualities, nationalities, trans people and women. As well as us reeling from the frequency of this violence and the distress we experience, we also need to understand that these targets were specifically chosen and our everyday discourses foster the hate and the attacks.
Where the reporting and discussion fail to consider the place of the specific discriminatory foundations, we all lose. Such ‘invisibilising’ means that society is not offered a chance to discuss how discrimination against LGBT+ people, Muslims, people of colour, women, the disabled and other minorities has psychological similarities. It means we do not gain the insight we need into how everyday prejudice facilitates and fuels individuals when picking their targets.
We all have a role to play in challenging this. Academic institutions need to revert to their core function, prioritising critical thinking and encouraging debate. The media needs urgently to review its practices. Professional bodies must target oppressive structures, and minorities of all description need support in speaking up so their voices can be heard. As the British Psychological Society statement on the shooting at Orlando notes, this also provides an opportunity for us to reaffirm our commitment to fundamental and indivisible human rights.
Only by actively talking can we learn about how to best respond to the oppression of minorities. A more complex psychological debate is urgently needed, one where intersectioning factors are tracked and illuminated and we all have a role in this.
Professor Martin Milton is Professor of Counselling Psychology at Regents University London. You can connect with him on Twitter @swlondonpsych.