June 13, 2016
In the immediate aftermath of the Pulse Nightclub shootings in Orlando, as police confirmed that Omar Mateen had shot to death at least 49 people and wounded dozens of others during his attack on the gay dance venue, law enforcement officials avoided labeling the crime an act of terrorism or a hate crime, awaiting more information.
Meanwhile, news media quoted a member of the shooter’s family saying Mateen had recently been angered when he saw two men kissing in public. Interviews with coworkers and his ex-wife revealed a history of antigay statements. And reports emerged that he had pledged his allegiance to ISIS in 911 calls before and during the attacks.
Understanding Mateen’s motives, of course, is important. But regardless of his intent, focusing solely on what went on in his mind can divert us from considering how the attack is affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, not only in Orlando but across the country.
This attack reinforces what LGBT people already knew – that they remain stigmatized in American society and are ongoing targets for violence, harassment, and discrimination.
Social scientists sometimes refer to this knowledge – shared by minority and majority group members alike – as “felt stigma” or “perceived stigma.” The essence of felt stigma is that whether or not we condone society’s hostility toward sexual minorities, most of us know that it exists and has serious consequences.
By highlighting the phenomenon of felt stigma, I don’t intend to minimize the harm done by violent attacks to individual victims and their loved ones. In addition to inflicting physical damage, they often exact a psychological toll as well. In my own research with lesbian and gay hate crime victims, I found that they often manifest greater psychological injury after their attack than do lesbian and gay victims of comparable crimes that weren’t based on their sexual orientation. In my study, hate crime survivors tended to be more depressed, stressed, and anxious, and they felt less in control of their lives. These feelings often became linked to their gay or lesbian identity.
But the consequences of these crimes extend beyond individual targets to all members of the LGBT community, in whom they are likely to create a heightened sense of vulnerability and felt stigma. A violent attack – especially one as horrific as the Orlando shootings – serves as a reminder that LGBT people are still widely considered legitimate targets for violence and hostility, even while an increasing portion of the heterosexual population comes to accept them.
This is where hate crimes converge with terrorism. Both target a particular population, usually selecting specific victims at random. Both serve as reminders to every member of that population that they too are potential targets – they may have escaped harm for now, but might not be so lucky next time. And “next time” can come any time without warning.
This month we’ll observe the 47th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, the event that is now widely commemorated as marking the beginning of the modern movement for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. June 26th is the anniversary of three historic Supreme Court decisions, one that declared state sodomy laws unconstitutional (in 2003) and two that accorded same-sex couples the right to marry (in 2013 and 2015).
In the wake of those decisions and the dramatic changes in public opinion that have accompanied them, it’s tempting to assume that stigma and prejudice targeting sexual minorities are relics of the past and are on the verge of extinction in a society that now celebrates sexual and gender diversity.
In many states, however, people can still be fired from their job for being gay. Some government officials still resist issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Transgender children and teens have lately become the focus of a newly revived culture war.
Perhaps we’ll soon know more about Omar Mateen’s motives for his murderous attack. But regardless of what we learn about him, we should remain aware of the Orlando shootings’ cultural backdrop and the fact that many LGBT people are experiencing this crime as an act of terrorism.
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The original version of this essay appears on the Boston Globe website.