Foreign Policy Essay

The Orlando Shootings in Perspective: How the Recent Attacks Fit within the History of Anti-LGBT Violence

By Marc Meyer
Sunday, June 19, 2016, 10:12 AM

Editor's Note: ​Discussion of the Orlando killings has focused on the role of the Islamic State and the self-radicalization of so-called "Lone Wolves." The killings, however, also are an act of unspeakable violence against America's LGBT community. Events as horrific as the Orlando attack are thankfully rare, but violence against the LGBT community is not. D.C.-based analyst Marc Meyer offers an assessment of such violence and how it has changed over in recent years.​

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The slaughter of 49 patrons of a gay bar by an Islamic State sympathizer has brought anti-gay violence and terrorism to the forefront of national media. However, anti-gay attacks in the United States are not a novel phenomenon and are certainly not unique to Islamic extremism or ISIS. To support the LGBT community, Americans need to understand the challenges and threats that this community faces. More importantly, Americans need to be ready to make tough political decisions to ensure the security of the LGBT community and American citizens at large.

From the witch hunts of the McCarthy era to the stigma in the early response to the AIDS epidemic, violence, as well as discrimination and neglect, has long been part of the LGBT experience. Though many of these attacks were often inspired by intense anti-gay campaigns by the extreme far-right, the vast majority of these attacks have been the result of individual initiative and not part of a larger, targeted campaign like one might see in a traditional terror movement. The historical trajectory of these attacks can be described as a steady flow of acts of individual violence, with occasional extreme events making headlines, such as those involving mass casualties.

For most scholars, the modern history of anti-LGBT violence in the United States began on “Pride” weekend in 1973 when an arsonist attacked the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans, killing 32 people. No convictions were ever made in relation to the incident. Lesser-profile acts of anti-gay violence continued as the gay liberation movement continued throughout the 1970s, including the Central Park attacks in 1978, where 5 men had their skulls fractured because they were thought to be gay. These waves of progress and violence led up to the assassination of Harvey Milk in late 1978, which, though more about personal conflict than anti-gay ideology, became a national tragedy for the gay community. In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic caused a tidal wave of anti-gay sentiment across the United States and a great increase in anti-gay violence. This wave led to the first Congressional hearings on anti-gay violence in 1986, where it was estimated that 1 in 5 gay men and 1 in 10 lesbian women had been the victim of assault due to their sexual orientation.

[A]nti-gay attacks in the United States are not a novel phenomenon and are certainly not unique to Islamic extremism or ISIS.

Even after the gay rights movement began to make strides in the early 1990s and 2000s – including the Hawaiian Supreme Court’s ruling allowing gay marriage and President Clinton’s proposal to lift the ban on openly gay members of the military – assaults continued. Anti-gay hate groups became more sophisticated and began to creep into the mainstream with efforts such as “The Gay Agenda,” a twenty-minute video released by Ty and Jeanette Beeson of the Antelope Valley Springs of Life Church in 1992. In 1997, Eric Rudolph, who was also connected to attacks against an abortion clinic and the Atlanta Olympic Park, bombed the Otherside Lounge, injuring six. He claimed he wanted to “send a powerful message in protest of Washington's continued tolerance and support for the homosexual political agenda.” The next year, 22-year old university student Matthew Shepard was beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die for being gay. Finally, in 2014, alleged ISIS supporter Ali Muhammed Brown killed two gay men as vengeance for deaths resulting from U.S. intervention in the Middle East.

The statistics for anti-gay violence paint a grim picture for the safety of the LGBT community. Determining the number of anti-gay hate crimes is tricky as the majority of hate crimes in general are not reported, victims may not report a crime for fear of being “outed,” local law enforcement may not incorrectly categorize an attack, and, moreover, the Hate Crimes Statistics Act does not make reporting of bias-motivated crimes mandatory for state and local jurisdictions. Still, there are several groups that track and classify these incidents. In 2015, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) identified 48 active anti-LGBT hate groups. This does not include organizations such as KKK groups, Neo-Nazis, and Christian Identity that include anti-gay rhetoric as part of their larger ideology. If these groups were included, the number would be closer to 500. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Report found crimes against LGBT people comprised around 17% of hate crimes in the United States. In Washington, D.C. alone 61% of all reported hate crimes were motivated by sexual orientation or gender identity, a significantly smaller minority than other groups like African Americans or immigrants. In 2011, the SPLC found that, proportionally, LGBT individuals were 2.4 times more likely to be the victim of a hate crime nationally than the next leading group (Jews). Internationally, the picture is not much better: anti-gay crimes in Europe rose 22% in 2014-2015.

As pundits and politicians rush to explain and respond to the recent attack in Orlando, many will direct the conversation to Islamic extremism and the Islamic State. ISIS has made a point of targeting gay men in areas it controls, even throwing one off a building and beating him to death when he survived. However, although ISIS and Islamic extremist-inspired anti-gay attacks in the United States are certainly a threat, these groups have traditionally prioritized other enemies such as Jews, the U.S. Government, or the U.S. Armed Forces over the LGBT community. History has shown that the most significant threat to the gay and lesbian community in the United States has been individuals, or “lone wolves” acting on personal hatred, oftentimes in support of a larger, extreme right-wing ideology. Though Islamic extremism may have had some influence in the most recent case in Orlando, it is an outlier in a clear pattern.

History has shown that the most significant threat to the gay and lesbian community in the United States has been individuals, or “lone wolves” acting on personal hatred, oftentimes in support of a larger, extreme right-wing ideology.

This reality presents many unique challenges. Many of these challenges are a result of the lone wolf nature of these attacks, creating issues for intelligence and preventative security. Perhaps the larger challenge, however, is that combating the ideologies that drive anti-gay violence is a political minefield. LGBT rights are not a universally accepted idea in the United States like the freedom of religion. So when these attacks happen, Americans denounce the violence, but many cannot completely denounce the ideas that drove the attacks in the first place: the idea that homosexuality is wrong. This attitude makes the LGBT community a politically easier target choice for extremists. Although taking steps to curb the violent expression of this belief is good, Americans must take a hard look at the means through which we debate gay rights, and the stark divisions that are forming. This “us vs. them” mentality forces moderates into the same camp as extremists and can embolden people who might commit these atrocities and give them a sense of empowerment. Moving forward, those who truly wish to protect the LGBT community must recognize the full spectrum of threats – be it Islamic extremism or far-right extremist groups – and not pick and chose what may be politically convenient at the time.