FashionSex & Gender

op-ed: i am omar – my internalized homophobia led me to ugly places

June 15, 2016

As my well-intentioned straight friends have spent the past few days adding rainbows and #WeAreOrlando to their statuses, the news about Omar Mateen’s regular attendance of Pulse has made me realize something darker and sadder: #IAmOmar, or at least, I kinda was. And as much as we would love to lay the blame elsewhere, we all made him together, and we’re all currently making the next one.

Starting around the time my fellow 8 year olds realized that I sucked at sports and was more comfortable hanging out with the girls in my class, my childhood was spent being called a “fag” and then getting my ass kicked. It was a regular thing to the point where I knew the principals of my schools far better than I really should have. As I got older, I got more confused. Sure sometimes I had crushes on the boys in my class, but I also definitely had crushes on the girls, so how could I be a fag? In 8th grade, I reinvented myself as a skater kid, and suddenly girls were into me. Problem solved. Sort of. I still got my ass kicked on the regular, but at least I could prove I was into girls. Would a fag make out with half their class? It didn’t work. I was still an effeminate bi kid, and anyone who cared about such things was gonna make sure I knew.

By Nathan Leigh, AFROPUNK contributor

So I started making a big display about my heterosexuality at every possible opportunity. I remember actively making a point of working female pronouns into conversations about who I’d kissed at a party. I remember telling a fellow classmate that I hated a teacher because he was gay and that was gross. I remember always actively laughing the loudest and always joining in if my friends made a homophobic joke, even if I didn’t think it was funny. Especially if I didn’t think it was funny. I was an angry confused kid. I could never decide whether I was angry at myself or at the rest of the world, so when Dove punched me on the school bus and shouted “fag” at me, I started punching back. I was Omar Mateen.

I existed in the most accepting possible of environments, coming from a liberal northeastern Jewish family and splitting my time between the punk and theatre scenes, and I still struggled with being honest with myself. As I saw it, I wasn’t living a lie when I dated girls, I was only living a lie when I cut things off when a boy flirted with me and it started to get interesting. At worst I was living a half-truth. “That’s not so bad,” I’d tell myself in the mental space beneath where words are used. It took me far too long to work my shit out in even that best possible of environments. I didn’t start using the word “bi” to refer to myself internally until I was 24. I don’t think I ever said it aloud until I was 27. I was in two sequential long-term relationships with girls, so it didn’t seem relevant. At least that was the rationalization I told myself, because even though I could use the word to myself, I was still on some level ashamed. I still answered “but what are you really?” with an aggressive and absolute “straight.” any time the question was asked. Because to be anything else was to be the subject of mockery and the recipient of ass-kickings, and if I could avoid that, why wouldn’t I? That internalized shame and internalized self-hatred had already led me to some ugly places. It’s far too easy to see how if I had lived in a more repressive environment, that anger could have really done some harm.

We all sow the seeds of Omar Mateen every time we allow a homophobic comment by our loved ones or our coworkers or our religious leaders or our friends go unchallenged. Because you can say “oh it’s just Sully, he’s a good guy, he doesn’t really mean it,” but you don’t know that Omar isn’t listening too. We sow the seeds of Omar Mateen every time we out someone who isn’t ready to be honest with themselves or their families. We sow the seeds of Omar Mateen every time we ask the question “but what are you really?” to someone for whom answering that question involves dealing with some serious cognitive dissonance.

We can speculate as to whether Omar Mateen was gay, bi, or questioning. We can speculate as to whether he truly wanted to help establish a new Caliphate through ISIS, or whether he just found an outlet for his homophobic anger. We can’t know. We can’t undo the damage he caused. We can’t put back together the families he tore apart. But we can prevent the next one. Before you change your profile picture to a rainbow and hashtag #WeAreOrlando, think about the ways you are Omar Mateen, or at the very least the ways you have helped enable others to feel the way he did. This was an American crime committed by an American citizen with a legally obtained American-made weapon, because our society allows unchecked homophobia to flourish, and we are all on some level culpable.