In the early morning hours of last Sunday, a gunman entered the Pulse Bar in Orlando. Omar Mateen then used his semi-automatic weapon to killed and wound patrons. He killed 49 people and wounded even more before dying in a shootout with police.
It was the greatest loss of life in a modern mass shooting in America. To find a worse event we must reach back almost a hundred years to the Tulsa Race Riot, when a white mob killed 300 African-Americans. But of course we don’t have to remember back that far to think of other shocking mass murders - an office in San Bernardino, a Planned Parenthood Clinic in Colorado Springs, a college in Oregon, Mother Emanuel in Charleston, and the Sikh Temple here in Milwaukee.
The heartbreak of this act of terrorism comes home to me in the photos of the victims and especially in the horrifying exchange of texts between a mother and her son trapped in the bathroom with Mateen. It's awful to read those last texts of a trapped son. “Send someone to help us.” I ache to think of his mother’s desperation.
When I learned of the shooting - in worship, when Sachin mentioned it to me after reading the scriptures - I thought it must be the action of a white supremacist or a conservative Christian; for we’ve come to expect hate crimes against LGBT people from such groups. Indeed, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, has recorded an increase in hate crimes against the LGBT community over the last ten years. Mark Potok of the center reports that LGBT people are more than twice as likely to be the victims of a hate crime then Jews or African-Americans.
This latest shooting brought me back to Mother Emanuel Church, which suffered the violent death of nine people in a Bible study at the hands of a white supremacist. In many ways, gay bars play the same role in the LGBT community as churches do in the African-American community. In each community, the bar and the church were the first institutions our oppressed communities could call home. Each provided a place of sanctuary, where one could be gay or be black without the bigotry faced elsewhere. Even as the social lives of gays and blacks changed, bars like Pulse and churches like Mother Emanuel remained central to their communities. All of which made the murders in these places feel like a sacrilege.
Details quickly emerged about the Orlando shooter which surprised me. He claimed to act in the name of ISIS but also spoke of solidarity with the al-Qaeda linked Boston Marathon Bombers and the al-Nursa Front. That these three groups don’t get along seemed not to bother him. Then came news of his violent and abusive relationship with his ex-wife; and his homophobia according to his father. And now the added detail of his use of gay-dating apps and visits to gay bars as a patron. That last detail made it all the more bizarre: Mateen now seems like a man deeply conflicted about his own sexuality, longing for and hating other men.
In the immediate aftermath of this tragedy, conversation quickly moved to familiar positions. On the political right it seemed like everyone wanted to talk about anything other than guns. And so attention focused on Mateen as a Muslim, with calls to ban Muslim immigrants and warnings about radical Islamism. But when the shooter in such events is white then the ‘discuss anything but guns’ approach focuses on mental health. Underneath the rhetoric, I hear one plea: “Don’t notice the guns.”
Of course on the political left, this massacre became another clarion call to address the ubiquity of guns on our streets. At City Hall in Milwaukee, the bell tolled not for the 49 victims but for the 16 mass shootings during President Obama’s term.
I’m for gun control. I agree with comedian Trevor Noah, who pointed out that after 9-11, when four planes were used to kill 3,000 Americans, we enacted tougher controls around flying instead of hiding behind a slogan that “planes don’t kill people, people kill people.” I hope we make meaningful progress on sensible gun control.
But even while I agree with gun control, I struggle. When I hear the same rhetorical positions on the right and the left that people believed before this tragedy, I struggle because it feels like these 49 deaths didn’t change our thinking at all. We’re still locked in the same positions, peering out from the political bunkers we staked out earlier.
This week I longed to understand this tragedy beyond the familiar analysis I hear after these kinds of events. I kept thinking back to the Mother Emanuel and Sikh Temple shootings. I wanted to see the connection between the actions of white supremacists and someone claiming the mantle of radical Islamism. What do Dylan Roof, Wade Michael Page, and Omar Mateen have in common besides the use of guns? What links these men together besides their hatred of the ‘other’? Why these men?
While wondering about the connection between these men who killed in Charleston, in Milwaukee, and in Orlando, I came across an essay by James Hamblin, who pointed out that 98% of mass murderers are male. This led Hamblin to suggest we face a crisis of toxic masculinity.
By toxic masculinity he meant a view of being a man rooted in dominance, one in which self-loathing becomes directed outward into controlling other people, where manhood must be proven and emasculation remains a constant threat.
What Mateen encountered at Pulse was everything but toxic masculinity. Drag queens were only the beginning of the playful range of masculinity at Pulse. The spiritual journey of coming out as gay involves far more than just accepting what gives sexual pleasure. The real work of coming out means getting comfortable in your own skin. Not just loving people of your own gender, but loving and accepting your own expression of your gender.
You hear this in the profiles of the 49 people killed in Orlando. People like Stanley Almodovar; a friend explained, “He made me feel like it was perfectly fine being who I was.” And Luis Wilson-Leon, described by a friend as, “a wonderful young man full of life, who endured countless days of bullying while growing up, by cruel people calling him all sorts of horrendous homophobic slurs. He was the first person on this earth I came out to, and he always protected and loved his friends. His strength and character was always an inspiration to all of us." Or Xavier Rosado, who, as a friend said, “lived in his truth.”
The men and women killed at Pulse, LGBT and allies alike, were developing their own versions of what it meant to be a man or a woman rooted in their own skin instead of some toxic idea of domination and control. I think this comfortability in their own skin unnerved Omar Mateen.
Seeing Mateen as an expression of toxic masculinity caused me to look at other issues in a new light. In the week before Orlando, much talk in our country centered around the Stanford college student who raped an unconscious woman. His father defended his son by writing it off as “twenty minutes of action.” But no, this violence against an unconscious person was not about ‘action’ but domination, not about sexual pleasure but about control, not about a hook-up culture on campus but about a twisted concept of being a man; toxic masculinity.
Likewise this concept of toxic masculinity caused me to see the recent legislative attacks on LGBT people in a new light. Why all this concern about bathrooms in North Carolina? Why this effort to segregate gay people in Mississippi? Why this transgender panic in so many statehouses? Too many men need to assert dominance and control over how gender gets expressed: toxic masculinity.
And it’s not just violence against LGBT people and women. Behind last year’s violence in Charleston and other mass murders lies a dangerous misconception of what it means to be a man; as if violence over someone else makes you a man.
Of course toxic masculinity isn’t new. Over the last month we read from the book of 1 Kings as it presents the story of Elijah. I struggle with the story of Elijah because this celebrated prophet killed those who disagreed with him. Massacre shaped his story, including the passage we read today. Elijah ran to the desert because he’s afraid King Ahab and Queen Jezebel will arrest him for murder.
In many ways this scene plays out like an ancient version of the story of Eric Rudolph. Rudolph, as you might recall, bombed the Atlanta Olympics, killing 2 and injuring over a hundred; afterwards he went on to bomb a lesbian bar and two abortion clinics. After his violent spree, Rudolph escaped to the mountains of North Carolina to hide out.
We don’t know what Rudolph thought during his hiding, but we do get a description of Elijah. Now normally we read this story with a focus on Elijah hearing the “still small voice” of God. We use it as a story about the subtle ways God speaks to us. And while I believe that to be true, I’m asking different questions today.
Elijah’s fear stands out in the story. It’s not just that he’s afraid of Ahab and Jezebel’s revenge. Elijah executed his enemies but found no peace. He didn’t find the satisfaction he thought he would find. Instead, he found himself afraid, empty, and alone. The failure of his violence to bring him peace left him ready to die; “ ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’”
Even when God cares for him, even when God appears to him, Elijah felt overwhelmed by his loneliness. Elijah said to himself, “I alone am left.” Even though God points out 7,000 people remained in Israel, Elijah felt isolated.
God gave Elijah work to do. And yet, in the following chapters we watch as Elijah fails at nearly every assignment. At the very end of the story, it’s said he doesn’t die but ascends to heaven. It’s as if he can’t ever complete his human journey but remains the loner, the wanderer, a ghost of a man who couldn’t even anoint his successor but merely cast off some clothing for him to use.
The authors of the Bible didn’t mean it this way, but I hear in this story the poisonous effects of his toxic masculinity. Domination was meant to make him feel like a man; but instead Elijah experienced a desperate emptiness. He thought the violence would make him great; but instead it left him alone, a ghost of a man.
This Father’s Day, in the wake of Orlando, I think we need to imagine new ways of being a man; for each of us, male or female, to talk about the kinds of masculinity we see in our sons, brothers, lovers, friends; to cultivate healthy models of masculinity; to celebrate the people who demonstrate true manhood.
Framing the problem as toxic masculinity allows us to connect what happened in Orlando to what happened at Mother Emanuel. One shooter claimed radical Islamism, the other white supremacy, but both demonstrated a broken concept of manhood. And therefore provides a bridge of solidarity between people of different faiths and races as we work on a common problem.
Decades ago, Tony Kushner wrote Angels in America as a fantasy exploration of gay life, AIDS, and American politics in the 1980’s. At the end of the play, the main character, Prior, give a benediction over the audience, saying, “The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.”
After Orlando the great work begins: reimagining gender and embracing the diversity of its expression, celebrating a healthy masculinity, a vibrant femininity, and, like the patrons of Pulse, living in our truth.
Alleluia and Amen.