content warning: I have a terrible habit of sympathizing with monsters
I spent last Thanksgiving at a colleague’s house. It was a week before the election, so I couldn’t leave Kelowna to be with family. It was good: I had the opportunity to meet their extended family and friends for the first time. And there, I met a young man, 14, who was someone’s son – or was it nephew – who attended briefly, said nothing, and then left.
There are red flags, and then there are black holes, and this guy was dragging around the latter. He didn’t have to say anything, because I knew instantly that he was some form of queer and profoundly depressed. It turns out his family was there for a perfunctory hello, and then was gone, so I had the opportunity to ask about him.
It turned out his mother was concerned he had a “marijuana addiction,” and was worried about “all the fentanyl in the weed these days” that she had learned about from reading local newspapers in the Cariboo (of course). I nodded, and asked about his family life. “Where’s his dad?” “Absent. He’s a grade A asshole.” “Abusive?” “Probably, but I don’t know for sure. He drinks.”
But of course it’s the marijuana, right?
Only days after meeting him that Thanksgiving, I was informed that this young man had become violent at school and injured several of his classmates, and was threatened with either expulsion or participation in a treatment program. His mother elected to enrol him in a marijuana rehabilitation program operated by a local Evangelical church. That was the last I heard of him.
Why do I tell this story? Because there is no difference in kind between this young man and the Orlando shooter Omar Mateen. There is only a difference of degree. Bear with me.
* * *
When I was in my 20s my mom would always nag me to bring a boyfriend home for Sunday dinner (a family tradition, for a time). One day I finally got so sick of blowing her off that I sat her down and explained exactly why this was not going to happen. Most of my partners over the years have been closeted and bisexual, you see: by penalty of their position in the social order, they do not have the luxury of (or usually the inclination towards) participation in the usual rituals by which we affirm our relationship status. I’d argue there are no rituals to which we have access, because our relationship status is not one that finds itself with any positive representation in the popular discourse. The closeted male is always a antihero: when his presence becomes known it is always an eruption into, and disruption of, social order.
But more frequently it is not an eruption of identity but a quiet erasure. The hardest part of growing older in this arrangement, it turns out, has been watching partners die.
The reality is that the vast majority of bisexual men remain in the closet, even today. Masculinity, with its many costs and many privileges, demands it as part of the deal. In exchange for the promise of status, wealth, power, but mostly status, we agree to not be ourselves. The consequences, in my experience, are numerous: the typical man I know who sleeps with men but maintains a heterosexual identity has a substance abuse problem (or several); engages in domestic violence; has a poor relationship with their children, when they have them; and finds themselves in erratic, codependent relationships. It is all too common to hear from my partners like these only when things had gone wrong in their “normal” life and they needed to feel safe and secure in the other one. The one with me in it.
For the rare individual a balance can be struck. For most, again in my limited experience, it cannot. In the mid-to-late 20s, the social and familial pressures to fall in line and “settle down,” to establish one’s household and career in its proper place in our good old patrilineal hierarchy grows overwhelming. A crisis point is reached. The individual realizes they cannot have both – it’s too risky. One mistake and they lose it all. So they believe they must choose – and in many cases it’s true, they must choose – to take one half of their life and throw away the other.
For some they can settle with one half or the other. For others, half a life is not worth living. And this is when a bunch of them decide to commit suicide instead.
And the saddest part is, you can’t even go to the funerals. The family is too engaged in erasing those parts of their identity by which you were ever connected to them. Even your silent presence would ruin the project.
We are all witness to the spectacle of Omar Mateen’s father: his kneejerk response was, of course, to insist his son was disgusted by men kissing and that’s probably why he did it. This isn’t unusual.
Sure, dad. Whatever you say.
* * *
So bear with me when I say that I understand what drove Omar Mateen to do what he did, because I have met a hundred people just like him. People who have found no place for themselves in our society, because no place has been made for them. To be themselves they face expulsion from their family, erasure from their traditional culture, and possible abandonment from their heterosexual partner(s). They find themselves teetering on the cliff of existence, and usually, they just give up and walk right off.
The difference here, the difference of degree, is that this man had access to heavy weaponry and had the training to use it, and he gave in to that most terrible of monsters: jealousy. Faced with the impending reality that a life which he loved was foreclosing itself to him, he decided that if he couldn’t have it, nobody should get to. The violence turned outward, instead of inward.
It wasn’t self-hatred that drove him to that point, it was despondency, combined with simple jealous rage. And over a hundred innocent bystanders to his personal tragedy suffered as a result. And that was inexcusable, but not incomprehensible.
Orlando was a tragedy, but not a senseless one. Let it also be a wake up call: that our project of queer emancipation is not even close to complete. That we are here, alive still, and free to speak… well, that is a blessing, but one we earned through struggle. Yet many more of our friends, our loved ones, and millions upon millions of strangers, they remain silenced, and afraid to be themselves.
We have more work to do.