Why We Forget the Pulse Nightclub Murders:Bodies That (Never) Matter and a Call for Coalitional Models of Queer and Trans Social Justice
Like many articles that explore the Pulse nightclub shooting, I begin here with outlining the "bare life" (Agamben 1998) of events of what has been described as the deadliest attack on LGBT persons in US history (Swanson 2016). Shortly after 2 a.m. on Sunday, June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen, a twenty-nine-year-old, US-born security guard in Florida, entered the Orlando Pulse nightclub on "Latin Night," an evening catering to LGBT Latinx communities. Mateen was heavily armed with an assault-style rifle and a handgun. He opened fire on the patrons in the club. It was not until three hours later, around roughly 5:15 a.m., that police reported that Mateen was dead. In those three hours, Mateen shot 102 people, forty-nine of whom would die (Zambelich and Hurt 2016). Nearly nine months later, the violence and murders of the Pulse nightclub shooting have all but disappeared from mainstream public discussions about LGBT violence. Importantly, those who were murdered by Mateen share something in common with other queer and trans murders that seem to drift from public memory: they were young, poor or working class, queer, Latinx, black, and/or gender nonconforming (City of Orlando 2016). In this piece I explore how the "forgetting" of the Pulse nightclub murders reflects a core structural flaw of the LGBT paradigm: these are bodies that never mattered. Positioning the Pulse nightclub murders in a broader sociopolitical context, I explore in this piece why, as evidenced in the amnesia of the Pulse murders, we must discard the "LGBT" paradigm of "community" when attempting to refer to [End Page 31] sexually liminal subjects and invest, instead, in coalitional models of queer and trans social justice.
I argue here that the disconnections between the dead bodies produced at the Pulse nightclub and the values of mainstream LGBT activism reflect a larger structural lapse of meaningful and productive inclusion. In the LGBT model, the material and lived differences between sexual subjectivity and gender identity are collapsed into a single "community" that is made to signify a singularity of needs or desires. This kind of erasure is particularly problematic when discussing socially or politically liminal sexualities and genders that may fall outside hegemonic or normative demands. Indeed, if mainstream LGBT structures include the capacity to "forget" the largest LGBT-focused attack in US history, we, as queer and trans scholars, activists, and community members, should be deeply concerned about whom we are encouraged to value and what happens when we are complicit in that valuation.
The question of how queer "otherness" articulates meaningfully with main-streamed sexual subjectivities is not a new concern. Reactions to the inclusion of gender liminal subjects in lesbian and gay spaces have long been marked by vehement pushback, whether from the viciously transphobic radical lesbian feminists of the 1970s and 1980s or the homonormative desires of the Human Rights Campaign. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the push to include the "T" in acronyms emerged simultaneous to larger structural critiques of gay and lesbian rights and feminist projects; while at one time these projects relied on a politics of difference to succeed, the inherent exclusivity of such politics failed to reach the goals of its members (Armstrong 2002: 3; Marotta 1981; Califia 2003; Meyerowitz 2004). As exclusion and a politics of difference shifted to include queer of color critiques and responded to third-wave feminisms, the addition of a "T" to "LGB" functioned to express the inclusivity of the movement (Green 2004). This "post identity" politics maintained that exclusion was negative, understood as "both illegitimate and politically problematic—coupled with the assumption that any exclusion is equivalent to any other kind of exclusion" (Park 2002: 754). As a result, "difference" was erased from LGBT mainstream discourses so as to avoid the anxieties of addressing complicated and structurally exclusionary practices. Many formerly LGB organizations began to "add the T" to their organizational name and mission statement (Devor and Matte 2004: 180; Minter 2006). This tradition led to what would become an alphabet soup of an acronym, all aimed at depicting the image of inclusion. Intersexuality, indigenous forms of gender transgression (such as two-spirit) and other distinct categories of identity and expression were roped into this bloated acronym. Finally, with the proliferation of "queer" in common parlance [End Page 32] and activist discourses, the term came to signify all the letters that were now, literally, erased once again. Queer, in this kind of genealogical deployment, would somehow function to index all nonnormative sexual and gender subjectivities. In doing so, homophobia, transphobia, and sexism were all conflated into one kind of discriminatory project. Issues of race, class, ability, and pathologized modalities of gender transgression were shadowed by discussions of sexual object choice, obscuring the very differences these forms of inclusion sought to destroy (Park 2002: 749). Indeed, homophobic and transphobic violence should be discussed as "mutually reinforcing discourses of oppression, in which neither is fully reducible to the other, though interrelated" (ibid.: 750).
Homonormativity, then, emerges as a way to identify which bodies truly belong within the embrace of LGBT politics (Duggan 2002: 179). Homonationalism, in contrast to homonormativity, functions as a circulating assemblage of sexual normalizing ideologies that valorize only particular forms of gay and lesbian practice, all in order to buttress the demands of a growing American "empire." Building on homonormativity, the functioning of homonationalism within LGBT constructs is "contingent upon the segregation and disqualification of racial-sexual others from the national imaginary" (Puar 2007: 14). This logic underlies the mainstream LGBT disregard of immigrant rights, sex worker rights, and the incarcerated as, specifically, not issues for queer persons. For LGBT organizations to support these marginal bodies would otherwise limit the capacity of "queer" to be worthy of state-sanctioned recognition. This kind of exceptionalism reflects larger white supremacist regulatory frameworks wherein the "ascendency of whiteness" occupies a hegemony within LGBT civil rights discourses (ibid.: 15). Homonationalism, concerned with the capacity of the queer subject to occupy model citizenship, exemplifies the ideological forces that allow us to forget the largest attack on "our community" in US history.
Mainstream LGBT concerns focus on the right to serve in the military, same-sex marriage, adopting children, or even the impact of hate crimes legislation—all political mainstays for the United States' largest national LGBT rights organizations (Human Rights Campaign 2011; Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation 2017; National Gay and Lesbian Task Force 2009; Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays 2012). Contrasted to these issues, those of employment, access to health and legal resources, violence, and trans coalitional support and empowerment are absent.
Ultimately, those murdered, and forgotten, at the Pulse nightclub, and those like them, will only obtain the capacity to be remembered once the structural inequalities that facilitate the forgetful qualities of their deaths are directly [End Page 33] addressed. That is, the conditions that render death and violence against some queer and trans bodies as acceptable, if not also expected, must be critiqued. In short, the most productive form of social justice emerges out of pinpointing a series of issues that articulate beyond identitarian politics, which serve to only maintain systems of inequality for different groups. As Viviane Namaste (2000: 28) reminds us, failing to address the complicated and interwoven nature of structural inequality "leaves intact a political system that constantly invents new mechanisms to organize public and private space according to the interests of those with money" through which we can see "money" as a gloss for power, agency, and mobility.
I close here with a discussion of how Dean Spade's model of a "critical trans politics" functions as a model for unpacking lived experience and contextualizing vitality practices through the milieu from which they emerge. It is through this model that we can not only remember the dead of the Pulse nightclub but also weave in Mateen's subjectivity as a racialized, potentially queered "other." Spade (2011: 68–69) articulates a critical trans politics as one that "imagines and demands an end to prisons, homelessness, landlords, bosses, immigration enforcement, poverty and wealth. It imagines a world in which people have what they need and govern themselves in ways that value collectivity, interdependence, and difference." Indeed, I would prefer we see ourselves not as one community but as coalitions struggling in tandem with one another. Through viewing ourselves as working through coalitional efforts, we can begin to name the ways we are linked in complicated and hierarchal ways that may then undergird a logic of visualizing social justice as necessarily messy and disruptive across planes of need, identity, and politics. It is through this recognition of complex and unequal life, the humanization of the other, and even of the political enemy, that we can shift away from a reliance on exploitation, exceptional amnesia, and oppression toward movements that create livable realities for all.
Elijah Adiv Edelman is assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at Rhode Island College. Edelman's research and publications take an ethnographic and community-based approach in addressing how trans and gender-nonconforming communities are managed through politics of pathologization and recuperation in the United States and in the global South. Edelman's work has appeared in the Journal of Homosexuality, Porn Studies, and the Journal of Sex Research as well as in edited volumes including Queer Necropolitics (2014), Queer Excursions (2014), and Out in Public: Reinventing Lesbian/Gay Anthropology in a Globalizing World (2009).