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Why we forget the Pulse Nightclub Murders:

Bodies that (never) matter, and a call for coalitional models of queer social justice

Elijah Adiv Edelman, PhD


Department of Anthropology
Rhode Island College

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 2am on
Saturday June 11th to Sunday June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen, a 29-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 3
hours later, around roughly 5:15am, that police reported that Mateen was dead. In those
three hours, Mateen shot 102 people, 49 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 and black, and/or gender non-conforming (Victims Names
2016). In this piece I explore how the forgetting of the Pulse nightclub murders reflects
a core structural element of mainstream LGBT concerns: these are bodies that never
mattered. Positioning the Pulse nightclub murders within a broader socio-political
context, I explore in this piece how, as the evidenced in the amnesia of the Pulse murders,
why we must discard the LGBT paradigm of community and invest in alternatives to
coalitional 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. As a result I find it necessary to
problematize the use of the term LGBT in academic, social and political contexts to
refer meaningfully to lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-spectrum. In the LGBT model, the
material and lived differences between sexual subjectivity and gender identity are
collapsed into a single community that is 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 of the 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 who we are encouraged to value
and what happens when we are complicit.
The question of how queer otherness articulates meaningfully with
mainstreamed sexual subjectivities is not a new concern. Reactions to the inclusion of
marked gender liminal subjects in lesbian and gay spaces have long been marked by
vehement push back, whether from the viscously transphobic Radical Lesbian Feminists
of the 1970s and 1980s or the within homonormative desires of the Human Rights
Campaign In the late 80s and 90s, the push to include the T in acronyms emerged
simultaneous to larger structural critiques of the 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 the politics failed to reach the goals of the members (Armstrong,
2002:3, Marotta 1981, Califia 1997, Meyerowitz 2002). As exclusion and a politics of
difference shifted to include queer of color critiques and responded to 3rd wave
feminisms, the addition of a T of LGB functioned to express the inclusivity of the
movement (Green 2004). This post identity politics maintained that exclusion was
negative but should also be 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 collapsed so as to avoid the
anxieties of addressing complicated structural 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 introduction of queer studies into common parlance and activist
discourses, the term came to signify all the letters that were now, literally, erased once
again. As a result, queer, in this kind of genealogical deployment, would somehow
function to index all non-normative 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 (Park
2002:750).
Homonormativity then emerges as a means 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 which 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 2008:14). 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 that would otherwise
limit the capacity of queer to reach nation-state sanctioned status. This kind of sexual
exceptionalism is a form of queer as regulatory wherein and the ascendency of
whiteness occupies a hegemony within LGBT civil rights discourses (Puar 2008:15).
Homonationalism, concerned with the capacity of the queer subject to occupy model
citizenship, exemplifies the ideological forces that limit mainstream LGBT activism from
achieving a viable conduit for securing the rights of gender transgressing persons of
color.
Most nation LGBT civil rights groups focus on issues that would likely have
never impacted the Pulse dead: the right to serve in the military, getting married to their
loved one, adopting children, or even the impact of hate crimes legislationall political
mainstays for the US largest national LGBT rights organizations (the Human Rights
Campaign, HRC 2011, Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, as indexed
through the repeated use of equality, GLAAD 2012, the National Gay and Lesbian Task
Force, as reflected by topics of publications and research, NGLTF 2012; and Parents,
Families and Friends of Lesbians And Gays, as issues that relatives and allies of LGBT
people should be concerned with, PFLAG 2012). Contrasted to these issues, issues 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 deaths are directly 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 articulating issues, rather than a singularity, which
serve to only maintain systems of inequality for different trans groups. Indeed, just as the
murdered and maimed at Pulse occupy a spectrum of subject positions and experiences,
no one root cause can identified as that which produces the conditions hate crimes
legislations of employment non-discrimination law attempt to ameliorate. The value of
queer and trans life are as fundamentally about prison abolition, anti-racism, capitalist
resistance and anti-poverty work as they are gender practice and theory. As Viviane
Namaste 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 (Namaste 2005:28).
I close here with a discussion of how Dean Spades model of a critical trans
politics also functions as a model for unpacking lived experience and contextualizing
vitality practices through the milieu from which they emerge. Spade articulates a critical
trans politics as one that imagines and demands an ends 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. (Spade 2011:68-69). Indeed, we are all struggling
communally together, whether we can visualize this or not. This knowledgethat we are
linked in many complicated and hierarchal waysundergirds the logic so many groups,
employ: if justice is secured for those most marginalized, oppressed and in pain among
us, and the structures of power that regulate us all are dismantled, then, we, as members
of any community, city or state, will fundamentally be in a better world. It is through
this materialization of life, the humanization of the Other, and even of the political
enemy, that serves as that first step towards shifting away from a reliance upon violence
and oppression to a movement for a better, and more just, reality for us all.

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