Mateen killed 49 people, wounding 53 others, in a mass shooting at the Pulse gay bar in Orlando, Florida, before being killed in a shootout with local police. But who was he?
Who is Omar Mateen, really?
If we have learned anything this past week, it is that figuring out who Omar Mateen is involves figuring Omar Mateen.
What does it mean to figure Omar Mateen? It means to condense our shared biases and popular imaginaries into words or images that attach themselves to the person, Omar Mateen. This is what Donald Trump does when he describes Mateen as an agent of ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ or what Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick does when he seems to imply Mateen is first an agent of Christian Biblical justice against homosexuals and then among its just victims, because homosexuals 'reap what they sow'. Statements that reduce Mateen to ‘a radical Islamic terrorist’ or ‘an agent of Christian justice’ make Mateen carry complex and often contradictory understandings of things like gender, race, nation, religion and homo/bi/trans*phobias that may or may not correspond to facts.
Mateen’s victims are figured in equally contentious ways. While Mateen reportedly targeted Orlando’s gay nightclub Pulse on a Latinx themed night where he killed 49 and injured 53 mostly queers of color and their allies (most but not all of whom were Latinx), commentators like Sky News presenter Mark Longhurst erase the homophobias, biphobias, trans*phobias and racisms of the massacre when he straightsplaines to The Guardian’s Owen Jones that Mateen’s targets were ‘all humans’. At the same time, those who recognize the homo/bi/trans*phobias of the massacre often figure Mateen’s victims as universal ‘LGBTs’, whose presumed whiteness erases how Mateen’s victims are racialized as brown, black and/or Hispanic.
While figurations are neither true nor false, we gravitate toward them because they map the world in simplistic yet orderly ways. Yet it is only by digging into what makes these figurations possible that we can take on their contestable maps of the world. In this case, this requires understanding the two sets of maneuvers that make figurations of Mateen and his victims possible.
The first set of maneuver draws upon dominant western understandings and biases about development, im/migration, and terrorism to explain who Omar Mateen and his victims really are. In the abstract, these accounts not only posit ‘the West’ against ‘the Rest’ in ways that always seem to evidence the superiority of ‘the West’. They distil western biases about development, im/migration, and terrorism into western development and security narratives.
These narratives express how the figure of ‘the enlightened, racially whitened, Christian, bourgeois, able-bodied, modern, developed Westerner originating from the global North’ is threatened, destabilized and insecured by the figure of ‘the intolerant, racially darkened, non-Christian, underclassed, disabled, traditional, underdeveloped or undevelopable global Southerner’. These threats are especially acute, so this story goes, when ‘the underdeveloped’ and ‘the undevelopable’ move from South to North as ‘the unwanted im/migrant’ (whose presumed desire for assimilation may fail) and ‘the terrorist’ (whose presumed desire is not to assimilate into ‘the West’ but to destroy it).
As they are applied to the figure of Omar Mateen, these narratives are said to arise from verifiable facts about Mateen. Mateen is a second generation Afghan American US citizen. He worked for the security firm G4S. He reportedly beat his first wife. He called 911 to declare his allegiance to ISIS while he held hostage, killed and wounded Pulses’s mostly queer Latinx patrons. He had previously declared his allegiance to Hezbollah and to al Qaeda.
Blended together, these abstract understandings and reported facts about Mateen figure him as not just the son of ‘underdeveloped’ immigrants from what President George W. Bush described after 9/11 as ‘the dark corners of the world’. Marteen is also figured as ‘the unwanted immigrant’ himself, whose toxic intolerances of women, LGBTQ+ people and non-Muslims further figure him as an ‘undevelopable’ threat who deployed his security skills to terrorize ‘real Americans’.
The second set of maneuvers draws upon dominant western understandings of homosexuality and ‘the homosexual’ to figure Mateen and his victims.
In these contemporary western narratives, two dominant figurations of ‘the homosexual’ circulate – ‘the perverse homosexual’ and ‘the normal homosexual’. According to this story, ‘the perverse homosexual’ is that figure who westerners until recently believed accurately described all homosexuals. Yet these days enlightened westerners recognize that ‘the homosexual’ (who has been whitened and brightened into ‘the LGBT’) is just another loving human being who happens to love someone of the same sex. This makes ‘the LGBT’ as normal as any other loving human being.
What complicates this progressive story of western enlightenment is how understandings of homosexuality and 'the homosexual' as perverse have long been and stubbornly remain embedded in deeply racialized understandings of development, im/migration and terrorism.
So in addition to all the other things the figure of ‘the developed’ conveys in western narratives, ‘the developed’ is also a heterosexual and cisgendered figure who is reproductive on behalf of the western couple, family, nation, and global order. In contrast, ‘the underdeveloped’ is figured as not yet having matured into ‘properly’ (re)productive sexuality. And the ‘undevelopable’ is that version of ‘the underdeveloped’ who will never mature into ‘properly’ (re)productive sexuality.
Since their embrace of ‘the normal loving LGBT’, enlightened westerners believe sexual maturity is something homosexuals can also achieve. But they still understand sexual maturity in developmental terms – personally and geopolitically. Personally, ‘the underdeveloped’ can become ‘the developed’ as either a heterosexual or a homosexual (although development narratives have more problems with bi, queer and trans* expressions of sexuality). Geopolitically, nation-states can become ‘developed’ when they recognize that ‘gay rights are human rights’.
As enlightened as these western narratives seem to be, they preserve ‘the perverse homosexual’ as a developmentally immature or unmaturable figure who they locate primarily in the global South. This has implications for how ‘the unwanted im/migrant’ and ‘the terrorist’ are figured.
‘The unwanted im/migrant’ becomes the carrier of dangerous ‘civilizational’ sexualities and/or dangerous intolerances toward sexual minorities who has not (yet) achieved development in the global South and who threatens to reproduce dangerous offspring and sexual attitudes if/when they arrive in the global North. ‘The terrorist’ becomes the carrier of ‘civilizational barbarism’ as the perverse, undevelopable outsider in relation to the couple, family, national and global order who seeks to invade and destroy the global North. ‘The terrorist’ is also dangerously reproductive, sometimes of offspring and attitudes and other times of terrorist cells and networks.
These imaginaries, narratives and mappings of the world are embedded in figurations of Omar Mateen and his victims. They are elaborated through a series of dichotomous understandings of ‘the homosexual’ – as perverse vs. normal, as (self-)hating vs. loving, as racially darkened, Islamicized and disabled (in this case, as mentally ill) vs. racially whitened, Christianized and able-bodied/neuro-typical (in this case, as rationally enlightened).
The result is an image of Mateen as ‘the self-hating, racially darkened, global Southern, perverse Muslim homosexual’ whose ‘civilizational barbarism’ drove him to brutally attack hundreds of ‘all-loving, racially whitened, western assimilated or assimilable, mature or maturable, presumptively Christian, normal LGBTs’, in an act that reproduced and is reproductive of contagious, uncontained ‘radical Islamic terrorism’. He is the western figure of ‘the monster, terrorist, fag’, who Jasbir Puar and Amit Rai explain has been circulating in US discourse since the War on Terror.
At the same time, Mateen’s victims are themselves figured as ‘unwanted im/migrants’, whose presumed race, presumed Hispanic ethnicity and queerness exceeds and troubles their whitewashed figuration as ‘LGBTs’. This makes it more difficult for many US Americans to grieve them, as the many homophobic and racist tweets celebrating Mateen’s attack evidence.
Overall, these figurations of Mateen and his victims not only shift all the blame for this incident onto people from ‘the global South’ and obscure how US gun culture, US misogynies, US Hispanophobias and other racisms, and US homo/bi/trans*phobias create their own toxic brands of ‘US Americanness’. In so doing, they reaffirm the need for western-style global development, stronger deterrents against South to North im/migration, and further fortifications of the US nation-state and more generally ‘the West’ in the name of national and global security.
We can neither fully understand nor politically oppose these contentious agendas without appreciating how Mateen, his victims, and ‘Westerners in general’ are figured through western stories about development, im/migration, terrorism and sexualities. To achieve this, we must do more than ask, ‘Who is Omar Mateen?’ We must understand how asking and answering this question reifies contestable figurations of ‘the homosexual’ in western narratives about development, im/migration and terrorism to organize and affirm contemporary formations of power.
And we must continue to develop practical strategies that allow us to think and to act otherwise. At a minimum, those of us figured as ‘good westerners’ and/or as ‘good LGBTs’ should decenter ourselves more. We should foreground the voices of those who bear these figurations in the most harmful and immediate ways, like queer, transgender and non-binary people of color. For it is primarily their challenges that are producing the most powerful narratives and practical strategies to undermine how these figurations damagingly and dangerously map the world.