Orlando and Up Stairs: Homegrown Homophobia

June 18, 2016

Rumors recently started flying that Orlando shooter Omar Mateen may have had a history of sex--or at least flirtation--with men. He was on the gay hook-up apps, it is said, and had visited the gay nightclub Pulse on many occasions.

If it turns out to be true, this revelation will shock exactly no one who understands the history of homophobic violence in this country. In fact, many of the details that have emerged after the June 12 shooting are heart-wrenchingly familiar to those of us who have studied the history of violence against LBGT people.

A scene from Upstairs. To the left is Agneau, a character based on Roger Nunez, the likely arsonist of the Up Stairs Lounge fire. 

My particular education in this sad tapestry stems from my work on Upstairs, a musical tragedy about the Up Stairs Lounge Fire, the 1973 arson blaze at a New Orleans gay bar that took the lives of 32 people in what was, until last Saturday, the deadliest crime against LGBT people in our nation’s history. While the arson remains officially unsolved, scholars--most notably Clayton Delery-Edwards in his thorough and engaging history The Up Stairs Lounge Arson--have given us an overwhelmingly likely suspect in a man named Roger Nunez, now deceased.

The play Upstairs takes a speculative but factually-informed journey into the psychology of this troubled man. Having spent a lot of time trying to understand and characterize Nunez for the stage, I find his similarities to Mateen chilling.

Both men came of age in repressively religious environments. Mateen was raised in a devout Muslim household led by a strict father who, we are told, set unrealistic expectations for Mateen in terms of both achievement and masculinity.  Nunez grew up in the 1960’s in Abbeville, LA, a small South Louisiana town with a deeply Catholic culture and heritage.

Both men were unhappily married. Mateen abused his first wife,  Sitora Yusufiy, and they divorced in August 2009 after only five months. Yusufiy recently speculated about Mateen’s sexuality: “He might have been homosexual himself and lived that lifestyle but could never ever come clean about it because of the standards of his father, because of the obligation to be a perfect son.” Nunez had an unconsummated marriage of apparent convenience to a much older woman. 
Both had substantial but often unfriendly contact with the gay community. Mateen is said to have been seen on various social media apps and to have visited Pulse many times, often getting drunk and mean. Nunez was a somewhat regular patron of the Up Stairs Lounge, reportedly hustled its patrons on occasion, and was prone to bouts of drunken belligerence.  Sister Mary Stephen Ledet, nun who’d befriended him late in life, prior to his death by suicide in 1974, said of Nunez: “...he didn’t like...to be gay and that, er, threw him. That was...his problems all stemmed from that..he reached the point where he couldn’t accept himself for what he was.”

There are differences, too. Nunez was diagnosed with a mental illness called (at the time) “conversion hysteria,” and seemed to be driven by the rage of the moment, not religious or political zealotry. Mateen, by contrast, had no such diagnosis, and seemed to find in ISIS and other such groups a justification for mass murder.

We can’t read the minds of these young men, and it may be impossible to understand the exact proportions of radical ideology, homophobia, alienation, and mental illness at play in each case.  But, given what we do know, we can certainly recognize from our own experiences the shame and the rage that likely consumed them both. And, as gay men, we can speak firsthand of its source.

Like Nunez, I grew up in a deeply religious environment in rural Louisiana. Like Mateen, I was subject to rigid and unrelenting expectations regarding both achievement and masculinity. As the truth of my attraction to men slowly emerged, forcing me to reckon with my inability to ever meet the expectations of the religion or of the culture in which I was so deeply enmeshed, I tried to deny it, pray it away, and lash out at it when I saw it in others.

I remember being alienated and appalled by my flamboyant “new wave” boarding school roommate--so much so that we quickly transferred rooms. I hated what seemed gay in him because I hated what was gay in me, and I hated what was gay in me because the world around me did. Where I lived, was no solace in religion, which taught that my sexuality was an abomination. There was no solace in irreligious masculine culture, which hated “fags.” There was no solace, at the time, in science--my professors said we were not “designed for that.” Even the emerging New Age culture said it was “unnatural.”

Boys who grow up in such environments, and who learn that their failure to meet their society’s expectation of men will result in shaming, shunning, and even violence, are confronted with choices. They can embrace their differences, celebrate them, and confound those expectations, as my high-school roommate did (he’s now a famous Drag Queen and CrossFit champion!). They can spend a great deal of time and effort negotiating and exploring those expectations, as I have done. Or they grow embittered by their perceived failure as men, and become angry at themselves and at the world around them. 
In a recent commentary on The New Orleans Advocate, historian Delery-Edwards says: 

...when we compare the Orlando shootings with the Boston Marathon bombings, the Charleston church shootings, the Lafayette movie theater shootings, and dozens of other mass murders — including the Upstairs Lounge arson attack — the one thing they all have in common, after questions of weaponry, ideology, religion and motive are swept aside, is that they are committed by men.”

He continues: 

“The best way to honor those who died in Orlando last week, or in New Orleans 43 years ago, is to find a way to find a way to make sure there are no more such deaths, and that means taking a hard look at what values we instill in our young men.”

I could not agree more. By all means, make it harder to obtain weapons of mass destruction. By all means, work to counter and recognize the victims the propaganda war that ISIS is waging on us worldwide. 

But let’s also struggle with the cultural problem that makes us so vulnerable to the message of ISIS and other groups that promote violence to body and soul, because this is a struggle that we can win. We artists. We lovers. We healers of self and society. We who put empathy and compassion into the world, despite the toxic culture around us that tells us such things are feminine and therefore somehow lesser. 

Without scapegoating any group, we can still look frankly at the sickness in our society and start making it whole. We can identify the wounded hearts among us and make sure they get the healing they need. And we take responsibility for what we teach our boys about what it means to become a man.

  • Share:

You Might Also Like