"We are complicit in making these groups all but invisible"

Psychologist Martin Milton argues that LGBT debate needs urgent progression in wake of the Orlando attack.

This weekend we have seen yet another atrocity, this time in Orlando, Florida. It is early days and more information will be offered to help us understand it, but two things are clear, this was a terrorist attack and an attack on the LGBT+ community. It is important that we recognise both of these elements and reflect on them thoroughly. 

We need to understand the full complexity of events such as these and not simply rely on the usual ‘mad or bad’ individual trope that is again being offered. The psychological state of the individual is relevant of course, but it is far too limited. As psychologists we know a fair amount about individuals being embedded in their context and culture, about how we utilise available discourses to our own ends and how contemporary ‘Othering’ discourses lay the foundations for such events through their constant anti-LGBT+ negativity.

As psychologists we should understand that when media outlets are unusually slow to report the Orlando shootings, relegating news reports to later time slots, pages within newspapers or referring to it solely as a terrorist attack, rather than also addressing its anti-LGBT+ focus, this is problematic. Even if one were to assume that these were all ‘accidental’ it is important to recognise that it means that once again LGBT+ experience is minimised.

While not assuming that all media are culpable, we even had presenters on specific news programmes refusing to recognise the fact that as well as being a terrorist incident, this was a homophobic attack. Psychologically we recognise that the ‘either this – or that’ binary is neither helpful nor accurate. It is important to recognise that it was both of these things. Yet in some fora this aspect was contested, sometimes forcefully and sometimes quietly, and the argument made that we should not attend to this specific aspect but see it solely as an attack on people.  Well-intended as this may seem it misses the point. School yard bullies, sleazy tabloids, and terrorists do not do their violence just on ‘people’, they pick their target, there is meaning in these choices and unfortunately our everyday homophobia facilitates this in the same way that everyday racism and anti-semitism have been a part of other recent attacks. The specifics are meaningful. 

When we downplay the specifics and focus on the general, we are complicit in making these groups all but invisible. On this occasion commentators opted to emphasise gun control and terrorist links alone and this undoubtedly adds to the stress and discrimination that LGBT+ people face. The reporting itself will have significant psychological impact and feed into ongoing and long-term destructive and traumatising attitudes.

These issues in the reporting of homophobic attacks also means that discussion and insight into our cultural prejudices and practices are closed down. As with racism, anti-semitism and other insidious forms of Othering, LGBT+ experience must not be overlooked. While LGBT+ equality is still somewhat limited in the West, it is absent in many parts of the world. Even where progress has been made it remains contested. LGBT+ people are routinely discriminated against, oppressed and even killed.

All the time the reporting is problematic in this way happens, we all lose. Such ‘invisibilising’ means that society is not offered a chance to discuss how discrimination against LGBT+ people, Muslims, people of colour, women, the disabled and other minorities has psychological similarities. How everyday prejudice facilitates and fuels individuals when picking their targets. 

We all have a role to play in challenging this. Academic institutions can utilise critical thinking and encourage debate. The media needs to review its practices. Professional bodies must target oppressive structures, and LGBT+ people need support in speaking up so their voices can be heard. As the British Psychological Society statement notes, this also provides an opportunity for us to reaffirm our commitment to fundamental and indivisible human rights. 

Only by active talking we can learn a lot about to how to best respond to the oppression of minorities. There is currently an onslaught of homonegative and anti-LGBT legislation in the US, and the debate needs urgently progression. A more complex psychological debate is needed, one where intersectioning factors are tracked and illuminated. As psychologists, surely we have a role in this.

- Professor Martin Milton, CPsychol, CSci, AFBPsS, UKCP Reg
Professor of Counselling Psychology
Regents School of Psychotherapy and Psychology
Regents University London

Also see Professor Milton's article on capturing the experience of homophobia.



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Well put and all true but does not go nearly far enough.

I have experienced both anti-semitic "othering" and that towards those of us stereotyped as LGBT. The former in the UK being mostly of a "jokey" kind (yet with an implicitly nasty sub-text) and the latter sometimes viciously. Although not to the extent of being shot at yet. But these are trumped by the much more frequent experience of being "othered" (verbally abused, subject to obloquy) for simply being "other". That is to say, for no specific identification but, perhaps as studies of disgust illustrate, being to the contrary, not someone who can be easily categorised and therefore "weird"...a random comment uttered to my face many hundreds of times over recent years as this phenomenon seems to have increased.

There indeed seems to be an inverse correlation between the gradual suppression of overt hostility to specified groups (racism, homo phobia) and the reciprocal increase (in my experience and as indicated by the rise of generalised bullying) in the othering of others, not specified, those who do not conform to convention or stereotypes of the "acceptable" other.

If we manage to get some apportioning of attention to the specific "otherness" of particular victim grops we further isolate those who are "othered" but not identifiably members of such groups who are denied such "privileged" consideration and hopefully tolerance if not acceptance.

The real shift of emphasis needs to be to increasing awareness of the tendency of people, especially the young, to the principles demonstrated by Tajfel whereby identity reinforcement tends to be expressed in the emphasis on shared characteristics within identities in contradistinction to others. A narrow focus on specific groups if anything goes against this by extending a special status to membership of such groups, or being identifiably a member of some group of one kind or another itself. In this analysis, to emphasise the vulnerability of any specific group cuts loose those who are not identifiably of any particular group, throwing us to the wolves.

Being called, "weird", "weirdo", "freak", "scary", having "XXXXXXX weirdo" shouted at me from passing vehicles, are vastly more challenging day-to-day experiences than experiencing anti-semitic or LGBT typecasting. This whole issue was well illustrated for me one time in a shop when a member of staff indicating me said to his colleague "He's weird" and his colleagues reply was "no, hes gay", which lead to the contradiction "no, he's weird" and the further response, "no, hes gay". Evidently being "LGBT" is less of a crime against convention than being soimply an un-specified "other".

Incidentally, I dont think I am particularly "other" any more than I am distinctively Jewish or LGBT, simply fitting the "otherers" stereotypes of such groups, but times and conventions have changed whilst I have not, and I do work in the midst of an extremely conformist student community.

I couldn't disagree more. I don't really understand how some minority groups clamour for recognition as equal in the eyes of the law, and the eyes of society while spending so much time expressing how different they are, and wanting to be admired for their differences. Naturally, one shouldn't proactively mention their differences. That's not allowed, because one is clearly being racist/homophobic/isolationist/sexist/xenophobic etc. In advance, I need to say that I tick a number of minority boxes, but frankly they're none of your business. That's my point.

The massacre in Orlando was an attack on humanity by an individual who abused the ability to get ready access to a gun. His religion, political affiliations, or sexual orientation are not nearly as important as a lack of gun control. His victims on the other hand didn't die defending their sexuality but their humanity. To use this event as a reason for highlighting homophobia is a low point for us all. It only serves to create more divisions between most of society who frankly don't care. It serves to highlight our differences rather than our commonalities. There are many places in the world where homosexuality is illegal. The US isn't one of them but this still happened. That is unfortunately the way of the world, and making it legal won't help. I don't see anti-semitism going away any time soon. I don't see racism going away either. Everywhere in the world has bigots to spare.

Did we get a racial or religious profile of the victims in Orlando? How many muslims, jews, christians? How many were illegal immigrants? Were there any wheelchair users? Clearly a ridiculous set of questions, and I'm being provocative to show that that information is neither relevant nor interesting.

They were 49 people who lost their lives as a result of society letting them down. That's the bottom line.