"We are complicit in making these groups all but invisible"
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.
BPS Members can discuss this article
Already a member? Or Create an account
Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber