Orlando Should Remind Us That Hate Crimes Are Acts Of Terror

In the small hours of Sunday morning, a gunman entered Pulse Orlando, the city's largest gay nightclub, and killed 49 people and injured 53. It was the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, and like so many shootings before, it took place in a setting that had been a fun, safe, celebratory space. In targeting an LGBQT club filled with people of color celebrating Latin Night, the killer was committing not just the act of terrorism the president accuses him of, but also a hate crime. This distinction matters: If we do not acknowledge that hate crimes fit within the larger framework of terrorism, we diminish hate crimes.

Conservatives are rushing to condemn this as an act of Islamic terrorism on the basis of the perpetrator's faith and race, but his own family says otherwise. His ex-wife, who separated from him after being repeatedly abused, describes him as "not very religious," and his father told NBC news that his son was infuriated after seeing a gay couple kiss in public. This appears to me not to be an act rooted in a warped understanding of Islam, but in the hatred of LGBQT people. While the killer allegedly pledged allegiance to Daesh shortly before the shooting and the organization has claimed responsibility for the attack, this is a move of expedience on the part of an international terrorist organization that likes to inflate its political and social influence. It would be a mistake to allow Daesh to own an attack that was rooted in U.S.-grown homophobia.

Hate crimes are often treated as acts of exceptionalism, but that's a mistake. They're connected to a larger social framework: In this case, the United States is an extremely homophobic and transphobic country. Numerous states are in the process of attempting to pass bathroom bills that bar people from using the restrooms that accord with their gender, with lawmakers claiming that transgender people are "predators." Forty percent of homeless youth reaching out for help identify as LGBQT. At least 21 trans women were murdered in 2015, and many of them were people of color. Multiple states include homophobic lessons in their mandatory sexual education curriculum.

LGBQT people have a higher poverty rate than heterosexual people, and the disparities are even more striking along intersectional axes, with LGBQT people of color and disabled LGBQT people being even less financially stable. On the other side of the country, a man with an assortment weapons was arrested in Los Angeles, claiming that he had traveled to the city specifically for Pride. In 2014, roughly 20 percent of reported and investigated hate crimes involved LGBQT people, and anti-trans hate crimes are on the rise. The Department of Justice estimates that only one in three hate crimes are ever reported, illustrating a profound lack of faith in law enforcement.

Many of the same lawmakers rushing to "pray for Orlando" today refused to pass hate crime legislation as well as restrictions on gun ownership like assault weapons bans that could have prevented this horrific massacre. This is a political landscape where politicians declare that queer people are abhorrent, where preachers call for the death of LGBQT people. It's a place where LBGQT people are beaten and killed because of who they are.

It's important to make sure that these two labels continue to remain linked: When you attack a group of people because of who they are, that is a hate crime, and because you are doing it to frighten and marginalize a given population, it is terrorism.

This is indisputably a hate crime, with the FBI definition articulating that a hate crime is a "criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity."

And it's also terrorism. Turning to the FBI again, acts of violence against LGBQT people are absolutely "intended to coerce or intimidate a civilian population." The goal of crimes like this is to make LGBQT people afraid. To make them believe that the only way to be safe is to hide themselves. To send a clear signal to LGBQT youth and closeted people that their very existence makes them a target for acts of hatred. Hate crimes like this one are designed to suppress freedom of movement, expression, and existence within a very specific population.

The president has already indicated that this "was an act of terror and hate," but he's said it will be investigated as a terrorist attack. It's important to make sure that these two labels continue to remain linked: When you attack a group of people because of who they are, that is a hate crime, and because you are doing it to frighten and marginalize a given population, it is terrorism.

It's terrorism, just like assaulting abortion providers is terrorism, and we need to be explicitly labeling it as such. When people assault other people on the basis of their identity, they are tearing at the fabric of American society, attempting to destroy the values that are supposed to dictate American life. "Attacks on any American," said the president, "regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation, [are] an attack on all of us and on the fundamental values of equality and dignity that define us as a country."

Over 50 people died in Orlando because the United States fans the flames of homophobia and tolerates the consequences, because the United States hasn't historically recognized hate crimes as terrorism, and because the United States refuses to institute rational limitations on gun ownership. Chillingly, the deaths of those at the club — primarily people of color — are going to be used as leverage for Islamophobic attacks and hate crimes perpetrated on Muslims across the country, including LGBQT Muslims. There is a particular bitterness in the fact that LGBQT Muslims are being erased in the hurry to collectively attack Islam for the murder of LGBQT people.

As the names of the victims begin to be released, we must continue the fight against hate in the United States, and we must also avoid meeting hate with hate. Our best response is to attend Pride with our heads held high, to continue to fight for gun reform, and to refuse to allow hate to dictate our response to this event: I would argue that this has nothing to do with Muslims and nothing to do with brown people — though Daesh very much wants us to think so, in the hopes that it will spur an Islamophobic backlash as seen in France after its multiple terrorist attacks in 2015 and everything to do with anti-LGBQT terrorism.

Hate crimes aren't about one-off events of random violence. They are a direct consequence of living in a society that stigmatizes and in some cases criminalizes the existence of entire classes of people, a society that breeds the notion that members of these groups should be beaten into submission by any means possible — including terrorism.