Jayne Dowle: Orlando killer unites where he sought to divide on homophobia

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FROM the streets of Soho to Westminster, to the Vatican and beyond, the reaction to the massacre in Orlando has hit home. There have been 16 terrorist attacks in Europe since the start of 2015, but this one was different.

Here were not just the victims of a twisted ideology. The men and women who lost their lives in the Pulse nightclub were already victims of society because of the prevalence of homophobia.

This has altered our perspective. When the gunman, Omar Mateen, opened fire and killed 49 people, injuring many more, who knew that all kinds of people would react with such compassion and dignity to the prejudice still endured by gay men and women?

For a start, who expected quite so many British politicians to stand up and be counted? And who expected so many to turn out to be homosexual themselves? As the Home Secretary, Theresa May, who led a moving debate in the House of Commons, put it: “All those [Members] who have stood up and proclaimed themselves as gay are an important symbol of freedom… I believe that we have more openly gay MPs in this House than there are in any other legislative Chamber in the world. That is something to be proud of.”

That it has taken a terrorist attack to give MPs such as Nigel Evans, the Conservative Member for Ribble Valley, the confidence to speak so openly of their own sexuality and the challenges they have faced in their own lives is a tragedy in itself. However, once said, the words of Mr Evans and his colleagues cannot be taken back; each Member who contributed to that debate will now be on record as standing up for themselves and their beliefs. It was a sad day in Parliament; it should also be a proud one.

And who anticipated that so many world leaders – including the Pope – would be quite so vociferous in their condemnation? A missive from the Vatican spoke of the “horror” that His Holiness felt, and called for the need to tackle the causes of “such terrible and absurd violence”. His anger was echoed in corners of the world not previously known for tolerance of homosexuality; Uganda, for instance.

Just as significantly millions of ordinary people across the world took a moment to stop and think about their own reaction to this open and callous attack on a nightclub full of people enjoying themselves on a Saturday night.

Whatever our own sexuality might happen to be, what Mateen has done is to make us all question our attitudes towards those who happen to be LGBT. Indeed, I’d argue that until this week even that acronym itself was a mystery to many. Now it stands proud itself, stating exactly what it is without a veiled insult or a raised eyebrow.

I cannot speak for individuals in other countries. I do know though that there has been a creeping intolerance of homosexuality here in Britain, which runs counter to our democratic principles. It starts in the playground, where “gay” is an insult meted out by children who have no proper understanding of what they are saying, but are most likely picking it up from their blinkered parents.

This is despite the popularity of openly-gay mainstream entertainment personalities such as Graham Norton and Paul O’Grady, and events such as the annual Pride marches in many towns and cities. It is perhaps a symptom of a society which has been closing in on itself. Too often, we live in demarcation zones. It is partly to do with the challenges of modern life, categorised by threats and fear from elements we simply don’t understand.

However, the Orlando massacre has laid bare what Theresa May calls the “bigotry and violence” which has been festering for too long. If we posted a rainbow flag on our Facebook page in solidarity, did some of us do it because we felt ashamed to have allowed ourselves to be swept up in the nastiness before Orlando?

It is comforting to see that in the face of evil – although the actual motives of Mateen are still to be properly established – collective human spirit will triumph. As we watched the mothers and partners united in grief, it made us think that inevitable thought, what if it was you or me desperately waiting for news? As we heard the roll call of the occupations and backgrounds of those who were lost or maimed – accountant, dancer, shop supervisor, student – what we witnessed could be a cross-section of any society, in any country. When the debate over immigration and gun laws has subsided, this question remains. How can the human race live together in tolerance?

As the Mayor of Seattle, Ed Murray, the first openly-gay man to hold such a post in the United States, told Radio 4’s Today programme: “It is one thing to pass laws, another to change hearts and minds.”

Out of the murder and the loss and the carnage, the terrible events of Orlando have already started to do just that.