I'm not about to attempt to psychoanalyze Mateen, and there's no real way to know exactly what he thought or felt. But I do know that we are about to be inundated with news media and social media discussing "internalized homophobia" and the fact that "one of our own" is responsible for the murder of so many. In the past, such rhetoric has been horribly homophobic. We need to be aware of the ideologies behind this rhetoric and respond to it.
The phenomenon of the queer person who kills other queer people -- and particularly queer people of color -- immediately reminds me of the case of the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, which inspired many theatrical representations. I have no doubt that, in the future, theatre artists will wrestle with the meaning and significance of Mateen's crime.
But my present concern is not with the nuanced and complex meanings that can be created in theatrical art. Right now, we need to address what we really mean when we talk about internalized homophobia in the wake of horrific brutality. In Chapter Two of Murder Most Queer, I discuss how homophobic organizations use the "homicidal homosexual" to reinforce homophobic ideology:
While the homicidal homosexual may have originated as a homophobic construction, there are, of course, actual gay and lesbian people who commit murder, and the representations of these real people raise more complex problems about queer villainy. Antigay organizations are fond of pointing to gay and lesbian murderers like Jeffrey Dahmer, Andrew Cunanan, and Aileen Wuornos as “proof ” of the evil of homosexuality, which then becomes “evidence” in the argument to deny civil rights to LGBT people. For example, the antigay Family Research Institute publishes the writings of Paul Cameron, who directly links the gory details of Jeffrey Dahmer’s cannibalism to a “substantial minority” of gay men and lesbians who practice “violent sex,” as well as the reportedly high rate of suicide among gays and lesbians. The conclusion to be drawn from these tenuously connected assertions is that “most violence involving gays is self-induced” and therefore hate crime legislation should not be passed.
In the final chapter of the book, which focuses on theatrical representations of Dahmer, I engage with David Schmid's excellent work on the discourse surrounding internalized homophobia:
In his analysis of narratives about serial killers, David Schmid argues that true crime writers inevitably focus on some “deviant” aspect of the killer’s life as an explanation for his or her murders, since the public needs to be able to exclude the killer from the realm of the “normal.” But they enforce a double standard when it comes to sexually motivated crimes. So true crime writers represent Ted Bundy, who murdered and engaged in necrophilia with numerous women, as “an aberration that told us nothing about heterosexuality at all,” while they attribute Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes to homosexuality itself. Indeed, Schmid finds in these narratives “the assumption that extreme violence is a normal part of homosexuality.”
In their attempts to explain the murders of Jeffrey Dahmer, many true crime writers place the blame on internalized homophobia—that is, the gay man’s loathing of his own homosexuality. While this assertion may be correct, Schmid maintains that true crime writers use it to support, rather than challenge, the homophobia of their readers, since they never address the origin of the loathing. The implication, then, is that “to be homosexual is so disgusting and traumatic that of course one would murder again and again in order to assuage one’s guilt about being gay.” And here Schmid imagines an alternate possibility for the exploration of internalized homophobia:
A more productive, and less homophobic, aim for true crime would be to explain why Dahmer felt ambivalent about his homosexuality or why he hated other homosexuals. Examination of these issues in true crime has the potential to correct some of the biases of the genre, but rarely does, simply because gay self-hatred can be acknowledged but never analyzed in detail . . . To explore the sources of Dahmer’s conflicted homosexuality would involve acknowledging both the familial (Dahmer’s father was virulently homophobic) and social context of widespread homophobia. [Schmid, Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture, 2006]
In other words, rather than naturalizing internalized homophobia as a psychological response to homosexuality, Schmid challenges true crime writers to examine the social origins of this homophobia, thus implicating American society itself as the source of Dahmer’s self-loathing.
The plays discussed in this chapter have the potential to take up that challenge. My examination of plays and performances about queer serial killers focuses on how these works may challenge the homophobia so often found in other media, articulating a critical perspective on causation and the supposed conflation of violence and homosexuality. Additionally, many of these plays engage critically with other issues surrounding narratives of queer serial killers, including the role of the media in creating celebrity serial killers, ambivalence about the innocence of their victims, and the public’s interest in the gruesome physical details of sadistic murders.
There's still much we do not know about Mateen, and probably much that we will never know. But whatever information, misinformation, sheer guesswork and fantasy appear on our social media and news feeds, I hope we can keep some critical perspective on the phenomenon of internalized homophobia and not compound the pain of those who have been victimized by these horrific murders.