Within hours of the news spreading that there had been a massacre at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, it became clear that conservatives needed to minimize the possibility that this was the anti-gay hate crime that it looked like. Republican pundits and politicians got to work trying to imply the choice of a target was unimportant or arbitrary, refusing to acknowledge that Pulse was a gay bar or that most of the victims were queer.
The move, while cynical, makes sense. If Republicans can trick people into thinking this was some kind of generic Islamic assault on the West, then they can run the terrorists-are-coming-for-you script that has worked so well for them politically in the past. But to admit that it might have been Omar Mateen's anti-gay beliefs that motivated this this is political poison.
After all, it's not just fundamentalist Islam that is anti-gay. Fundamentalist Christianity is, too, and if anti-gay religious teachings can cause a Muslim to reach for his gun, they can surely do the same to a Christian. Indeed, hate crimes against LGBT people are common in this country, and most of them are not being committed by Muslims.
All of which, in turn, is going to make it a lot harder for conservatives to demagogue against gay rights to rally the troops. If this is a homophobic crime, then it's a testament to how anti-gay rhetoric can inspire horrific violence. Conservatives are still smarting over how the racist church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, resulted in the nation turning against those who fly the Confederate flag. There can be little doubt that this crime will lead to a similar darkening of attitudes against those who persist in spewing prejudice against LGBT Americans.
But any lingering possibility that Pulse was randomly chosen as a target by Mateen is falling apart. Early reports from his father and ex-wife indicate he was homophobic. Now there's evidence that the problem ran much deeper than that. Multiple people from the Orlando area are stepping forward to say that Mateen was a regular at Pulse and that they interacted with him on gay dating apps like Grindr and Jack'd.
"We went to a few gay bars with him, and I was not out at the time, so I declined his offer,” a former classmate of his told the Palm Beach Post. Mateen's ex-wife gave ambiguous answers to questions about whether her husband had an interest in same-sex relations.
So far, there's no photographs or screenshots proving that Mateen was a regular at Pulse or on gay dating apps, but there are reports that some phones have been turned over to the FBI. The FBI has confirmed that they believe Mateen had been to Pulse, but will only go on the record suggesting he was there to case the place.
Without a smoking gun, it's hard to say for 100% what was going on here, but all this evidence points strongly to the possibility that Mateen had some self-loathing issues going on that he projected onto men who lived more unapologetically queer lives. Add to it the multiple reports about him being awkward and disliked by others, especially gay men who encountered him, and a picture starts to build of someone who was acting on his sexual resentments more than someone who had some well-articulated devotion to the ISIS caliphate.
This interpretation grows in strength with evidence suggesting that Mateen only had a vague idea of what ISIS even is, claiming as he did to both be a member of ISIS and of Hezbollah, even though the two groups are fighting each other in Syria. That's like pledging your allegiance to both the Soviets and the Nazis during WWII; it suggests you have no idea what either group is trying to do.
With the caveats that it's important to wait for more information, etc., it's starting to look like this guy had serious personal issues and only latched onto the idea of ISIS because it's in the news a lot and adds drama and impact to his actions.
Which isn't to say that religion doesn't play a role in all this. If Mateen was closeted and acting out in large part because of self-loathing and repression, then it's more than safe to note that his religious beliefs were contributing to that. (Mateen's father continues to issue religiously motivated anti-gay sentiments in public.) Many variations of Islam teach anti-gay views, just like many variations of Christianity; it's foolish to deny otherwise.
But that, of course, is just the point. If the issue here is religiously motivated homophobia, then that's a problem that is far from unique to Islam. It suggests the problem is not whether you read the Koran or the Bible, but whether or not you use religion as an excuse to wallow in bigotry. Which, in turn, implicates the Republican party that has spent decades stoking and exploiting Christian homophobia. You can pretend that Islam is a unique problem if the issue is violence done in the name of ISIS and their apocalyptic fantasies. Islam simply isn't the only religion that teaches anti-gay views. There's not a lot of wiggle room here.
Donald Trump, whose interest in Christianity is such a transparent put-on that even many of his evangelical supporters don't bother to pretend he's a true believer, appears to grasp that this is an inescapable conundrum. In his hate-filled speech on Monday, he basically pretend that Islam is the only religion out there that teaches anti-gay views.
"Hillary Clinton can never claim to be a friend of the gay community as long as she continues to support immigration policies that bring Islamic extremists to our country who suppress women, gays and anyone who doesn’t share their views," he said, pointedly ignoring the homegrown Christian extremists who suppress women and gays and anyone who doesn't share their views.
And let's be clear: It's not Clinton who is giving speeches and getting support from anti-gay groups here at home. It's Trump who does that. Efforts to paint Clinton as secretly conspiring with homophobes are particularly ridiculous from a man who conspires with homophobes right out in the open.
But his dishonesty is a reaction to this corner that conservatives have painted themselves into, by wanting to both condemn Islamic extremists for their views while exalting Christian extremists for theirs. It's an incoherent position in the best of times, but an impossible task when the views in question — that gay people are sinners and their sex lives are abomination — are exactly the same.