The Orlando Shooting Demonstrates Why We Need Intersectional Secularism


Jeremiah Traeger

By the time of this writing, over a week has gone by where everyone, their dog, their mother, and the kitchen sink have gotten to weigh in on what happened in the early morning of June 12, 2016 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. While social media users continue to spout with a usual lack of nuance, I have been heartened to hear prominent secular voices refuse to reduce the cause to a single problem. Of course, would the shooter still be around, we would need to hold him accountable, but in his absence we still have to look at the surrounding issues that led to such an atrocity. Such causes include:

  • Gun control, or a lack thereof
  • Societal views on gender and sexuality
  • Homophobia in Christianity
  • Homophobia in Islam
  • Toxic masculinity
  • Racism against the latinx community


The answer, of course, is that all of these factors are likely contributors. Some may have more of a direct link to the shooter’s mentality than others, but none can be dismissed out of hand.


A few of these have obvious links to atheist and secular activism in a fight to eliminate religious privilege. But even the most obvious religious links have ties to intersectionality with LGBTQ rights. The perpetrator in Orlando was raised in a society with enormous religious barriers towards respecting queer people. He was also raised in an Islamic household, under a father who had previously supported the Taliban. Whether it’s Christian or Islamic, fundamentalist religious ideals are irredeemably soaked in homophobia that refuses to acknowledge the rights and equal privileges of all gender and sexual identities, and both undoubtedly touched the shooter*. As far as secular activism, this is low hanging fruit that we can attack in our endeavor to eliminate religious dominance in the modern world.


This presents an opportunity. Status quo defenders will whine when the American Humanist Association sets up an LGBTQ alliance and the Reason Rally implements a code of conduct specifically outlining unacceptable behaviors against queer and trans individuals. Shouldn’t this be the norm, though? What if the shooter had been raised in a society where these attitudes had been the norm?


The world we live in currently has a massive barrier to overcome towards accepting non-heteronormative identities, seeped in religion and tradition. As the secular movement has no traditional or dogmatic roots, it lacks that inherent barrier. We therefore have a capability that most facets of society largely don’t: we are capable of a space that is welcoming to those folks. The largest criticism against inviting this cause is that it’s outside the scope of secularism and we don’t have to include it. If I’m given the choice of risking mission creep for the sake of providing an environment where people have a reprieve from a world threatening their mere existence, I’m pretty damn happy to take that risk.


We also have reason to link what the shooter did to toxic attitudes about what constitutes masculinity. We know that the shooter had a history of abusive behavior, as he beat his first wife and held her hostage. While we cannot comment on the household dynamics in the shooter’s home prior to the attack, we do know that his second wife unsuccessfully tried to talk him out of it. We know that Abrahamic faiths are unapologetically patriarchal. Would a more equal household role between the man and his wife have given him pause? Would fewer toxic attitudes have prevented him from running gung-ho into the club and gunning down over a hundred people? Sociologists have linked bullying due to perceived homophobia or lack of masculinity to lashing out in violent attacks; could the two men kissing set the shooter off due to a threat to his manhood? Children are taught from a young age both in churches and from their peers in school their proper role. The man is said to be the physically strong leader and the dominant force of the household, and the existence of men explicitly rejecting that sacred hierarchy at Pulse challenges that.


These are not definite accusations, but a minimization of traditional gender roles in current society would certainly make us less likely to ask these questions. Seeing that secularists are not inherently tied to these positions, we are again in a somewhat unique position to tear down toxic masculinity and gender roles that religious folks tend to be less capable of. But as critical thinkers we can’t give in to confirmation bias and pretend that once religion is eliminated that sexism and expected gender roles will vanish. If we care about eliminating the problem, we can not only work to wash away the religions and traditions that exacerbate institutionalized biases, but scrub through the cracks and corners of the non-religious institutions as well as to rinse away residual effects of dogma. All things being equal, I would love to be part of a movement that is at the forefront of this. We are capable of a wider spectrum of gender expression, and a reduced expectation of certain gender roles.


To be clear, I am not advocating that every atheist/secular/freethought organization must necessarily include intersectional issues as part of the cause. Focusing on just one cause for an organization is strategically sound and helps us pick our battles more effectively. And there is a need for meetups and groups merely for the sake of community. That being said, even the large organizations that almost exclusively focus on separation of church and state issues have made inclusivity and non-secular causes a priority, and every organization should prioritize inclusivity regardless of the work each organization does. Dave Silverman of American Atheists has pointed out the necessity of harassment policies protecting LGBTQ people at conventions and Reason Rally. The Freedom From Religion Foundation has established Nonbelief Relief, which is exclusive to humanitarian efforts such as support for the victims of the Orlando Shooting and relief from the Sudanese famine. If this is mission creep for these organizations, it certainly does not appear to be a problem for either.


If you are an atheist, you are in a excellent position to overcome certain prejudices of the past. You can listen to the needs of LGBTQ causes, and you don’t have to see it through a religious filter that reduces an innate part of their identity to an inherent sin. You’re not tied to seeing the woman of the household as subservient. You’re capable of reaching out to causes fighting people who are tied to tradition and prejudice. And if you need verification that this type of work is needed, the Orlando Shooting certainly is a good indicator.


*I largely reject that he had any ties to Islamic terrorist groups, as he has at various points of time claimed allegiance to Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS, who are all in conflict with each other. His lack of a beard and consumption of alcohol indicate a lack of credibility that he was a fundamentalist. This isn’t to say he wasn’t a true Muslim, but I have good reasons for not accepting that he had a substantial part in any extremist religious group. Also, many sources have stated that he had the Grindr app and had attended Pulse before, but the FBI has found no supporting evidence for that. Had he been attracted to other men, this still would have not absolved him from homophobic attitudes he had internalized.



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