Image Credit: Fibonacci Blue, Vigil to unite in the wake of the Orlando Pulse shooting
Image Credit: Fibonacci Blue, Vigil to unite in the wake of the Orlando Pulse shooting

49 People were murdered and 53 wounded the night of June 12, 2016 when a shooter opened fire at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The Pulse nightclub massacre is the deadliest mass shooting in United States History. This heinous crime left the families and friends of victims and the Orlando community in a state of pain and shock that reverberated across the entire country. Following the massacre, a primary question in everyone’s minds remains: Why another mass shooting and how can we prevent this?

In her article “Finding Meaning in a Massacre Through Gay Latinx Intersectional Justice,” forthcoming in The Scholar: St. Mary’s Law Review on Race and Social Justice, Judith Koons, Professor at Barry University School of Law, assesses the nature of the horrific hate crime, which was committed at a predominantly LGBTQ nightclub on Latin Night. Koons argues that the root of such violence lies in systemic failures of intersectional justice. The Pulse nightclub shooting specifically stands at the intersection of various issues - subordination of immigrants, homophobia, and a lack of gun control. In her article Koons considers steps to prevent such hate crimes from happening again.

Q&A With Judith Koons

In your article you said, “many roads in our nation’s history converge in the Pulse massacre.” Can you explain this a bit further - what key issues does the shooting touch upon?

JK: I was struck, as many were, that the massacre that killed 49 people took place at a gay nightclub during Latin Night. Two significant roads that converge in this massacre are the struggle for equality by members of the LGBTQ community and the perilous path or immigration for people all over Latin America to make a home in central Florida. Other key issues include terrorism, the disturbing trajectory of increased hate crimes against people who are perceived to be LGBTQ or immigrants, the availability of assault weapons, and the immovability of gun control on state and federal levels.

Your article says “the acts of violence reflected in Pulse were not random acts, but were the product of socially constructed systems of oppression that make hate crimes toward gay and Latino communities not only imaginable, but also possible and even predictable” - can you explain this?

JK: Violence is one of the consequences of systems of oppression toward vulnerable outsider groups. A systematic look at oppression also shows that outgroups commonly experience forms of exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, and cultural imperialism. These factors create a social context that makes violent hate crimes not only conceivable but also possible, and unfortunately, inevitable as part of the working of societal systems of subordination. The shooting at Pulse lays open the dynamics of oppression at their worst. It is my view that the symbiotic effect of internalized homophobia and racial hatred with cultural systems of oppression is a deadly combination that supports violence towards those in society’s outsider groups.

JK: To critique the violence that undergirded the massacre at Pulse, I start with 16th century Enlightenment thinking, which produced dualistic structures of thought that shape modern Western law, philosophy, ethics, and everyday consciousness. Western legal thinking still reflects this dualistic pattern: judge/jury, plaintiff/defendant, law/facts, and direct/cross. Modern consciousness is also shot through with binaries: good/bad, tall/short, early/late, succeed/fail, either/or.

I propose that a key construct that supports violent hate crimes is the subject/object binary in which the dominant subject position is commonly occupied by elite, white, heterosexual men while other groups assume a subordinate object position. When individuals and groups are defined as different from and other than a subject, they become an object and violence is justified. The thing that is being attacked is not a thinking, feeling, and hurting human being, but an object that is devoid of family, feelings, hopes, and dreams.

Your article argues that in order to address massacres and other acts of hatred in the U.S. and the world we need intersectional justice. Can you explain this? Why is it so important that we attack these issues from multiple angles?

JK: The Pulse massacre was sexualized and racialized; it runs through the intersections of race, sexual orientation, national origin, gender identity, ethnicity, immigration status, class, gender, religion, and family. The effects of the massacre touch families, faith traditions, physical and mental health systems, public and private workplaces, public accommodations, educational institutions, government policies and institutions, territories and countries, and a plethora of groups in civil society, including small and large LGBTQ, Latin, and Muslim communities.

It is important to consider that just as forms of oppression and systems of subordination are interrelated, so are forms of justice. For example, racial justice is connected and enlivens gender justice. These forms of justice are related to and animate justice for persons and groups of all subordinated identities. Consequently, a single axis approach to liberation is insufficient. No one can be free if our gay and Latinx brothers and sisters are not free. With Pulse as the focal point, the importance connecting LGBTQ liberation with racial justice cannot be overstated. The massacre also demonstrates the importance of connecting LGBTQ - Latinx justice with gun control and immigration reform.

In what ways are we holding back reforming issues of hatred and discrimination in the U.S.?

JK: In the article, I point to the recent firestorm of anti-gay hate bills in state legislatures and the venomous rhetoric against immigrants. Since 2013 when the Supreme Court agreed to hear Windsor, 254 anti-gay bills have been filed in state legislatures as part of a nationally coordinated effort. The bills focus on several key areas, including refusal of goods and services to LGBTQ people on religious grounds and restrictions on the use of public bathrooms by transgender people. Although many of these hate bills were beaten back, 20 bills have already been passed by 11 states.

The “religious freedom” bills, when stripped of their language of faith, are simply covers for discrimination and attempts to eviscerate marriage equality. The “bathroom war” bills do not recognize the difference between sex and gender identity and pose enormous hardships to members of the transgender community.

Paralleling the explosion of anti-gay bills in state houses are calls for a wall to be built between the U.S. and Mexico. The “discourse of the wall” focuses more on discriminatory theatrics than on effectiveness of border policy. More troubling, the surge in violent hate crimes toward Latina/os is linked to hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric.

What does intersectional justice look like? What steps do you think need to be taken legally and culturally to address the injustices we face?

JK: Intersectional justice requires turning from a rhetoric of hatred to a commitment to discursive and political equality. Intersectional justice begins within individual consciences and is reflected in the values, norms, and laws expressed by a society. Individuals should pledge to root out internalized forms of oppression and form coalitions across traditional divisions to face and undo systems of subordination. Commitments to intersectional justice must flow from community discussions in our pluralistic civil society and into political action.

To open the door to LGBTQ intersectional justice, Congress must adopt a clear national policy of nondiscrimination against members of the LGBTQ community in all of the protected civil rights areas. The 2015-2016 Equality Act (H.R. 3185,S. 1858) removes the basis for pretextual religious freedom arguments, ensures “potty protections” for transgender people, and includes language that supports an intersectional analysis in discrimination claims. In addition, state legislatures, including Florida, must make amends to the LGBTQ community by spurning hate legislation and ensuring LGBTQ coverage in states’ Civil Rights Acts.

To orient toward Latinx intersectional justice, the nation must turn away from immigration policies that run counter to values underlying our constitutional democracy as well as those that undermine an ethical and pragmatic engagement with the rest of our increasingly interconnected world. Policies must be engaged that responsibly focus on accurate assessment of the risk posed by those seeking entry while emphasizing respect for and shared responsibility with neighboring countries for our borders.

A personal note, I felt that it was important to publish this article in a way that would put intersectional justice into action. I am pleased that the article has been accepted by The Scholar: St. Mary’s Law Review on Race and Social Justice. Placing this article, which originates at Barry University School of Law in Orlando, with the journal in San Antonia, close to the border, clearly reflects a type of intersectionality that I hope to see in practice.

How has your proximity to the Orlando shooting impacted your research and teaching?

JK: I have long felt that law and law teaching can provide opportunities for healing. When the Pulse massacre occurred I was in Spain, teaching International Legal Ethics in our Summer Abroad Program. Our students were deeply affected by the massacre. We held a vigil at the plaza of King Philip II in El Escorial, Spain. Every day in class, we spent time talking about the massacre and connecting it with themes from the course such as terrorism, ethical theories, and gender justice.

When I returned to Orlando in July, I considered the best way to contribute to our community, which was in so much pain. That contemplation led me to set aside my work on Earth Jurisprudence and Climate Change and to embrace this project. My scholarship has traditionally been at the intersection of faith and social justice, ethics and ecological justice. In this article, I deliberately link FemCrit, LatCrit, and QueerCrit perspectives to search for meaning in this massacre.