Jasper, Texas – James Byrd Jr., father of three children, never intended to become a key player in the struggle to protect LGBTQ people from hate crime violence. But when he fell into the hands of three haters by accepting a ride from them on June 7, 1998, he became one of the most famous hate crimes murder victims of all time.
Byrd, 49, was looking for a ride home to be with his family. Instead, his three abductors, Shawn Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer, and John King, aged 23 to 31 years of age, drove him out to a lonely road outside of the small town of Jasper, Texas, beat him senseless, urinated on him, and tied his ankles to the hitch of their pick up truck–apparently for no reason other than race hatred. It was a lynching-by dragging. Byrd’s killers dragged him three miles along an asphalt road until he died. Speeding along the road, his body struck a concrete culvert, severing his right arm, shoulder, and head. Investigators located 81 sites along the route where remains of Byrd’s body were scattered. Jasper County District Attorney Guy James Gray, said that the murder of James Byrd Jr. was the worst he had seen in over 20 years as a prosecutor. Berry, Brewer, and King dumped Byrd’s body beside the cemetery of an African American Church, and went on to celebrate their deed at a barbecue–feeling that no one in Jasper County or the State of Texas would miss a lone African American.
They were desperately wrong. Brewer and King, well-know white supremacists, were early suspects, causing DA Gray to investigate the murder as a hate crime. The FBI was called in to assist in the investigation within 24 hours of Byrd’s remains being found. Echoes of lynchings throughout the South amplified the outrage surrounding Byrd’s hate crime murder. Brewer, King, and Berry were arrested, and eventually convicted of murder as a hate crime. Brewer and King were sentenced to death, and on September 21, 2011, Brewer was put to death by lethal injection. King awaits execution on death row. Berry was sentenced to life in prison. The Byrd Family opposed the death penalty for the men who killed their beloved James, believing that more deaths could never bring peace or closure to his murder. Only justice for everyone could.
In May 2001, Texas enacted the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act into law. Because of advocacy within the Byrd Family, James Byrd Jr.’s name lent credibility to make the statute a gay-inclusive hate crimes protection law, and linked it to the Laramie, Wyoming anti-gay murder of Matthew Shepard. Then, after decades of advocacy, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law, extending federal protections to LGBT people in America for the first time in history. Judy and Dennis Shepard, parents of Matthew, were joined at the White House by Betty Bryd Boatner and Louvon Harris, sisters of James, for the signing ceremony. President Obama said:
“This is the culmination of a struggle that has lasted more than a decade. Time and again, we faced opposition. Time and again, the measure was defeated or delayed. Time and again we’ve been reminded of the difficulty of building a nation in which we’re all free to live and love as we see fit. But the cause endured and the struggle continued, waged by the family of Matthew Shepard, by the family of James Byrd, by folks who held vigils and led marches, by those who rallied and organized and refused to give up, by the late Senator Ted Kennedy who fought so hard for this legislation — (applause) — and all who toiled for years to reach this day.”
Then, the President underlined the ongoing significance of the Act named for James Byrd Jr. and Matthew Shepard:
“You understood that we must stand against crimes that are meant not only to break bones, but to break spirits — not only to inflict harm, but to instill fear. You understand that the rights afforded every citizen under our Constitution mean nothing if we do not protect those rights — both from unjust laws and violent acts. And you understand how necessary this law continues to be.”
So, today, we remember James Byrd Jr. His death has not been in vain. The road toward full equality for all Americans is a long one. Many have died in the 15 years since the murders of Byrd and Shepard at the hands of irrational hatred. More will die, succumbing to injustices of the worst kind. But James Byrd Jr. is not forgotten, and his killers have not had the last word on his life. The struggle continues, and right is on the side of life and inclusion. This 15th anniversary of James Byrd Jr.’s death, we who believe in justice cannot allow ourselves to rest. We who believe in justice cannot rest until it comes.
Reportage on the attack has been careful to note that how Diego identifies in terms of gender identity and gender expression is not known. His sisters Virginia and Melissa have used both male and female pronouns to describe Diego, which reflects family practice, but not necessarily Diego’s own sense of personhood. Photographs show a graceful, lovely person with a sense of style and taste. Sister Virginia Diego said to reporters, “Sometimes men try to talk to him and they get humiliated in front of their friends when they realize it’s a man. Because he looks really good, he looks like a woman, you couldn’t tell the difference,” she continued. Sister Melissa Diego said that the Los Angeles Police Department, Hollywood Division is pursing the case as a transphobic hate crime. “We don’t want this to happen to anybody else,” she said. We just want somebody to come forward and let us know what they saw. He deserves justice.” Diego is recuperating at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Update: GLAAD reports that the victim has informed the LAPD of her preferred name and pronominal usage. In contradistinction to her family’s identification of her gender, the victim wishes to be known by “Vivian,” and indicated that she wants police and the media to use feminine pronouns when referring to her.
Fox News Latino reports that Hollywood’s Beso Restaurant where young Diego works is owned by actress Eva Longoria, famed for her roles on The Young and the Restless, and Desperate Housewives. The film and television star has not issued a statement in relation to the attack.
As the manhunt for Vivian Diego’s attackers continues, we are left to speculate about the rising number of anti-gay, anti-lesbian, and transphobic bias attacks reported recently, especially in New York City where the incidents of hate crimes is spiking to record highs as LGBT Pride celebrations kick off in the Big Apple. Is this hate crime attack against a gay and transgender person connected in some copycat way to the wave of East Coast brutalities? Some pundits suggest that the recent emphasis on the high profile human rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, and the increasing number of states making marriage equality legal for their residents may be igniting hostility among the opponents of LGBTQ rights in America.
For now, Vivian Diego has more immediate problems: facing surgery and how to pay for it, recuperating from the shattering physical and mental experience of being attacked for who she is–a crime unthinkable among fair minded people, but brutally frequent in the swirling emotions surrounding the expansion of human rights in the United States.
Outbreak of Anti-Gay Attacks in Brooklyn and Queens, New York Continues Trend of Homophobic Violence
Brooklyn, New York – Since Sunday of last week, there have been two anti-gay bias attacks reported in Brooklyn, and another hate crime assault in Queens, according to various news sources. On Wednesday night, openly gay Kevin Kiadii, a 25-year-old freelance makeup artist and a male friend were assaulted in Prospect Park, CBS 2 reports. Kiadii, notable for lodging a sexual misconduct suit against ex-Elmo voice artist, Kevin Clash (see NewsOne story), was randomly chosen for harassment and assault by a group of five teens who were allegedly drunk and/or high. When the most aggressive of the teenagers, the one also displaying the most intoxication, confronted Kiadii with homophobic slurs, the gay man offered the youth a soda as an attempt to diffuse the situation. Undeterred, the assailant took a “fighting stance,” in Kiadii’s words, and when Kiadii told him to back off, the youth jumped at Kiadii and said “‘I’m going to [expletive] you up’ and do this and ‘you F and [expletive].’” Kiadii took a perfume bottle from his bag and wielded it like a can of pepper spray to back off his attackers. “One of the dudes tried to kick me in the face, but just missed and he got me in my shoulder,” Kiadii said. Kiadii managed to get off a 911 call to police, handed his phone to a bystander, and wrestled with his main attacker, who left Kiadii with an injured hand, cuts and bruises. Speaking to the New York Post, Kiadii said his ploy with the spray bottle of perfume may have prevented something much worse from happening to him. “If it wasn’t for my Dior bottle, I’d be in so much damage,” he said.
The police responded quickly, arresting four youths ranged in age from 13 to 18 years of age, and a fifth suspect who is 21. Charges have been filed against the teens and the 21-year-old for harassment as a hate crime, and the prime assailant faces charges of aggravated assault as a hate crime, according to The Advocate. Expressing his appreciation for the swift action of the police, Kiadii is thankful that he was not more seriously hurt. Still, the assault has left him shaken but determined to broadcast what he had to face, so that others will not have to endure an anti-gay attack like his. “I’m appalled. I’m in awe,” Kiadii told CBS 2. “I just really want my story told because I know there a lot of people in the city who deal with stuff like this.”
Police are also searching for an unidentified Brooklyn suspect who punched a 27-year-old gay man twice in the face on the J Train at approximately 11:45 p.m. last Sunday, May 26. The assailant hurled anti-gay slurs at his victim as he carried out the attack, according to DNAinfo. The suspect fled out the back of the subway car to escape arrest. Police described the suspect as a man in his mid-to-late-20s, 6 feet tall, with dark hair tied in a bun. He was last seen wearing a blue denim jacket, police said. The New York Police Department Hate Crimes Task Force is carrying out the investigation. The subway assault and investigation were announced by the New York Police Department on Friday of this week. Also reported this week was an earlier bias-related attack upon a woman in Queens on March 17 of this year. Police say that the suspect approached a 49-year-old woman, cursed her with homophobic epithets, and punched her in the face before fleeing the scene. He is described as between the ages of 20 and 25, five feet four inches tall, 140 pounds, with brown eyes and black hair. At the time of the assault, the attacker was wearing a small mustache. The suspect reportedly has been sighted in the area of the 115th Police Precinct. No explanation has been given for the lateness of the report on the Queens attack as of this report.
Anti-gay violence is spiking alarmingly throughout New York City. Better than 30 incidents of anti-LGBT hate crimes have been reported this year, one of them a fatal shooting, easily doubling last year’s statistics for anti-gay attacks during the same time period.
The gay men were then knocked to the pavement, beaten, punched, and kicked. The pair attempted to fight off their attackers, but in vain. “Fists started flying. I was on the ground, and the only thing I could do, I reached out and grabbed someone’s hair,” Porto said. First responders rushed the couple to Bellevue Hospital where Atkins was put in a cast for a broken right wrist. Atkins reported that his iPad was smashed in the attack, as well. Since his job for reality television requires accurate typing, Atkins will be unable to work until he heals. Porto, a clothing designer who is a resident of Brooklyn now says he cannot feel safe as a gay man in New York City. “I was being foolish,” he said, hampered by a broken nose. “I was so naïve to think that things were better here.”
The brazen attack in broad daylight elicited anger and resolve to catch the men who harmed Porto and Atkins. Mayoral candidate and city council woman Christine Quinn issued a statement on Tuesday condemning the attack in strong terms. She said, according to Pix 11, “I am appalled by reports of a gay bashing in Midtown Manhattan on Sunday afternoon. Hateful assaults like these are an affront to everything our great City stands for and I urge the perpetrators to turn themselves in immediately. I also implore anyone who may have witnessed or recorded footage of the attack to come forward to the authorities at once.” Instinct Magazine reports that police are searching for four men whose images were caught on surveillance cameras. Authorities are approaching the case as an anti-gay hate crime.