Asheville, North Carolina – William “Ben” Wood was 21 when he died on the floor of his dorm at UNC-Asheville. Friends who found him said that he was drawn up in a fetal position on May 8, 2013, having slashed open his veins. The loss of this sensitive, justice-seeking young gay man is a tragedy by most accounts–his friends and school mates say he was a fine student, but in recent months his grades and school performance had plunged. The university junior couldn’t deal with the prospect of going back to his neighborhood in Asheville without being a student any longer, according to his mother’s account in the Reconciling Ministries Network Blog. As a teen, he had been irreparably wounded by a Youth Leader at his home church as he prepared to go on a Mission trip with his friends from the United Methodist Youth Fellowship.
His mom, Julie Wood, recounts how the misguided Youth Leader singled out her son for being gay in front of his peers. The leader said, “You all know, we all know, that Ben is gay. Who here is comfortable being around him?” Demanding a response from each youth in the group, the Leader then said, “Do you understand that Ben is going to hell?” Once again, the Youth Leader pressed each youth for an answer about Ben. Crushed, exposed, and broken by the experience, Ben came home while his UMYF friends left on the bus for the Mission Trip. His mother, who stalwartly contends that their home church is a loving and supportive place, says that this was the trigger experience she believes led to the suicide of her son a few agonizing years later. Mrs. Wood writes:
“Ben was told that he was not worthy of going on the mission trip. He had been shamed, humiliated, and betrayed. He was told that he did not deserve to be a part of the group. He was no representative of God.
Out of our front window, I saw the goldish colored Caviler abruptly whip into our driveway. Ben ran up the porch steps and stood in the doorway. One look, and I knew, something horrible had happened. The flushed sides of his cheeks quivered as did his lip. His breathing was rapid and his eyes just about to spill over.
The church bus was loaded with Ben’s friends to go on that mission trip while my betrayed and broken son, walked alone around Salem Lake. He must have felt so very abandoned and isolated.
While he never lost his compassion for others, I think that this was the day that he gave up on people and God.”
Skeptics may argue that there is no clear correspondence between the suicide of a young gay man years after the shaming incident that took place in a church youth group in his teens. Others will say that the church is basically a loving and supportive place, but is put in a hard situation by teachings like those of the United Methodist Church that send an ambiguous, essentially rejecting message about lesbians and gay people. On the one hand, the social teachings of the church say that every person, including “homosexuals,” is of “sacred worth.” On the other, the United Methodist Church stubbornly rejects homosexuality as “incompatible” with Christian teaching–denying ordination and marriage to LGBT people, and defrocking their clergy who carry out same-sex marriage ceremonies, or who live openly as lesbian or gay people.
So, who stands guilty of Ben Wood’s death? The Youth Minister who was applying what he believed the teachings of his church on homosexuality to be? Ben’s so-called “friends” who one-by-one (under pressure from an adult leader, of course) abandoned Ben to shame and broken heartedness? The theologians and clergy of the church, who cannot seem to reconcile the love of God on the one hand, and social heterosexism and homophobia on the other? And what of Ben’s own responsibility to transcend the suffering of his youth–though this latter argument is little more than blaming a victim for his own demise?
Bens’ obituary says he was a genuine, complex, and worthwhile human being. The Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel records that Ben “was a member of Sedge Garden United Methodist Church and was a Junior at UNC-Asheville. Ben had a kind and loving soul, with a great sense of humor. He was particularly compassionate to the needs and struggles of others more than himself and was a great journalist. To his younger sisters, Ben was a great big brother who shared lots of walks in the creeks and scavenger hunts with their stuffed animals.” The obituary goes on to say that three clergy spoke at his funeral, and that his own maternal grandfather was a clergyman. But Ben found so little hospitality and comfort from the churches around him and the clergy who served them that he could not and did not reach out to them in his darkest hours. So, a sensitive, socially conscious young man, who happened to be gay and Christian, took his own life.
Dr. Stephen V. Sprinkle, Professor of Practical Theology at Brite Divinity School, and a native North Carolinian himself, issues this opinion and prayer for other young LGBT persons: “The churches and their leadership have much to answer for in the deaths of young people like Ben Wood. While we may not be able to point to a smoking gun linking the suicide of young persons condemned by church teachings to the culpability of the churches, there is no doubt that Christian heterosexism and homophobia contribute to the climate that denigrates LGBTQ people and creates undue suffering in their lives. Indeed, there are progressive and welcoming churches and clergy, and for them we give thanks. But they are too few, and the silence of church people about the prejudice condemning LGBTQ folk is a major contributing factor in the horror of spiritual violence against them.”
Dr. Sprinkle concludes: “Let us be crystal clear about this: the heterosexism and homophobia Ben Wood experienced in his life is a Christian heresy–one the churches and clergy of every stripe must find the courage to repent of and repudiate. And we must do everything we can to make amends to youth like Ben, and to their families.”
Seattle, Washington – Openly gay Mayor Ed Murray and Councilwoman Kshama Sawant were targeted with a cascade of hate-filled, anti-gay messages on Facebook on January 14–just nine days after they were sworn into office in Seattle. Now, a Magnolia man stands accused of cyberstalking and hate crimes because of his alleged homophobic tirades and threats, according to Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch. SPLC reports that King County prosecutors charge Michael Munro Taylor, 32, with threatening the life of Mayor Murray, the city’s first openly gay mayor, and Sawant, an outspoken socialist, in a torrent of incriminating emails sent to the city officials.
Plainville, Connecticut – A homophobic man has been arrested for repeatedly threatening to kill his lesbian sister on Christmas Day. Gordon Bissonnette, 46, of Plainville, Connecticut was reported to local police in the early hours of Christmas by his mother, according to Gay Star News. Clelie Bissonnette said her son had sworn to kill her lesbian daughter Corinne if she came to the holiday gathering at her home. His brother, Brian, also went to police with eight voicemails from Gordon recorded since the beginning of December, in which the 46-year-old said he would “execute” is sister if he saw her on Christmas.
Among the messages threatening to murder his sister, Gordon Bissonnette allegedly said:
“If she [expletive deleted] with my child again, I will execute her myself,” he said, according to the police report.
“Corinne, if she goes against me, there will be bullets flying. She cannot talk to me. I wanna execute her. I will kill a gay.”
He allegedly added: “I’ll put a bullet in both [Corinne's and her spouse's] heads. If they turn my daughter gay, I’m gonna kill them both. I’m gonna blow their brains out.”
According to FoxCT.com, Bissonnette believed his 18-year-old daughter was being adversely influenced by his sister and her spouse.
In yet another message, according to EDGE On The Net, Bissonnette declares that he is at “war” with his sister over her homosexuality, and asks his brother to help “destroy” their sister Corinne’s Christmas.
Investigators reported to the press that Bissonnette admitted to the voicemails, but claimed he didn’t recall making them because of his heavy drinking. The police report also details how Bissonnette confessed to planning a smoke bomb attack on the home of his sister and her spouse during the holidays to cause them “to freak out.” Bissonnette is charged with second-degree intimidation, second-degree threatening and second-degree harassment. He is being held on $75,000 bond, pending trial in Bristol Superior Court on January 24.
San Diego, California – A gay man who was brutally beaten with a ball bat across the face in the Hillcrest Neighborhood of San Diego used to feel gay people were safe in San Diego. No more. Dwayne Wynn, walking along the sidewalk at midnight Monday was targeted for being gay by three men who pulled up behind him in a truck and ambushed him with a ball bat, crushing his eye socket and smashing his ribs. 10News.com interviewed a tearful Wynn in his home, still obviously shaken by his ordeal. Wynn told News10 that he heard an anti-gay slur shouted behind him, and then was struck full in the face with the bat. “The last thing I see is a baseball bat being swapped right across the face,” he said. “I was laying there,” said Wynn. “I was covered in blood and I could hear them literally high fiving each other as they’re walking to their truck.” It all happened so quickly that Wynn could not get an accurate description of the men who assaulted him or the vehicle they were driving. “I thought I was dead,” he said, trembling from emotion. “I’ve never been that scared in my entire life. I literally thought I was going to die. I thought they were going to kill me. They were beating me that bad.”
The spree nature of the attack in the heart of Hillcrest, the San Diego neighborhood noted for “tolerance and acceptance” sends a wake up call to the residents of the large, active LGBTQ community there, reminding them that diversity is not the same thing as equality. “They just didn’t stop and they thought it was a game,” Wynn said, according to EDGE. “They thought it was fun.”
Unfinished Lives author, Dr. Stephen V. Sprinkle, commented that major metropolitan LGBTQ communities have been lulled into a sense of complacency by recent news of marriage equality victories throughout the nation. ”Cities like San Diego pride themselves in diversity and tolerance,” Sprinkle said, “but that doesn’t mean queer folk are safe anywhere they live. Just because you live in a bubble, you do not live in a culture that accepts and defends your right to exist and be secure from harm.” Sprinkle, an LGBTQ hate crimes expert, noted that a prominent gay bookstore in Hillcrest was contacted to host a book signing and discussion on anti-LGBTQ hate crimes for the upcoming Martin Luther King Weekend, but the store management declined since the issue did not seem pressing. “Now, with this gruesome crime in the heart of the ‘gayborhood,’ perhaps anti-gay hate crimes are a bit more real in San Diego,” Sprinkle observed. “We are thankful complacency has not cost anyone his or her life there,” he said.
The Hillcrest neighborhood, just north of famous Balboa Park, hosts the largest civic celebration in San Diego each year, the Pride Festival, drawing thousands. Dwayne Wynn used to feel safe and secure in his neighborhood. Now, he and many others do not, due to a group of homophobic men who are still at large, hunting down gay men.
Lincoln, Nebraska – Two lesbians were attacked Thursday by a man wielding a crowbar for supposedly shaming his family. When the attack failed, he and his friend rammed the women’s car with a pickup truck, attempting to push the women’s vehicle into oncoming traffic. KLKN TV reports that Ahmed Tuma and his accomplice, Nathan Marks, both 20 years of age, took offense when Tuma’s sister announced she was a lesbian, and became engaged to her fiancée. Tuma allegedly believed his sister’s relationship with a woman shamed his family, enraging him to the point he enlisted Marks to accompany him on an ambush. Prior to the attack, Tuma had made death threats against his sister. Lincoln Police Department spokesperson Officer Katie Flood confirmed, “They were in fear for their lives, he had made some verbal threats to kill the sister.”
Gay Star News says that the lesbians had pulled their car near their home, and had just gotten out to enter the house at approximately 5 p.m. on Thursday when Tuma rushed them, brandishing a crowbar. The women escaped back to the safety of their car just as the brother swung the weapon. They frantically tried to start the car as Tuma hit the vehicle’s windows repeatedly, trying to smash them out. When the lesbians succeeded in starting their car, Tuma rushed back to Marks’s pickup, and the two men rammed their victims’ auto in an apparent attempt to push it into the traffic speeding by. The couple was able to get away from their assailants, and called police.
Police arrested Tuma for attempted 2nd degree assault, criminal mischief, two counts of terroristic threats and use of a weapon to commit a felony. All of the charges except use of a weapon carry a hate crime enhancement. Marks was arrested and charged with aiding and abetting a terroristic threat, and aiding and abetting the use of a deadly weapon to commit a felony. Both men have been arraigned, and will stand trial for the hate crimes in a Lincoln court.
Oakland, California – An 18-year-old teen who identifies as “non-binary” or “gender-neutral” was set on fire Monday evening as he slept soundly in the rear of an AC Transit bus. Luke “Sasha” Fleischman, a popular student at Berkeley’s Maybeck High School, suffered second and third degree burns on his legs when a 16-year-old assailant set a skirt Fleischman was wearing alight. Passengers on board the bus aided Fleischman in extinguishing the stubborn flames. The attacker, Richard Thomas, who was arrested Tuesday on the campus of Oakland High School, now admits that his feelings of homophobia led him to try and burn the sleeping teen alive.
NBC Bay Area News reports that anger at the attacker and compassion for Fleischman emerged quickly as news of the attack spread throughout the East Bay area. Fleischman, whose mother told the Bay Area Newsgroup that her child felt comfortable wearing female-identified clothing such as a skirt, has long understood himself to be gender neutral. “My son considers himself agender,” Debbie Fleischman said. “He likes to wear a skirt. It’s his statement. That’s how he feels comfortable dressing.” The teenager’s cousin, 25-year-old Tara Young, a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, said “I don’t care what he was wearing, You don’t light someone on fire.”
Rushed to the Burn Center at San Francisco’s St. Francis Memorial Hospital, Fleischman underwent surgery on his legs Wednesday. Donations have poured in to help defray the cost of his medical care, topping $20,000 in a matter of hours. Hospital officials confirmed that the teenager will need to undergo painful skin grafts and “several surgeries.”
Meanwhile, his attacker, 16-year-old Richard Thomas, who had been arrested and initially charged with assault with a deadly weapon and mayhem, is now being fully charged for each count as a bias-motivated hate crime after admitting his intense homophobic feelings motivated him to set his victim’s clothing on fire. KQED News reports that Alameda County law enforcement officials, who acknowledge the attack on Fleischman was motivated by anti-queer hatred, are charging Thomas as an adult. The Oakland Tribune interviewed lead Police Investigator in the case, Anwawm Jones, who confirmed, “During (the) suspect interview, the suspect stated he did it because he was homophobic.” Oakland District Attorney Nancy O’Malley told The Tribune that Thomas’s “violent and senseless criminal conduct resulted in severe and traumatic injuries to a young and entirely innocent victim,” and went on to say, “The intentional and callous nature of the crime is shocking and will not be tolerated in our community. Our thoughts remain with the victim and the victim’s family in wishing for a full recovery from the extensive burns suffered as a result of this crime.”
Felony aggravated assault carries a possible life sentence with a possibility of parole, the assault charge has a maximum penalty of eight years in prison, and each count of hate crime enhancement adds a year in prison, according to the Alameda District Attorney’s Office.
“Sasha” Fleischman represents an emerging group of youth who do not fit into the male/female binary, some of whom consider themselves gender-neutral, agender, or genderqueer. According to his parents, Sasha came out as agender two years ago, and became politically active in order to carve out a place in American consciousness for youth like himself. He gathered over 27,000 signatures on a petition with which he attempt to draw President Obama’s attention to the issue, as reported by the San Jose Mercury News.
The Advocate reports that the gay men were beaten, dragged by their hair, and threatened with a knife. Malone, who lost a tooth in the attack, said one of the assailants slashed at his stomach and his head with a knife, intending to stab him. ”He swung it at my stomach and then swung it back up at my face,” Malone said. In a defensive move, Malone kicked off the stiletto heels he was wearing, and used them to back the attackers off.
In their interview with KATU, the three men vividly recalled the chaos and fear they felt as their assailants pressed their assault:
“I was on the ground and they reached over and punched him in the face.”
“All I saw was blood all over his mouth.”
“I was in shock. I felt my tooth go into my tongue and I spit it out onto the ground.”
“All I remember is hearing somebody yell there was a knife.”
“He swung it at my stomach and then swung it back up at my face.”
A passing cyclist aided the victims, and the gang of attackers ran from the scene, leaving the trio scarred, bruised, and shaken, but thankful they were not injured more seriously from the sudden, savage assault. Hundreds from the community have responded with messages of support and comfort to the victims, and have donated money to help with medical expenses. In one overwhelming expression of generosity, a local dentist replaced Malone’s broken tooth with a temporary replacement, and pledged to complete the permanent dental replacement later.
Hughes, Malone, and Miller reported the attack as an anti-gay hate crime, but they are not optimistic about anyone being apprehended and charged in the case. They understand that their costumes were provocative, and that some might not appreciate their taste, but they never imagined that irrational hatred could turn the evening so brutal. All three gay men are clear, however, that nothing they did provoked the attack, and they are determined to remain strong and proud in their gender presentations and identities. As Malone told EDGE Boston, they are not going to let this experience change who they are, “Not even for a second.”