Unfinished Lives

Remembering LGBT Hate Crime Victims

Remembering Barry Winchell

Barry Winchell horizontal

Today marks the ninth anniversary of the death of hate crime victim Barry Winchell. He served in the United States Army and held the rank of Private First Class. Following a period of ongoing harassment directed at Winchell for having dated a transsexual showgirl, fellow soldier Calvin Glover used a baseball bat to bludgeon Winchell as he slept on a cot in the barracks of Fort Campbell. Winchell died of massive head injuries the following day.

Winchell’s brutal murder prompted President Bill Clinton to review the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military policy, which many cite as a factor in the hate crime.

Today we remember Barry Winchell, and in our memory we restore to him the dignity and respect belonging to every person, regardless of sexual orientation.

July 6, 2008 Posted by | Anglo Americans, Bludgeoning, Don't Tell (DADT), gay men, harassment, Kentucky, military, Perpetrators of Hate Crime, Politics, Remembrances, U.S. Army | , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is History: We Must Not Forget Its Cost

Washington, D.C. – Today marks the advent of full repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the 1993 law making gay and lesbian servicemembers liable for discharge if they admitted their sexual orientation.  While there will be celebrations and night watch parties throughout the nation marking this historic day in the struggle for LGBTQ equality, we cannot afford to forget the terrible cost anti-gay discrimination has wrought in the Armed Forces of the United States.  So, today, we lift up the lives and patriotic service of four gay men who died because of the ignorance and bigotry of other servicemembers, and the systemic bigotry of the services themselves which at best permitted these murders, and at worst encouraged them.

Seaman August Provost of Houston, Texas, was shot to death on duty in a Camp Pendleton guard shack, and his remains were burned to erase the evidence of the deed on June 30, 2009 in San Diego, California. He had recently complained to his family that a fellow servicemember was harassing him because of his sexual orientation.  He feared speaking with his superiors about the harassment because of the threat of discharge due to DADT.  His partner in life, Kaether Cordero of Houston, said, “People who he was friends with, I knew that they knew. He didn’t care that they knew. He trusted them.”  Seaman Provost joined the Navy in 2008 to gain benefits to finish school, where he was studying to become an architectural engineer.

Private First Class Michael Scott Goucher, a veteran of the Iraq War, was murdered near his home in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, on February 4, 2009 by an assailant who stabbed him at least twenty times. Known locally as “Mike on a Bike” by neighbors and friends, Goucher was an assistant organist for a congregation of the United Church of Christ, and Captain of the neighborhood Crime Watch.  He also was a selectively closeted gay man, hiding his sexual orientation from his community. Goucher survived deployment in Iraq, only to meet death at the hands of homophobes back home.

Private First Class Barry Winchell of Kansas City, Missouri, was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat as he slept in his barracks by a member of his unit at Fort Campbell, Kentucky on July 6, 1999.  Winchell had fallen in love with a transgender woman, Calpurnia Adams, who lived in Nashville, Tennessee.  In the fallout from his murder, President Bill Clinton ordered a review of DADT, which resulted in the addition of a “Don’t Harass” amendment to the policy, but little else. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, who represented Winchell’s parents in litigation with the U.S. Army, demanded to know who in the upper ranks of Fort Campbell knew of the murder and its subsequent cover up.  The commandant of the fort was promoted over the objections of many human rights advocates. Winchell’s story has been immortalized by the 2003 film, “Soldier’s Girl.”

Petty Officer Third Class Allen R. Schindler Jr. of Chicago Heights, Illinois was murdered on October 27, 1992 in a public toilet on base in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan. His killer was a shipmate who despised Schindler for being gay. He had been outed while on board the U.S.S. Belleau Wood, and was supposedly under the protection of his superiors until he could be separated from the service.  Schindler had called his mother to tell her to expect him home by Christmas.  Instead, the Navy shipped his savaged remains home to Chicago Heights before Thanksgiving.  The only way family members could identify his remains was by a tattoo of the U.S.S. Midway on his forearm.  Otherwise, he was beaten so brutally that his uncle, sister, and mother could not tell he was their boy.  Schindler’s murder was presented as a reason DADT should never have been enacted, but authorities in Washington brushed his story aside and enacted the ban against gays in the military anyway. Schindler’s story is told at length in Unfinished Lives: Reviving the Memories of LGBTQ Hate Crimes Victims, authored by the founder of the Unfinished Lives Project, Dr. Stephen Sprinkle.

We at Unfinished Lives celebrate the repeal of DADT tonight with thanksgiving for the courage of lesbian and gay servicemembers who chose to serve their country in the military though their country chose not to honor them.  More than 13,500 women and men were drummed out of the service under DADT.  But in addition to the thousands who faced discharge and shame, we cannot forget, we must not forget, the brave souls who died at the hands of irrational hatred and ignorance–the outworking of a blatantly discriminatory policy that never should have blighted the annals of American history.  The four lives we remember here are representative of hundreds, perhaps thousands more, whose stories demonstrate the lengths to which institutions and governments will go to preserve homophobia and heterosexism.  We will remember with thanksgiving our gay and lesbian dead, for to forget them would be to contribute to the ills wrought by DADT.

September 20, 2011 Posted by | African Americans, Anglo Americans, anti-LGBT hate crime murder, Beatings and battery, Blame the victim, Bludgeoning, California, DADT, Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT), gay bashing, gay men, GLBTQ, gun violence, harassment, Hate Crimes, Heterosexism and homophobia, Illinois, immolation, Kentucky, Latino and Latina Americans, Law and Order, Lesbian women, LGBTQ, military, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Perpetrators of Hate Crime, Protests and Demonstrations, Remembrances, Repeal of DADT, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, Slashing attacks, Slurs and epithets, Social Justice Advocacy, stabbings, Stomping and Kicking Violence, Tennessee, Texas, transgender persons, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Marines, U.S. Navy, Vigils, Washington, D.C. | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is History: We Must Not Forget Its Cost

DADT Repeal Certification Friday, July 22nd, But at What Cost to LGBTQ Americans? A Special Comment

Pfc. Barry Winchell's grave

Both CNN and the San Diego Union-Tribune are reporting tonight that final certification of DADT repeal will take place Friday in Washington, D.C.  But our celebrations are sobered at the Unfinished Lives Project by the magnitude of the cost to the LGBTQ community in servicemembers’ lives and careers in order to get to this landmark moment. When Secretary Leon Panetta signs the documents of certification at the Pentagon, signifying that the chiefs of the Armed Services have previously reported to him that full and open service by gay, lesbian, and bisexual soldiers, sailors, marines, airwomen and airmen, national guardsmen and women, and coast guardsmen and women poses no threat or harm to the morale, unit cohesion, or mission readiness of the Armed Forces, a giant step toward full equality for LGBTQ people will be made.  Seventeen years of the most oppressive and blatantly discriminatory anti-gay policy in contemporary memory will be over; but not before the incalculable cost of the lives of queer servicemembers who died before seeing this day dawn. At the Unfinished Lives Project, we have invoked the names and stories of some of them: Petty Officer Allen R. Schindler, U.S. Navy; Pfc. Barry Winchell, U.S. Army; Pfc. Michael Scott Goucher, U.S. Army Reserve; Seaman August Provost, U.S. Navy.  May they and all the others they represent rest in peace! These patriots died outrageous deaths at the hands of hatred and unreasoning bias, enabled by a military culture that either encouraged violence against suspected LGB servicemembers, or at the very least turned a blind eye toward such violence. Celebration of repeal is in order, and celebrate we will. The dead are honored by this act of justice, signifying that they have not died in vain. But we will also be mindful that no stroke of a pen, even one so powerful as the one wielded by the Secretary of Defense, will eliminate homophobia and heterosexism in the Armed Services. Ships, barracks, and foreign fields of service will be haunted with the hatred that has been passed down from generation to generation of American military personnel. Backlash is in full swing, as we have seen most graphically among right-wing conservative military chaplains whose appeals to exempt their anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and teachings as freedom of religion served to be the last bastion of “homophobia-masquerading-as-liberty” in the armed services. Thankfully, as certification on Friday shows, the vast majority of servicemembers of all ranks reject discrimination for what it truly is: un-American. In memory of all our LGBTQ servicemembers (of all faiths and faith-free, as the case may be) who have died in part or in full because of the ravages of hate crimes, we dedicate a portion of Fr. Thomas Merton’s most famous poem, written in memory of his brother, John Paul, killed in action in World War II, entitled, “For My Brother, Reported Missing In Action, 1943” [The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton, New Directions, 1977, p. 35-36]:
:

When all the men of war are shot

And flags have fallen into dust,

Your cross and mine shall tell men still

Christ died on each for both of us.

For in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain,

And Christ weeps in the ruins of my spring:

The money of Whose tears shall fall

Into your weak and friendless hand,

And buy you back to your own land:

The silence of Whose tears shall fall

Like bells upon your alien tomb.

Hear them and come: they call you home.

July 22, 2011 Posted by | African Americans, Anglo Americans, anti-LGBT hate crime murder, Asian Americans, Bisexual persons, Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT), gay men, GLBTQ, Hate Crimes, Heterosexism and homophobia, Latino and Latina Americans, Legislation, Lesbian women, LGBTQ, military, Military Chaplaincy, National Guard, religious intolerance, Remembrances, Social Justice Advocacy, Special Comments, transgender persons, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Marines, U.S. Navy, Vigils, Washington, D.C. | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Unfinished Lives Book Debuts in DC and Dallas

Interfaith Peace Chapel on the Campus of Cathedral of Hope, Dallas, Texas

Washington DC – Unfinished Lives: Reviving the Memories of LGBTQ Hate Crimes Victims, made its debut at the annual meeting of the Forum on the Military Chaplaincy this past Friday. Dr. Stephen Sprinkle will kick off a series of book signing events nationally, beginning with a lecture, panel discussion, book signing and reception at the Interfaith Peace Chapel on the campus of the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, Texas, next Sunday, March 27. The Cathedral of Hope, a congregation of the United Church of Christ, is the world’s largest LGBTQ-predominant faith community. Members of the Forum on the Military Chaplaincy, meeting at the headquarters of the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, received the book with enthusiasm. Dr. Sprinkle was a guest at the 19th Annual Servicemembers Legal Defense Network Dinner, held at the National Building Museum on F Street. A stellar gathering of LGBTQ heroes and their allies celebrated the Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and honored two mothers of gay servicemembers who were murdered because of their sexual orientation. Dorothy Hajdys-Clausen of Chicago Heights, Illinois, the mother of slain sailor Allen R. Schindler, and Pat Kuteles of Kansas City, Missouri, mother of murdered soldier Barry Winchell, were given a standing ovation.  A chapter on Schindler, “Hell to Pay on the Belleau Wood,” is in Unfinished Lives, and Winchell has been featured in this blog repeatedly. A panel discussion is planned for the March 27th book signing event at the Interfaith Peace Chapel in response to a short lecture by Dr. Sprinkle.  Dr. Keri Day, Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics and Director of Brite Divinity School’s Black Church Studies Program, Pastor Alex Byrd of Living Faith Covenant Church of Dallas, and Colonel Paul Dodd, U.S. Army  Chaplain (Ret) of Austin will be on the panel. The event is scheduled from 3:30 until 5:30 pm.  Dr. Sprinkle will be signing his book following the 9 am and the 11 am services at the Cathedral that morning in the Sources of Hope Bookstore. Cathedral of Hope is located at 5910 Cedar Springs Road in Dallas. For more information about the book signings on Sunday, March 27, contact Sue Schrader at sschrader@cathedralofhope.com, or Brian Parman at bparman@cathedralofhope.com.

March 20, 2011 Posted by | anti-LGBT hate crime murder, Cathedral of Hope, Forum on the Military Chaplaincy, gay men, Hate Crimes, Heterosexism and homophobia, Human Rights Campaign, Human Rights Campaign Religion and Faith Program, Illinois, Lesbian women, military, Military Chaplaincy, Missouri, Remembrances, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, Social Justice Advocacy, Texas, transgender persons, transphobia, U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, Unfinished Lives Book Signings, Washington, D.C. | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Unfinished Lives Book Debuts in DC and Dallas

President Signs DADT Repeal: What This Means for America’s LGBTQ Community

Washington, D.C. – In a breakthrough moment for the LGBTQ community, President Barack Obama signed the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell into law today.  The ceremony was held in the Interior Department to accommodate a large and emotional crowd of witnesses to the making of American history.  The meaning of this moment will unfold and grow over time.  But this much at least may be said now: LGBTQ Americans have moved one significant step closer to full equality because of this political victory.  The President noted that while the struggle to repeal DADT has gone on for nearly two decades, this day is a culmination of untold sacrifice and heroism on the part of LGBTQ servicemembers and their families for over 200 years.  From the American Revolution to the current Iraqi and Afghan conflicts, gay and lesbian patriots have fought for the freedoms they themselves have not fully known.  Most of their service has been hidden in the anonymity of history for obvious reasons.  To serve openly as gay was not tolerated in the American armed forces. The darker side of this history is the story of untold thousands who have been persecuted, harassed, harmed, and killed because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender presentation.  The Unfinished Lives Project and other efforts have sought to chronicle some of these stories: Army PFC Barry Winchell, Petty Officer Allen R. Schindler, Seaman August Provost, and Army veteran Michael Scott Goucher, to name but a few.  Not only have the battlefields of the world been consecrated with the blood of LGBTQ American servicemembers.  The closets of the military in all branches of the service are likewise battlegrounds stained with queer blood.  The signature of President Obama should not become a coda to their memory.  If anything, this moment should give the LGBTQ community added impetus to remember and honor our war dead–both on the battlefield of honor and on the battlefields of American prejudice.  This moment is fraught with religious and theological significance, as well.  Now that this landmark legislation for human rights and dignity is the law of the land, the recalcitrant majority of conservative military chaplains must choose to fulfill their pledge of service to all the nation’s soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and guardsmen. Human rights and dignity are a prophetic dimensions of all the advance theologies of the world since time immemorial, but the savage side of religion has often displaced God’s favor for all people with a purist extremism that honors neither God or country. The crucial choice now is in the lap of the fundamentalist military chaplaincy, who have discounted the good service of LGBTQ women and men for decades, and the religious righteousness of their chaplaincy peers who have embraced LGBTQ servicemembers as children of God.  It is time for the fundamentalist chaplains in the armed services, including the chiefs of chaplains in the Army, Navy, and Air Force to either salute smartly and comply with the law, or take their pensions and go.  The choice is theirs.  The moderate and progressive religious communities in this nation are faced with another type of challenge.  They must re-evaluate their stance toward military service, and remove institutional and ecclesial impediments to honorable service.  Seminaries on the theological left will need to open their doors for training the next generation of military chaplains.  For the LGBTQ community generally, the call of this day is to become a more mature and reasoned community among the peoples of this nation.  Nothing has changed for military servicemembers yet, nor will it for quite some time, until the law can be implemented throughout the armed forces.  There will be continued bias and discrimination against queer folk in the military by the military.  But LGBTQ people are now offered a renewed sense of who we are: strong, proud, sacrificial, patriotic, and peace-loving–all at the same time.  This is a red-letter day in American history, and a rainbow-colored day in the struggle for full LGBTQ equality.

December 22, 2010 Posted by | African Americans, Anglo Americans, anti-LGBT hate crime murder, Bisexual persons, DADT, Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT), gay men, harassment, Hate Crimes, Heterosexism and homophobia, Latino and Latina Americans, Legislation, Lesbian women, military, Military Chaplaincy, Native Americans, Politics, religious intolerance, Remembrances, Repeal of DADT, Social Justice Advocacy, Special Comments, transgender persons, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, U.S. Marines, U.S. Navy, Washington, D.C. | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on President Signs DADT Repeal: What This Means for America’s LGBTQ Community

Repeal and Remembrance: Gay Military Martyrs and the End of DADT

Fallen Military Servicemembers

Washington, DC – On a red letter day when lawmakers voted to end the most notorious anti-gay policy in the federal canon, LGBT servicemembers and veterans who have been murdered because of their sexual and gender non-conformity must not be forgotten during the celebrations over passage of repeal of DADT.  In a historic vote in the history of the human rights movement, the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to end the ban on LGBT patriots from serving openly in the armed services of the United States.  Saturday afternoon, 65 Senators voted for repeal with 31 in opposition. A simple majority of 51 was all that was required for passage of the Senate bill, which is identical to the one passed earlier in the week  by the House of Representatives. Eight GOP Senators joined their Democratic colleagues to pass the repeal of the 17-year-old discriminatory policy that ended the military careers of 13,500 women and men because of their sexual orientation. Joe Manchin, the freshman Senator for West Virginia, was the only Democrat not voting for passage.  According to the New York Times, his office informed the public that he had a “family commitment” he could not break.The bill now goes to President Obama for his signature to set the repeal in motion.  GOP opponents of the repeal criticized the Democratic leadership of the Senate for the vote in the lame duck session just before the Holiday recess.  Senator Carl Levin, the chair of the Senate Armed Service Committee, disputed the Republican claims that Democrats were ramming legislation through just to please the so-called “gay lobby.” In remarks to the New York Times, Senator Levin (D-Michigan) said: “I’m not here for partisan reasons. I’m here because men and women wearing the uniform of the United States who are gay and lesbian have died for this country, because gay and lesbian men and women wearing the uniform of this country have their lives on the line right now.” Yet it is not only for the living that this vote is significant. Our military dead are honored by this historic vote to end anti-LGBT discrimination, among whom are far too many gay servicemembers who were killed because of their sexual orientation. Our gay military martyrs, murdered because of homophobia, heterosexism, and transphobia in the armed services loom large in the memory of the LGBTQ community today because they are both a sign of hope and caution. They are a sign of hope that no more women and men need lose their lives in the military because of their sexual orientation and gender presentation. They are a sign of caution, because the passage of DADT repeal in no way guarantees the end of anti-gay violence in the military.  We must name our LGBT military dead until violence against queer servicemembers ceases forever: Seaman Allen Schindler was beaten to death by shipmates in a public toilet in Sasebo, Japan. PFC Barry Winchell was murdered with a baseball bat in the Army barracks at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Seaman August Provost was shot to death on base in San Diego, and then his body was set afire in a guard shack in the vain attempt to destroy evidence of the murder. Army veteran Michael Scott Goucher was lured into a fatal ambush by local youths near his home in Pennsylvania. These four are representative of the many more slaughtered by ignorance and hate by fellow servicemembers and civilians. Pundits say that after President Obama signs the Repeal Act into law, it will still take at least sixty days for the military ban to be lifted for LGBT military personnel. Until that time, the current discriminatory law stays in effect. But the culture of violence that harasses and kills LGBT women and men who wear the uniform remains virulently poised to take more lives until the root of fear is eliminated in the armed services.  To that end, the historic passage of the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is simply the beginning of a new campaign, in the name of our gay military martyrs, to replace the fear and loathing of the sexual minority with education and respect.

December 19, 2010 Posted by | African Americans, Anglo Americans, anti-LGBT hate crime murder, Asian Americans, Bisexual persons, Bludgeoning, California, DADT, Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT), gay men, gun violence, harassment, Hate Crimes, hate crimes prevention, Heterosexism and homophobia, Illinois, immolation, Kentucky, Latino and Latina Americans, Law and Order, Legislation, Lesbian women, military, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Perpetrators of Hate Crime, Politics, Remembrances, Special Comments, Texas, transgender persons, transphobia, U.S. Army, U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Marines, U.S. Navy, U.S. Senate, Washington, D.C. | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Repeal and Remembrance: Gay Military Martyrs and the End of DADT

Remembering the Mothers of Our Dead: A Special Comment

Pat Mulder at her son Ryan's graveside (photo credit unknown)

Mother’s Day is just around the corner.  For the women who have lost children to the unreasoning hatred of LGBT hate crimes, this may be the most trying holiday of the year.  Perhaps it is because I have met so many of them in the course of my travels and research, but I feel a particular debt of gratitude for the courage and loving tenacity of such great women, everyday, of course, but on this day of the year most of all.  I cannot tell you how much I admire these mothers, and the other women related by blood ties and choice to the women and men who died because of hatred.  All of them: the ones who kept their griefs private and out of the public eye, as well as those who found their voices to speak out for justice and against hate.  But is especially for those mothers and grandmothers, aunts and sisters who have become advocates for us that I feel a keener debt of gratitude.  None of these remarkable women dreamed they would ever become advocates for LGBT rights.  Outrageous fortune and the deeds of malevolent ignorance forced them to face the worst prospect a mother could possibly face: the loss of a child to hate crime violence.  All they wanted to do was grow old loving the children they brought into the world.  But the long, crooked arm of homophobia and transphobia reached into their family circles and broke those circles apart.  One by one, these brave women have found their voices, raised them in courtrooms, on the steps of city halls, in PFLAG meetings, at Pride events and vigils, before the glare of television klieg lights, and in the halls of Congress.  These are the redoubtable women who refuse to let us forget their children, and refuse to let themselves or us rest until justice for everybody’s child finally comes to pass in this nation.  They are the staunchest allies the LGBT community has, becoming the mothers of queer kids everywhere. Since they come from out of every class, religious tradition, ethnic background, status cohort, racial group, and region of the country, no single woman can possibly sum up them all.  But when Elke Kennedy speaks out in South Carolina for her son, Sean, when Pauline Mitchell appeals to us not to forget her two spirit boy, F.C. in her Navajo gentleness, when Billy Jack Gaither’s sister Kathy Jo pushes her scooter chair toward the podium in Montgomery, Alabama, and when Pat Kuteles refuses to let the U.S. Army get off lightly for the death of her dear Barry, somehow all the women united by such pain gather with them and stand beside them.  When Sylvia Guerrero, mother of transwoman Gwen Araujo, spoke in October 2009 on what would have been her daughter’s 25th birthday, she called upon us to honor our LGBT dead by reaching out to bring about a better world, “Light a candle, release a balloon, or do a good deed for someone less fortunate than yourself.  Thank you for keeping [Gwen’s] memory alive after 7 years” (Examiner.com).  The least that we can do is to honor the witness of these remarkable women by joining the struggle of justice and remembrance ourselves…and then one thing more.  We can reach out to these women with our love, as a Psychology Today article suggests we do: “People get so uncomfortable and often feel the need to ‘error on the side of caution’ so as to not upset the person they care so much about. This, however, often leaves the mom simply feeling forgotten. A card, a phone call – even an email – wishing her a happy Mother’s Day can go farther than you could ever know. While she’s on her own path of redefining where she now “fits” on this day, you are helping her to know. She fits where every other mother fits – in the spotlight. She’s still a mom, and she still needs to know that she is viewed this way by everyone else.”

Pat Mulder, Ryan Skipper’s mom, once told me that for a grieving mother who buried her slain child, “there is no closure.”  She and her husband, Lynn, soldier on, turning their sorrow into advocacy, wrapping their arms around gay and lesbian kids wherever they go to let them know everyone deserves to be remembered and loved.  On this Mother’s Day, reach out to the women (and men} who have borne so much, and remind them with acts of loving kindness that like their children, they, too, are not forgotten.  ~ Stephen Sprinkle, Director of the Unfinished Lives Project

May 8, 2010 Posted by | anti-LGBT hate crime murder, Condolences, Hate Crimes, Heterosexism and homophobia, Protests and Demonstrations, Remembrances, Social Justice Advocacy, transphobia, Uncategorized, Vigils | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The End of the Beginning: How the Passage of the Matthew Shepard Act Transforms Us

shepard_smallResearching LGBT hate crimes for four years has changed my life.  Now that the passage of the Matthew Shepard Act is imminent, I feel another sort of change coming: to my work, to the LGBTQ community, and to my country.  For decades, families, loved ones, law enforcement officers, and social justice advocates have prayed for, labored for, and agitated for a federal law extending protection to queer folk victimized by anti-LGBT violence.  Tens of thousands of Americans, straight and gay, have labored tirelessly for this result.  Our well-practiced shoulders are again set to the task, and with one more great heave, the first major expansion of legal protection against physical harm for vulnerable Americans in the 21st century will make it across the finish line.  The end of the beginning has come at last.  No more than that, and no less.

The dead are beyond further physical harm.  So many hundreds have died at the hands of the ignorant, the malicious, and the sincerely bigoted.  Gay Charlie Howard drowned in Bangor, Maine.  Lesbian Talana Kreeger, manually disemboweled in Wilmington, North Carolina. Navajo Two-Spirit youth, F.C. Martinez, Jr., brained with a 25-pound rock in a blind canyon in Cortez, Colorado.  African American transwoman, Duanna Johnson, shot down in a Memphis, Tennessee alley.  Pfc. Barry Winchell, murdered by a fellow soldier with a baseball bat at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, on the suspicion that he was gay.  And the archetype of them all, young Matthew Shepard, pistol-whipped into a coma and left to die, tied to the foot of a buck fence in Laramie, Wyoming.  For every victim whose name is remembered, scores of anonymous others have died, their agonies unreported, their names forgotten.

What will change for all these victims of hate, once the Shepard Act becomes law?  And, what about their families, lovers and spouses—what will change for them?

For the dead, the change will come subtly, like a gift of dignity.  The Shepard Act is not only for the living.  Those who have died at the hands of hatred will finally receive a measure of vindication.  No longer will they be merely the debris of social history.  Their stories will be told with renewed passion, and more and more people will want to know who they were.  Their lives will take on a greater sense of meaning to the LGBTQ community, who will find encouragement to embrace these dead as their own—just as blacks, Jews, and other besieged peoples have embraced their fallen friends and family members.  As these LGBTQ victims have become my teachers in my quest to recover their stories and the meaning of their lives, the queer community will find new strength for justice by remembering them.

For the families and loved ones of these victims, perhaps a measure of peace will come at last.  Their loss, of course, is incalculable.  Their pain is beyond reckoning.  I have seen the furrows in their brows, the lingering sadness in their eyes.  As Ryan Skipper’s mother Pat said to me, there is no closure for her and those like her.  The change will come, I suspect, with a sense of honor, and a quiet assurance that their beloved will have not died in vain.  When the Shepard Act finally passes, I will think first of all about the valiant witness of the mothers—women who never sought the spotlight, but who fought back tears to learn how to speak out for their children and for everyone else’s children.  Signing day in President Obama’s office will be most of all for Judy Shepard, Pat Mulder, Elke Kennedy, Pauline Mitchell, Denise King, Kathy Jo Gaither and everyone else whose flesh and blood have consecrated the moment of passage.

Those who believe in justice will feel the change, too.  The LGBTQ community will be challenged to mature and take their place among communities of survivors, witnesses who understand that it takes hard work to make hope become real for everyone.  At the stroke of a pen, the entire LGBTQ community will experience the greatest lift since the Stonewall Rebellion forty years ago.  But that will not be all.  The America I know and love will encounter change on the day the Shepard Act becomes law, too.  Summoned by the angel of justice, the American people will face the challenge to make the promise of the Constitution come true for their transgender, gay, bi, and lesbian neighbors and friends.

Passage and signing the Matthew Shepard Act into law will not magically stop the killing.  Record numbers of LGBTQ Americans, especially young transgender people of color, are dying violently all across the land.  But the high water mark of hatred will be scotched with the stroke of a pen on the day President Obama keeps his promise and signs the bill.  The end of the beginning of full equality for my people will come.  And we who believe in justice will not rest until it comes.

~ Stephen V. Sprinkle, Director of the Unfinished Lives Project

October 16, 2009 Posted by | Hate Crimes, Legislation, Matthew Shepard Act, Politics, Remembrances, Social Justice Advocacy, Washington, D.C. | , , , , , | 3 Comments

For Courageous Mothers of LGBT Murder Victims, There is No Closure

Pat and Lynn Mulder at USF, Stephen Coddington photo for the Times

Pat and Lynn Mulder at USF, Stephen Coddington photo for the Times

Families of LGBT hate crimes murder victims are on the front lines of grief and loss when a homophobic attack takes the life of someone they love.  This is especially true of their mothers.  That powerful truth was driven home for me again by learning of Pat and Lynn Mulder’s courageous appearance at the Hate Crimes Awareness Summit held this week at the University of South Florida.  Pat shared the story of how her beloved son, Ryan Keith Skipper, lived and died at the hands of brutal, anti-gay attackers in rural Polk County Florida on March 14, 2007.  The popular 25-year-old Skipper was stabbed over 19 times, and left to bleed out on a lonely dirt road in Wahneta, a rural town in the Winter Haven region. One of his murderers, Joseph “Smiley” Bearden has been sentenced to life without parole earlier this year, and a second alleged killer, William D. “Bill Bill” Brown is to stand trial on October 12.  Reporting on the Summit, Alexandra Zayas of the St. Petersburg Times, relates how Pat had to overcome her reluctance and nervousness about speaking in front of crowds about the worst tragedy in her family’s history.  “The worst thing in the world that can happen to you has already happened. There’s nothing else to be afraid of.”  Speaking with passion and the conviction that no family should ever have to endure what hers has, Pat and her husband Lynn have tirelessly reached out to others bereaved by unreasoning hatred.  Barely a year after her son’s murder, Pat traveled to Fort Lauderdale to see Denise King, mother of African American youth Simmie Williams, Jr., who was shot for being transgender by attackers who have not yet been identified or apprehended.  At at town hall meeting dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Williams, Pat introduced herself to Mrs. King as Ryan’s mother, and enfolded her in an embrace that King later said was deeply meaningful to her.  Speaking to the Times about that moment, Pat said, “It’s beyond being women. It’s beyond being different races, different backgrounds. It has nothing to do with that. It’s the hearts of two mothers,” Pat said. “For a moment, there’s someone who’s helping you hold up your pain.”  The real unsung heroes of the effort to win passage of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act are women like Pat Mulder and Denise King who became “accidental activists” for the sake of their children who died so senselessly.  Elke Kennedy, mother of Greenville, SC victim, Sean William Kennedy, Pauline Mitchell, mother of Navajo two-spirit son, F.C. Martinez, Jr. of Cortez, CO, Pat Kuteles, mother of U.S. Army Pvt. Barry Winchell, murdered at Fort Campbell, KY, Kathy Jo Gaither, sister of Sylacauga, AL victim Bill Joe Gaither, and, certainly, Judy Shepard of Casper, WY who is currently touring the nation to promote passage of the LGBT hate crimes bill named for her son Matthew, are but a few outstanding examples of women whose love overcame untold obstacles to add their voices to the chorus of Americans, gay and straight, who want anti-queer violence to come to an end forever.  These courageous women and many other family members around the nation have become the most effective spokespersons for human rights because of their unsought-for mission to stamp out hate from the American vocabulary for all people, especially LGBTQ folk who are so much at risk.  How do mothers do it?  Pat Mulder says that for parents of gay murder victims, there is no closure, only the determination to turn up the volume on what hate crimes do to families.

Sprinkle in FL 08

~ Stephen Sprinkle for the Unfinished Lives Project

September 25, 2009 Posted by | African Americans, Alabama, Anglo Americans, anti-LGBT hate crime murder, Colorado, DADT, Florida, gay men, Hate Crimes, Heterosexism and homophobia, Kentucky, Latino and Latina Americans, Legislation, Lesbian women, Matthew Shepard Act, military, Native Americans, Perpetrators of Hate Crime, Social Justice Advocacy, South Carolina, transgender persons, Wyoming | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

On Memorial Day, We Honor the Military Service of Our Gay Dead

gaymilitarySince time immemorial, Gay and Lesbian people have served their country with distinction.  LGBT Americans pause to remember and honor the service and sacrifice of all American service members, especially the ones who faced battle on two fronts: the battle for freedom and security for our country, and the battle against unreasoning homophobia.  This Memorial Day, The Unfinished Lives Project pauses to give thanks for the lives of three gay men who served their country, and died because their countrymen could not accept their sexual orientation: Petty Officer Third Class Allen R. Schindler, Jr., Chicago Heights, IL, sailor on the U.S.S. Belleau Wood; Private First Class Barry Winchell, Kansas City, MO, soldier at Fort Campbell, KY; and U.S. Army Veteran Michael Scott Goucher of East Stroudsburg, PA.

Allen Schindler bestSchindler, who was mercilessly harassed on board his ship, was murdered in 1992 by shipmates in a public toilet while on leave in Sasebo, Nagasaki, Japan.  His body was so ravaged by the attack that every major organ in his body was ruptured, his skull was crushed, and the medical examiner found sneaker tracks embedded in his chest and face.  The only way his mother could identify her son’s body was by a tattoo he had inked into his upper arm.  His main assailant, who openly declared that he was disgusted by homosexuals, said shortly after the murder, “I don’t regret it. I’d do it again. … He deserved it.”  The Navy has never been forthcoming about the slaying, and has repeatedly refused to release the report of the Japanese police about the crime.  Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) was officially enacted soon after Schindler’s murder by President Clinton. SLDN has continued to represent his mother in the courts.

winchellsmWinchell, who had been singled out for anti-gay ridicule by his barracks mates at Fort Campbell, was bludgeoned to death in 1999 by a fellow soldier wielding a baseball bat at his head and body while he was asleep.  Ironically, he was killed after an Independence Day celebration on base.  His hate crime murder and trial exposed one of the most notorious cover-ups of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) era.  His parents and SLDN contend that the Army betrayed him by violating its own DADT policies, failing to follow the best traditions of the Army in order to shield the chain of command, and exposing other gay soldiers to danger and dishonorable discharge.  The anti-gay climate of Fort Campbell was never sufficiently addressed in the wake of Winchell’s killing, and the base commander, General Robert T. Clark, was promoted despite the protests of SLDN and other LGBT advocacy organizations around the country.  His killer is serving a life sentence for murder in a federal military prison facility.

Michael Scott Goucher bustGoucher, who had been honorably discharged from the U.S. Army after a tour of duty in Alaska where he served in transport, was ambushed by two young men who stabbed him to death over 45 times according to autopsy records in 2009, arguably the first anti-LGBT hate crime murder victim of the year.  After returning to East Stroudsburg, Goucher worked as a high school janitor, captained the Neighborhood Watch in his area, and served as assistant organist at a local church.

These three represent many more loyal Americans who happened to be LGBT and have been stigmatized, drummed out of the service, and in the cases of these faithful guardians of our country, were killed because of deep-seated bias against members of the sexual minority.  They neither betrayed their country nor themselves.  For that, and for justice-sake, we cannot forget them.  At the request of SLDN, Servicemembers’ Legal Defense Network,  Chan Lowe drew this provocative tribute to homosexual Americans who have paid the supreme price to wear our nation’s uniform.  We offer it for your consideration on this Memorial Day 2009.

Chan Lowe SLDN cartoon

May 24, 2009 Posted by | anti-LGBT hate crime murder, harassment, Heterosexism and homophobia, military, Stomping and Kicking Violence, U.S. Army | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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