After 17 years of dogmatic slumber and denial over the grisly murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, Laramie’s City Council passed the state’s first broad LGBT protection ordinance. Council members voted 7–2 to prohibit discrimination in the city limits against persons based on sexual orientation and gender identity in matters of housing, employment, and access to public facilities such as cafés. Like Rip Van Winkle rousing from a long sleep, the city that still only memorializes Matt with a plaque on a park bench awakened and finally addressed its phobias head-on. What took place in Laramie on May 12 was not just a one-off decision. It has implications for the rest of the nation, too.
Like Laramie, no town wants to admit that a bias-driven hate crime took place there. Locales loathe bad publicity. They fear being labeled. So, they deny the problem in a variety of ways. They indulge in blaming the victim. Or sweep the killing under the rug. Or blame “outside agitators” and “other mitigating factors.” The common refrain is “Things like that just don’t happen here.”
But they do happen in American hometowns everywhere, all the time. The only healthy, sane thing for a city or town to do when a murder marks a place forever is to own up to it squarely, and do something to address the root causes that allowed prejudice to take root in the first place. Ask Dallas. Or Memphis. Or Birmingham. You surely can’t make the facts go away. You can and you must rebuild your civic reputation by ensuring that justice and equality for all your citizens take the place of dehumanization and denial. Laramie started that painful process by doing the right thing last Wednesday night.
For seventeen long years, local townsfolk and university students of conscience lobbied Laramie’s elected officials, tried to reason with them, and stood up to their xenophobic neighbors. They opposed the powerful anti-human rights forces that were invested in re-writing the story of the nighttime abduction and brutal beating of slim, slight Matt Shepard by two local men gone bad that unfolded before the world in the Albany County Courthouse. Too many gay people saw no evidence that anything would ever change in Laramie, so they packed up their talent and their verve for living, and left town one or two at a time. Though LGBT people and their allies lost the argument year after year, those who remained persisted in pointing out that the perpetrators, Henderson and McKinney, weren’t “outsiders.” They were homegrown products of Laramie public schools, men who grew up in the same city as Pioneer Days and UW Cowboy Pride. Matt Shepard was not to blame for his own death, no matter what deniers contended, they argued. After losing a close vote to enact a similar statewide discrimination law in February, Wyoming Equality and local advocates mounted the effort that finally passed the first broadly inclusive anti-discrimination ordinance in the “Equality State.” Its provisions will go into effect before the end of the month.
No victim of hate crime ever “had it coming.” No family ever deserves the horror and grief Judy, Dennis, and Logan Shepard have suffered. The public outcry raised by Matt’s death roused other states and municipalities long before Laramie woke up to what happened at the Fireside Lounge and on that cold, high ridge with the buck fence above town. In October 2009, President Obama signed The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law, saying, “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.” Now, Laramie transgender high school student Rihanna Kelver can more confidently go about her life, relieved that she will not lose her job because of how she identifies, one of the first practical results of this ordinance.
Throughout the rest of the country, however, hate crime violence against LGBT Americans is hitting historic highs. With widespread publicity concerning the cause célèbre of the day, Marriage Equality, attacks on vulnerable persons, especially gay men and transgender people of color, are alarmingly on the rise. Thinly veiled efforts to turn back the clock on equality cloaked in the garb of “religious freedom,” the RFRAs, are proliferating around the nation. Seeking to stall justice, retrogrades like Texas are trying to enact pre-emptive laws inoculating the states against a possible Supreme Court decision striking down the bans against same-sex marriage.
Meanwhile, like Laramie prior to Wednesday night’s anti-discrimination victory, the rest of the nation seems to have drifted back into a Rip Van Winkle coma while innocent LGBT people by their thousands face brutalization and harm in towns and cities every succeeding year. Laramie, the longtime hold out for LGBT protections, has awakened to its responsibility for its most vulnerable residents. If Laramie can do it, after so many years of misdirection, denial, and historical revisionism, surely the rest of us must wake up to our responsibilities, as well.
Justice must bloom in the thousands of urban and rural settings where everyday Americans live and work. It is high time for all forms of heterosexism and homophobia to be put on notice that hate is not an American value. Local advocates must press their elected officials to pass anti-discrimination laws and make them stick. One of the most encouraging signs of this awakened determination to do right by everybody is the Golden Rule attitude of Laramie resident Mike Sumner who said during public speak out time before the City Council vote, “As a Christian I do sin when I fail to follow the loving and compassionate example of Jesus Christ,” he said. “And I believe that a vote against this ordinance is the same as throwing the first stone.”
Drop the stones in your hand, America. Laramie has shown us how to do it.
“Worst Mother in the World” and Boyfriend Take Plea Deal For Torture Murder of 8 Year Old Son They Feared was “Gay”
Palmdale, California – The mother of an eight-year-old son she despised for being “gay,” and her live-in boyfriend have pled guilty to first degree murder and torture under special circumstances in exchange for avoiding the death penalty. Pearl Fernandez and her sometime lover, Isauro Aguirre, took life in prison without hope of parole, and agreed to waive any appeal to their sentence in the horrific case of young Gabriel Fernandez. Paramedics were called to the couple’s apartment on May 22, 2013 because Gabriel had stopped breathing. He died two days later. According to court testimony by Gabriel’s older sibling Ezequiel, an eye witness to the repeated beatings and torture inflicted on his younger brother, Pearl Fernandez had beaten her child into unconsciousness, and then fearful of discovery, ordered her older child to fabricate a story about an accident in the Palmdale apartment so the adults could escape prosecution for his murder. The paramedics found Gabriel naked, with cracked ribs, burns, and BB shot in his lung and in his groin area. As quoted in the Antelope Valley Press, Paramedic James Cermak said, “It was like sensory overload. There was burn marks, there was BB holes, bruises in various stages of healing, [it] looked like his ankles were broken. It was like every inch of this boy had been abused.” Cermak added, “We noticed that he had bruising all over his body, he had strangulation marks around his neck, and looked like his teeth had been knocked out.” When Cermak asked Pearl Fernandez about the situation “she became very defensive,” he said, and blamed the unconscious boy for fighting with his brother and being “a dirty boy.” According to NBC Los Angeles, the couple were arrested the day following Gabriel’s discovery for capital murder and torture. Though they both entered a plea of not guilty, a Grand Jury indicted them both in August for one of the most horrendous cases of child abuse and homophobia in Southern California history.
Testimony earlier this year established that Pearl Fernandez and her then-boyfriend Isauro Aguirre locked the boy in a dark closet for hours at a time, stuffed socks in his mouth to prevent him from crying out, repeatedly beat him, psychologically harmed him, and on at least one occasion forced him to eat cat feces and his own vomit as punishment for playing with dolls and acting “gay.” They whipped Gabriel with the metal end of a leather belt for a period of at least eight months, hit him with a bat, knocked his teeth out with a club, and tortured the boy with pepper spray. Though Gabriel was being overseen by the Department of Children and Family Services, at least four social workers who missed or ignored the signs of repeated abuse were dismissed from service in the public uproar over the case. After a total of no fewer than seven reports of suspected child abuse from sources including Gabriel’s teacher, the social workers did not investigate the allegations thoroughly enough to remove the boy from what amounted to a torture chamber of horrors. A blue-ribbon panel formed in the fallout from the case issued a scorching report mandating changes in the way at risk children are overseen in Los Angeles County. Gabriel’s maternal grandmother has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the county and the DCFS.
While there is plenty of blame to go around in the horrific torture murder of the eight-year-old, the fact of the active savagery of a mother, deemed otherwise sane, against her own child for whatever reason prompted Gay Star News to dub Pearl Fernandez “The Worst Mother in the World.” According to the Antelope Valley Press, Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy Jonathan Beck testified in court that on the night of Gabriel’s discovery, Pearl expressed little or no concern for her child. When prosecutors asked Deputy Beck if she showed concern for anything, he said, “Her cats.” The depth of hatred for LGBTQ people shown by the punishment rained down on Gabriel by Aguirre and Fernandez is hard to fathom. For allegedly playing with dolls, they humiliated him by forcing him to wear girls’ clothing, ridiculed him in front of his siblings, and tortured him beyond belief. Apparently, these two adults believed that blaming an eight-year-old child for being “gay” somehow mitigated and justified what they did to him. It also betokens that his own mother would rather have a dead son than a gay one.
Now, according to an organization posting on Facebook as “Gabriel’s Justice,” Fernandez and Aguirre’s guilty plea and the life-without-parole sentence finally brings some sense of closure to this outrageous case. For the advocates for Gabriel, there was never a doubt that the couple would be found guilty of this heinous crime, for putting Gabriel through such hell for so many months of his young life. The group expressed relief that years of appeals could now be avoided. Now, the fear to which these people subjected an innocent child would now be visited on them with a vengeance. “The two would sit on death row for over 30 years utilizing appeal after appeal with no closure for anyone,” the Gabriel’s Justice web master said in a post on Facebook. “Both will be placed in general population, there’s no safety house for them. This would not be true on Death Row.” With a sense of some vindication, the post is summed up with these words: “Justice has been served.”
San Antonio, Texas – An alleged weekend anti-gay hate crime has landed three brothers in deep trouble. A 48-year-old openly gay man who said the brothers had problems with his being gay, was savagely beaten to the floor of a coin operated laundry at his apartment complex on the west side of San Antonio this past Sunday.
KENS5 News reports that the victim was doing laundry and visiting with other apartment tenants when the three brothers and a fourth man as yet unidentified started the attack. A police report says that the three brothers confronted the victim for how he “looked” at them, calling him a derogatory term in Spanish. The alleged assailants, who live together in a single apartment in the same complex, Juan Huerta-Gonzalez, 35; Aurelio Huerta-Gonzalez, 33; and Filiberto Huerta-Gonzalez, 30, were arrested by San Antonio Police and charged with an assault hate crime.
The attack was swift and brutal. The youngest brother, Filiberto, allegedly uttered the slur and told the gay man he hated gay people, according to KSAT News 3. The assailants punched the victim, beat him to the floor of the laundry, kicked him, and even bit him on the knuckle of his hand. After awaking from being knocked unconscious in the attack, the victim called police. The middle brother, Aurelio, complained to police that the gay man had been flirting with them, calling one of them “baby,” and “sweet thing.”
A spokesman for the San Antonio Police Department, Officer Matthew Porter, told news outlets, “According to the victim, he believes that his sexual orientation is the reason why he was confronted by these suspects. We are carrying this as a hate crime.” Officer Porter went on to say, “One of the suspects made mention that the victim would look at him. Again, that’s no reason to assault this individual. You have a right to choose your religion, your sexual orientation.”
The three brothers are in custody at the Bexar County Jail, where they are being held for Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. The fourth man has yet to be apprehended.
San Antonio, the state’s second largest city, has no municipal protections in place for LGBT people. Officials claim hate crimes against gay people are rare in the Alamo City. Records show that 17 such crimes occurred in the city last year, and this incident is the second recorded in 2013.
Johnston, Rhode Island – A 24-year-old bisexual man suffered severed tendons and nerves in his left wrist after being slashed with a Japanese katana, a samurai sword. The victim says he believes the attack was motivated by hatred for his sexual orientation.
WJAR-TV News reports that David Teague III was injured during a fight that started outside a home in Johnston early Saturday morning. Though drinking had been involved, Teague says his assailant cut him because of animosity toward his bisexuality. The attacker allegedly yelled a homophobic slur at Teague as he pressed his attack. The victim believes that the assault was no accident, and was a hate crime. “The next day I sat there wondering if my sexuality had anything to do with it,” Teague said to News 10. “I just want justice. He used a derogatory word that has to do with being homosexual. I believe he used his anger towards homosexuals to commit this crime against me.”
Investigators agree that there was a homophobic slur used by Teague’s attacker, but they say the slur alone is not enough to warrant a hate crime investigation. They pledge to pursue the anti-bisexual motive if they uncover more evidence supporting the claim. Boston.com says that a group of men outside the Johnston house were drinking that evening, when a quarrel broke out between Teague and his as-yet-unidentified assailant. When the two men started fighting, some of the other drinkers got involved, and at some point the assailant, yelling the slur, picked up the sword and slashed Teague’s wrist. WJAR-TV News took a statement from a woman on Monday who has disputed Teague’s account, blaming Teague for the fight. Johnston Police have charged her with obstruction of justice, believing that she tried to divert investigators’ attention away from her boyfriend, the prime suspect in the slashing attack. Police have also charged two men with disorderly conduct.
Teague is currently facing no charges in relation to the attack. “I just wish this wasn’t about sexuality. Even though there might be enough to substantiate a claim of hate crime, I still feel hated,” he said.
Lincoln, Nebraska – “I am not a pawn in a game, you know. I am a person.” Charlie Rogers, the victim of an alleged hate crime mutilation in the Nebraska capital city spoke out for the first time in an extended interview on KETV Omaha on Thursday. Rogers, a 33-year-old small business owner who lives openly as a lesbian, said she decided to grant the interview in response to media reports that police were investigating if her report was a hoax.
The five-minute interview shows the passion and hurt Ms. Rogers feels as the victim of a horrific home invasion, allegedly by three masked men early on Sunday who stripped her, bound her with zip ties, carved anti-gay slurs into her flesh, and then attempted to set the house on fire. Her harrowing experience did not end with a stay in the hospital and then in a safe house where she has been recovering since the attack. Now Ms. Rogers has to deal with the suspicions unleashed by doubts about her report of what happened to her in the dead of night in her own home. “It feels like a kick in the stomach,” she told KETV, even though she understands that there will always be doubters. “Being a victim in situation like this or a survivor and then having your integrity questioned, I guess, it feels very victimizing again,” Rogers said. “It makes an already difficult situation more difficult because my world has been changed forever by these events.” Lincoln Police Officer Katie Flood suggested to NBC that they were investigating all aspects of the case, including whether Ms. Rogers made the whole thing up. The media seized on the suggestion of a hoax immediately, sensationalizing the story of this outrage into an inquest into the victim’s credibility.
Investigators found three spray-painted anti-gay epithets in Ms. Rogers’ home, including one that read, “We Found U Dyke!” Coupled with the victim’s report that the attack was motivated by homophobia, and the slurs sliced into her skin, all these factors have led police to proceed as if this case was a hate crime based on sexual orientation.
But the hate crime investigation notwithstanding, Lincoln’s populace is reportedly plagued by doubts. Speculation mounted in the days before Ms. Rogers’ interview–“what if…?”
Ms. Rogers’ attorney, Megan Mikolajczyk, told CNN that her client wanted to dispel as much of the doubt as she could. Mikolajczyk said she wasn’t surprised that there were people who wondered if the attack really ever happened at all. She also said that Ms. Rogers was not answering any one person’s doubts in particular. “I don’t think it’s safe or necessary to point the finger at any one individual,” Mikolajczyk said. “I think it’s par for the course for any sort of high-profile incident for people to question what happened.”
Sadly, Ms. Rogers’ attorney is right: it is “par for the course” for doubts to be raised about the veracity, mental state, motives, and character of LGBTQ hate crimes victims whenever they are targeted by violent attacks. Such suspicion may or may not aid investigators to arrive at the truth in cases like this one, but it surely re-victimizes the person wounded or killed in such attacks. “We-doubt-you” stories in the press and on TV also rob many of these outrageous crimes of their news worthy power to draw badly needed national attention to the soaring increases in anti-LGBTQ hate crimes. Blame and besmirch the victims of hate crimes is one of the leading ways heterosexist communities control gay people, as dozens of stories on the Unfinished Lives Blog show. One has to wonder whether statements of police officers to the media about hoaxes are less about the search for forensic truth than the desperation of the status quo to stay intact when revelatory events begin to disturb the public.
Ms. Rogers, an avid LGBTQ advocate, community volunteer, and former University of Nebraska basketball star, deserves a great deal of credit for coming forward to set the record straight, and to quell as much of the doubt as she can. Time will tell who is right, but time is also of the essence as the trail of the alleged attackers grows increasingly cold. Many in Lincoln, hundreds of not thousands, do believe Charlie Rogers, and support her full recovery even as they remain watchful that police investigators carry out a thorough, speedy search for the truth in this case, and expeditiously bring these hate criminals to justice.