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.
New York City, New York – What began as a celebratory drink in a NYC BBQ restaurant concluded horrifically when a patron attacked two gay men with a wooden chair after barraging them with homophobic slurs. The Advocate reports that the gay couple, Jonathan Snipes, 32, and Ethan York-Adams, 25, dropped in to Dallas BBQ to toast Cinco de Mayo with margaritas Tuesday night when the assault took place. Snipes told investigators that he was texted around 11 p.m. that a member of his family had died suddenly, and as he was hastily exiting the premises with York-Adams, he accidentally toppled over a drink belonging to another customer. The heavy set baldheaded customer spat out slurs against the couple, allegedly saying, “White faggots! Spilling drinks!”
Snipes took exception to the slur, and called on the man not to use antigay language toward his friend and himself, at which point the angry customer lept to his feet and assaulted Snipes. The New York Daily News reports that the assailant punched Snipes to the floor, and then kicked him in the head and spine, shouting, “Take that, Faggot!” Other customers and restaurant staff parted the brawling assailant from the couple, who retreated to get away, when the bearded, baldheaded attacker launched into the two gay men, beating them over the head with a wooden chair. A bystander, Isaam Sharef, captured the savage beating on video, which may be watched here. The room filled with screams and confusion. A staffer can be heard shouting out, “Stop, stop, stop!” York-Adams, who was helping his partner to a seat following the initial attack, was knocked to the floor. Snipes collapsed into a booth, stunned by the blow. Customers attempted to restrain the assailant, who rushed out of the restaurant.
Police say that Snipes and York-Adams absorbed at least one heavy blow from the chair, but declined to go to hospital, because Snipes said he had no health insurance to cover the costs of treatment. Snipes said that the blows from the baldhead, bearded man snapped the cartilage in his ear, bruised his head, and knocked one of his teeth loose. Snipes told DNAinfo, “These guys attacked us specifically because they knew we weren’t their type of people. It was disgusting.”
The NYPD is still investigating this incident, but have declined to call it a hate crime, as of yet. Various sources say that the obviousness of the bigotry displayed by the attacker will mean authorities will have to classify this assault as yet another anti-LGBTQ hate crime in the Big Apple.
Chelsea, the location of the restaurant, has been believed to be a safe neighborhood for lesbians and gay men. The old “common wisdom” will have to be revised, now. The violent attack makes it abundantly clear that homophobic assaults against LGBT people are by no means a thing of the past.
Riverton, Wyoming – Santana Mendoza, the second teenage defendant in the September 2013 murder of a gay Native American was sentenced for manslaughter yesterday in the death of a gay Native American, and the victim’s mother is crying foul. Her son’s murder was a hate crime, Victoria Moss said, and the sentences the court handed down to the teens who killed him show the world that the life of a Native American gay man is worth less than if he were straight and white. County 10 reports that Ms. Moss declared that since this is National LGBTQ Pride Month, she would be honoring her son while gay people and allies celebrated Pride. “This Saturday,” she said, “I will be celebrating the pride I have for my gay son.”
David Ronald Moss Jr., 25, was bludgeoned to death by teenagers Santana Mendoza and John Potter on the Rails to Trails Pathway behind a Riverton trailer park on September 4, 2013. Moss’s companion, Aleeah Crispin, was beaten into brain damage by the teens during the same attack, leaving her unable to speak for weeks afterwards. Mendoza and Potter, 16 and 15 at the time of the brutal assault, were both tried as adults. Both initially pled not guilty to all charges. In April of this year, after a plea deal reducing the charge from second degree murder to manslaughter, Potter was sentenced, as reported by County 10. After the same plea deal was accepted by District Attorney Michael Bennett for Mendoza, his sentence was handed down by Ninth Circuit Judge Norman E. Young after a one-hour sentencing hearing at which Crispin herself testified. Mendoza’s sentence mirrors Potter’s sentence almost perfectly: 12 to 18 years for the murder of Moss, minus time served, and 8 to 10 years for the assault on Crispin, both sentences to run concurrently. The sentence also mandates that the youths share a restitution of $12,000 to be paid to the living victim and the families. Moss’s mother is convinced that her son’s sexual orientation and Native American heritage played into the judge’s decision to hand down a light sentence that would never have been tolerated by the white, straight community if the victim had been one of their own. Some say that the revelation of Moss’s sexual orientation came as a surprise to them.
Judge Young denies being influenced by the knowledge that Moss was gay. He told County 1o that he now believes neither of the youths “intended” to kill Moss, who succumbed to blunt force trauma to his head according to the Coroner’s report. What Judge Young does admit to considering was the age of the defendants. Both were born in 1997. He said that he had never sentenced anyone in his career as young as they.
The attack was swift, terrifying and brutal. Mendoza testified that he and Potter saw two friends eating fast food near the beginning of the pathway. The Daily Ranger reported that while Mendoza watched Moss and Crispin, Potter left to retrieve a ball bat and brass knuckles that they used in the attack on Moss and Crispin. The teens beat them in the face with the bat, and repeated kicked them. When they left, Mendoza testified, both victims were unconscious, and Moss was making a “snoring” sound. The next morning, two unresponsive bodies were found on the trail. Moss was dead. Crispin was beaten mute, and left with significant brain injuries.
Hate crime was never considered during the investigation. Instead, law enforcement and the District Attorney sought for other motives for the senseless crime.
Moss was an enrolled member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, and proud of it. His obituary portrayed a young man who was devoted to family, especially to his niece, Morning Star, and liked by a wide circle of family and friends.
The accusation of David Moss’s mother still hangs in the air as the two youths serve out their sentences: What is the comparative worth of the life of a gay Native American? Where is the justice in any of this senselessness?
Williamsburg, New York – A gang of Hasidic Jews, some identified as members of the Satmar Hasidic Shomrim (Safety Patrol), shouted homophobic and racial slurs as they brutally beat a gay black man in Williamsburg on December 1. The victim, 22-year-old Taj Patterson, suffered multiple injuries including a crushed eye socket, a torn retina, and cuts to his right knee and hip. This week, five hasidim were arrested for the attack by the New York Police Department’s Hate Crimes Task Force. They have been charged with Gang Assault in the First Degree and a variety of other charges, though at this point a hate crimes charge has not been lodged, even considering the report of witnesses that a barrage of homophobic slurs accompanied the assault. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 25 years for each assailant proved guilty. Failed Messiah, a blog covering news in the Hasidic community since 2004, identified those arrested as Pinchas Braver, 20, Aharon Hollender, 28, Abraham Winkler, 39, Mayer Herskovic, 21, and Joseph Fried, 25. Two of the alleged assailants fled from the United States to Israel immediately following the incident, but were apprehended there.
The five suspects and a number of other hasidim who allegedly participated in the attack are all members of the Satmar Hasidic Jewish community, a large and influential ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect with pre-World War II roots in Hungary. According to A Life Apart: Hasidism in America, the Satmar Hasidim number at least 45,000 in Williamsburg today. The Shomrim is a volunteer neighborhood watch drawn from the Satmar community. Activists in Williamsburg quickly denied the involvement of the Shomrim in the attack, but according to the Brooklyn Paper, the denials left room to conclude that some of the attackers were indeed members of the watch group. An Orthodox rabbi who decried the attack did not mention the participation of the Shomrim in the December attack. Rabbi David Niederman, president of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn, said, “The bedrock of the Williamsburg community is tolerance for one and another. Any act of violence by any individual, against anyone, for whatever reason, is condemned in the strongest possible terms.”
EDGE on the Net reports that Patterson is a fashion student studying at the New York City College of Technology. While he says he does not remember much from the attack that occurred with swift savagery, he clearly recalls at least one of his assailants shouting, “Stay down, faggot, stay the fuck down,” as he kicked Patterson in the face. Since the horrific incident, Patterson has undergone surgery to repair his torn retina.
The true heroine of the whole bloody affair was the driver of Bus 57 who slammed on her brakes and stepped out of her bus snapping pictures of the assault with her cell phone, according to the New York Post. The NYPD say that the attacking gang fled the scene when they realized she was taking their pictures.
Lancaster, Ohio – A Central Ohio man charged with threatening to slice off his disabled brother’s genitals with a butcher knife for being gay, and repeatedly punching him to “beat the gay out of him,” has pleaded guilty to felonious assault and abduction. On Monday, Fairfield County Judge Chris A. Martin sentenced Lawrence L. Featheroff to 30 months in prison and 3 years subsequent probation for bashing, tormenting, threatening, and beating the younger brother he agreed to care for, because of loathing his brother’s “sexual thoughts about men.” Featheroff, 38, had taken charge of his disabled younger brother, Jason A. Meyers, 26 after reports of alleged abuse in a group home for developmentally disabled people. According to The Columbus Dispatch, Meyers is developmentally disabled, but relatively high-functioning.
Featheroff virtually imprisoned Meyers in a house where they lived with an uncle and aunt, and Featheroff’s girlfriend. He admitted to the charges back in January when police, following a tip that abuse might be going on in the house, found Meyers suffering from a concussion, multiple facial bruises including an injured eye socket, and a sprained ankle. The older brother, a convicted ex-con who had served time for domestic violence, said that his motive for the abuse was to intimidate his younger sibling into becoming heterosexual. Gay Star News reports that Detective Brian Lowe testified at the sentencing hearing that Featheroff claimed he “wanted to toughen him up to push the gay out of him and make him a normal person.”
Investigators uncovered a pattern of torture, physical and psychological abuse against the younger man by Featheroff, Featheroff’s girlfriend Jamie R. Smith, and Brent M. Disbennet. The trio routinely punched and kicked Meyers, limited him to one small meal a day, and forced him to run up and down a hill carrying a heavy wooden railroad tie. On at least one occasion, Featheroff held a butcher knife to Meyers’s genitals and swore that he would castrate him if he didn’t stop fantasizing sexually about men. Meyers was removed by officials to a safe location and is now living in adult foster care.
The brothers were part of a family of eight siblings by different fathers who were removed from their mother’s care for reports of neglect or abuse. The remaining siblings have banded together in a family group of their own. One of the other brothers is believed to have tipped off police about the abuse he feared was going on in his brother’s home. At the sentencing hearing, some of the siblings showed up to support Featheroff, and claimed that Meyers could be difficult to live with.
Smith, 40, has pleaded not guilty to complicity to commit felonious assault and abduction. Disbennet, 25, has admitted guilt for felonious assault. Their court dates are pending.
Topeka, Kansas – Dr. Stephen V. Sprinkle has posted a new article on Huffington Post Religion. You can visit the original article here. Comments and shares from the Huffington Post site are appreciated by all the readers of http://unfinishedlivesblog.com.
Rev. Fred Phelps, Founder and former Pastor of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, is dead at the age of 84. Pundits and regular people are busily dissecting the story and social significance of one of the most venom-filled ministerial lives in American history, as well as the hate-mongering “ministry” the Westboro Church became notorious for doing since 1991. What, however, is the spiritual and theological import of the life Fred Phelps lived and the religious leadership he carried out for better than two decades? What does Fred Phelps teach us about God, and the service of others in God’s name?
Dare we even speak of Rev. Phelps as a “negative saint,” the polar opposite of all Christ-like saints, given the carnage Phelps left in the lives of countless queer folk, slain service members, and cultural celebrities he and his flock picketed and condemned to eternal damnation? “Saint-language” seems blasphemous when we apply it to a man’s life so rabidly committed to eliciting the worst from the human spirit and the Christian faith. Nevertheless, every life lived has something to teach us about ourselves and God, does it not? How can we not speak of Phelps as we must speak of ourselves and all others who stand need of the amazing grace of God? Allow me to explain what I mean.
We remember the epithets Fred Phelps reveled in. He made “God Hates Fags” a standard feature of modern hate speech. We cannot erase from our minds the images of Matthew Shepard, Billy Jack Gaither, and Diane Whipple writhing in the animated hell fire that Phelps installed on his web site, complete with a background soundtrack of groans and screams to drive home the message that nothing he could imagine could be worse than to be gay and lesbian. We will never know the number of fanatics Phelps inspired by his vileness, nor the multitude of LGBTQ people young and old who felt his criticisms crush their self-esteem and cut into their souls like knives. But we have seen his kind before: Pharaoh, and Saul, Ahitophel, and Judas, to name but a few oldies but baddies. Or Roy Cohn, Senator Joe McCarthy, and “Bull” Connor to name some near contemporary bad guys. I am sure you have your own personal list. Nevertheless, Phelps and his bad seed still wind up serving God just like the best of us. That is the theological sense Fred Phelps makes. His “negative sainthood” shows us that the worst wickedness is, in the end, powerless before grace and mercy.
Karl Barth in his Shorter Commentary on Romans (SCR) and throughout the Church Dogmatics (KD and CD) teaches that the Pharaoh of the Exodus who held the Hebrew children in abject slavery with a hard heart ultimately found himself broken upon God, who uses the story of Pharaoh’s human darkness to witness to divine mercy, standing right alongside Moses who testifies to God’s liberating justice. Barth writes, “Therefore Pharaoh too serves ‘the power of God’ (SCR, 73). Barth struggled against anti-semitism and fascism with a theological strength we need to deal with homophobia and transphobia. Like the contrasting pair of Pharaoh and Moses, Barth talks about Judas Iscariot and Jesus. Barth writes that Judas, the “rejected man,” is the best pattern he can find of a person who rejected goodness, going so far as to pronounce judgment on himself, and joining Jesus in death. Yet every “rejected one” remains a witness to God, who in the end shows that the very amazing grace upon which the future depends is also there for the “rejected,” too. Barth declares: “The rejected man exists in the person of Jesus Christ only in such a way that he is assumed into His being as the elect and beloved of God . . . With Jesus Christ the rejected can only have been rejected. He cannot be rejected anymore” (KD II/2, 502; CD, 453). Fred, too!
So, does that mean that Pharaoh, or Judas, or Fred get a pass on what they do, thanks to some sort of weak-kneed universalism, the idea that God saves everyone regardless? Barth denied such a possibility: “The Church will not . . . preach a powerless grace of Jesus Christ or a wickedness of men which is too powerful for it. But without any weakening of the contrast, and without any arbitrary dualism, it will preach the overwhelming power of grace and the weakness of human wickedness in face of it” (KD II/2, 529; CD, 477). Fred Phelps and Joe McCarthy and Judas Iscariot must, in the end, answer to the same justice and grace of God their words and deeds rejected when they refused to treat all of God’s children with justice and love. The deeds of the “negative saints” of God are terrible, and it is only right that they should somehow suffer. No one knows what Fred Phelps had to face from his excommunication or upon his sick bed. But Fred and Joe and Judas depend upon and bear witness to the divine mercy, also—just like Moses and Mary and Martin Luther King Jr.
Even a “Nemesis Saint” like Rev. Fred Phelps is a witness to the divine mercy. “Saint” Pharaoh, too. And “Saint” Judas. For all the saints, pro and con, testify to the grace and justice before which we are all alike in utter need. No one I know shows the impotence of wickedness or the need of divine mercy more than Fred Phelps. And in that way, at the very least, “Saint” Fred shows me something mysteriously awesome about the amazing grace of God.