Atlanta, Georgia – Trapped between anguish over family disapproval of his sexual orientation and nationwide protests over the police killings of black men, a young man climbed a tree in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park and hanged himself. Police discovered the body of 22-year-old London Jermaine, aka Michael George Smith Jr., hanged by the neck near the Charles Allen entrance to the popular urban park early on July 7. Smith, a resident of Midtown and computer science student, had migrated from Hackensack, New Jersey to take up a new life in Atlanta. While there is no evidence of foul play reported by Project Q Atlanta, Smith’s death is a casebook of reasons why the suicides of young gay men may be “murder by suicide,” in which the victims are driven by despair to take their own lives after anti-gay shaming.
Because of his large social media footprint, we are able to trace the pressure that drove him to seek a way to stop the hurt he felt. On June 13, Smith posted a complaint and cry for help: “Being Gay in America is Hard. Being Black in America is Hard. Imagine being both #NoH8.” Family played a large part in browbeating Smith because of their extreme negative attitudes toward gays. On June 17, he posted a screen capture of a text message from a brother, and a sharp reaction to the disapproval of his mother: “God doesn’t born gay people. You make yourself gay.” Smith added this status to the duplicated message: “My mother is teaching my siblings to dispise Gays.. I’m done with Life. I’m Hurt To The Core.” According to posts on his Facebook page, he was also facing health issues.
Just minutes before his drop from the tree in Piedmont Park, Smith left this despairing message on Facebook: “I’ll see y’all in the next Life…Deadass [followed by emoticons] Father forgive me”
Bossip.com reports the storm of criticism Atlanta Police and Mayor Kasim Reed faced following the discovery of Smith’s body. Widespread speculation about a possible “modern lynching” dogged the investigation, and put bulletins to the public on the fast track. With the nation aflame with anger and confusion over the apparently unjustifiable shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota, Atlanta officials feared that the public hanging of a young black man could cause an outbreak of violence in their city. The APD reported finding a tall rolling trash receptacle beside the scene of Smith’s death with a footprint on its top corresponding to his shoe. They also found pollen on his clothing indicating he climbed the tree to the limb where the rope that asphyxiated him was tied. There were no signs of struggle, the police reported.
The FBI were called in to carry out an investigation separate from the APD, and spokesperson Special Agent Stephen Emmett issued this statement to Project Q confirming the conclusion that Smith carried out his own death: “A review of the findings of the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s report by both APD and the FBI failed to indicate any signs of foul play or other evidence that would support going forward with a federal hate crime based investigation.”
Young gay men are under severe pressure due to the tension over advances in LGBTQ rights in the U.S., especially young gay men who are African American. Michael George Smith Jr. faced an almost perfect storm of difficulties from family, the culmination of too many deaths of young black men at the hands of unaccountable police officers, and questions about his own health. Too many young men, both those of color and white alike, have succumbed to despair, underlining the epidemic numbers of suicides in the LGBTQ community, compared with the rate of suicide for the dominant ethnic population. The Trevor Project, the nation’s leading anti-suicide hotline, details the grim suicide statistics for lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals. While suicide is the greatest cause of death in the U.S. for young people from 10 to 24, gay youth are three times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers, and gay youth from highly disapproving families are 8.4 times more likely to attempt to take their own lives than children of families that are accepting.
The degree of hostility towards LGBTQ Americans, especially young gay men of color, is exacting a terrifying cost from the ranks of the nation’s youth. Whether from opposition rooted in conservative religious traditions, ignorance, or backlash against newly minted rights for the LGBTQ community, the loss of young lives like Michael George Smith Jr.’s is not simply tragic. It is a national health emergency.
Orlando, Florida – The names of the deceased in the worst mass shooting is U.S. history are slowly being released to the public. 50 died in the initial homophobic attack on the Pulse Nightclub, and 53 were hospitalized. Printed here are the 49 names assembled by Huffington Post by 7 p.m., June 13. All but one of the victims has been identified, and authorities are notifying next of kin. The effort to inform those many more who loved them also is ongoing, as well. We publish them here with their ages at the time of their deaths. All those who were gunned down by unreasoning hatred of who they were have names…lives…loves…. Everyone one, those named here and those remaining to be named, was someone’s child, sister, brother, friend, lover, co-worker, team member. All are our Rainbow Family, and we shall not forget them. May they have found rest, and may their deaths, heinous as the crime was that took away their lives, usher in a better world than they ever knew. One where Everybody is Somebody, and nobody is nobody.
Darryl Roman Burt II, 29
Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32
Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21
Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50
Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25
Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31
Oscar A. Aracena-Montero, 26
Enrique L. Rios Jr., 25
Miguel Angel Honorato, 30
Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40
Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32
Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19
Cory James Connell, 21
Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37
Luis Daniel Conde, 39
Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25
Jerald Arthur Wright, 31
Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25
Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25
Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34
Stanley Almodovar III, 23
Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22
Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36
Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22
Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20
Luis S. Vielma, 22
Kimberly Morris, 37
Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30
Anthony Luis Laureano Disla, 25
Amanda Alvear, 25
Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26
Martin Benitez Torres, 33
Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37
Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35
Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35
Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33
Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, 27
Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33
Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49
Yilmary Rodriguez Sulivan, 24
Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32
Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28
Frank Hernandez, 27
Paul Terrell Henry, 41
Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24
Akyra Monet Murray, 18
Antonio Brown, 29
Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 25
Jerald Arthur Wright, 31
Orlando, Florida – Investigators have learned that the Orlando Massacre shooter who killed at least 50 people and wounded 53 others at a gay nightclub early Sunday was a licensed security officer. Omar Mateen, a resident of Fort Pierce, Florida, who worked since 2007 as a security officer at a firm named G4S, legally purchased the weapons he used to slaughter his victims, a pistol and a military-grade assault rifle, as ABC News reports. He held two firearms licenses, both of which expire in September 2017. According to NBC News, Mateen appears to have been “self-radicalized.” There was no indication beforehand that he intended to attack the club. The assault was apparently well planned, however, since he had to travel over 100 miles from his apartment in Fort Pierce to carry out the hit.
Further reports establish that during or immediately before his attack on Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Mateen called 911 to claim allegiance to Al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS, and the claim solidarity with the Boston Marathon bombers. His father, Mir Seddique, who immigrated to the U.S. from Afghanistan, told reporters that his son had been outrage two months before the attack by seeing a gay couple kiss in public while he and his family were in Miami. His ex-wife, who divorced Mateen in 2011, told reporters that he was disturbed mentally and prone to violence. Family members report that Mateen, 29, has a 3-year-old son.
Some commentators are making comparisons of Mateen with the Charleston, SC killer, Dylann Roof, a loner, who became radicalized from the internet and acted on his impulses to murder black Christians at a prayer meeting at the Mother Emanuel AME Church. Roof had no direct ties with the KKK or white supremacy groups. Likewise, Mateen appears to have had no direct ties to ISIS or Al-Baghdadi. Mir Seddique, his father, disclaimed any relationship between his son’s actions and religion, saying instead that anger over a gay public display of affection might have been the precipitating motive for his attack.
Muslim Americans are denouncing the act, and claiming solidarity with the LGBT community. NBC News reports that Council on American-Islamic Relations Orlando Regional Coordinator Rasha Mubarak said, “We condemn this monstrous attack and offer our heartfelt condolences to the families and loved ones of all those killed or injured. The Muslim community joins our fellow Americans in repudiating anyone or any group that would claim to justify or excuse such an appalling act of violence.”
The death count is expected to rise as hospital staffs struggle to treat the dozens of victims of the attack, which is now established as the worst, most deadly mass shooting in United States history.
Delphi, Indiana – A prime suspect in the murder of a gay Texan whose body was found near his burned out truck last weekend has been arrested, and awaits extradition back to Texas. Click2Houston.com reports that 22-year-old David James Brown Jr. of Conroe was apprehended and taken into custody on November 17 without resistance by authorities. The Dallas Voice adds that the arrest was made in a CVS Pharmacy parking lot. Brown has been charged with capital murder.
Marc Pourner, 28, was found dead from blunt force trauma to the head in a stand of trees in Montgomery County, Texas on Saturday night. Evidence suggests that Pourner was gagged and bound prior to being bludgeoned to death. His truck was completely burned out near where his body was found. Many, including his father, Mark Pourner, suspected that the crime was motivated by anti-gay bias, and now that an arrest has been made, Mr. Pourner is sticking to his earlier suggestion that his son’s death may indeed have been associated with Marc’s sexual orientation. The Dallas Voice adds that the proximity of young Pourner’s murder to the recent vote in Houston defeating the HERO Ordinance thanks to a heated, heterosexist and transphobic media campaign contributed credence to the anti-gay hate crime speculation on the case.
Mr. Pourner told Click2Houston, “I’m ecstatic there’s an arrest made. Now I want to be attending a trial and shortly after that I want to be attending an execution.” He went on to say that Brown and his son were only acquaintances, but that he would make no more statements about a motive in the case as long as the investigation was proceeding, other than his feeling that sexual orientation bias may have played a part in the killing. The family have announced their intention to begin a scholarship benefiting LGBT students in memory of Marc.
Friends, family, and some Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department deputies attended a Wednesday night vigil to share memories of Marc, and to underline their concern for his family and the LGBT community in the Houston metro area, which is currently on alert because of the crime.
According to an article in the Huffington Post, Brown was best friends with Marc Pourner’s boyfriend. Authorities are saying that it is still too early to make a hate crime determination.
Montgomery County, Texas – The body of a gay man was found murdered in a stand of trees in Montgomery County, north of Houston, on Saturday. His truck was also found at the scene by Sheriff’s Deputies, burned. Authorities told KTRK Television 13 that the victim, identified as 28-year-old Marc Pourner of Spring, Texas, may well have been restrained prior to his murder.
The victim’s father, Mark Pourner, who identified the corpse of his missing son on Saturday, told journalists that Marc was a well-liked bookkeeper for Randall’s Food Market, “a good friend to many and a man with a big heart.” Speaking to an interviewer for KTRK, Marc’s father said that the “speed and cold efficiency” with which his son had been killed indicated to him and the family that whoever did this had killed before, and, in all probability, would kill again. When questioned about a possible motive, he said that the family believed this was a hate crime murder, and that his son was openly gay.
Pourner’s roommates and friends grew worried after receiving a “disturbing phone call” Thursday night, and when he did not report for work last Friday, they alerted the authorities. About Magazine News reports that “a person of interest” tipped off the Sheriff’s Department, leading to the discovery of the body. The corpse showed evidence of blunt force trauma to Pourner’s head, and signs of having been tied and gagged. A source described as close to the investigation says that an arrest in the case is near at hand.
Speaking to Project Q on behalf of the Sheriff’s Department, Lt. Brady Fitzgerald described the investigation and the area where Pourner’s body was discovered:
“We responded to that area and we located the burned vehicle. The body was close to the vehicle in a pathway,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a residential area that is sparsely populated. It was thick in the woods where they discovered the vehicle itself and the body. It would obviously have to be intentionally placed there.” When questioned about the details of the investigation, Fitzgerald went on to say, “We are still looking into the case. If he was murdered in reference to him being gay, it would be a hate crime and that’s the way it would be investigated if that was a motive.” Though he would not affirm that an arrest was imminent, Fitzgerald did tell Project Q that there was no evidence that Pourner had been robbed.
An online campaign has been started to pay for the expenses of the funeral.
This homicide takes place in the context of a heated election in nearby Houston focusing attention on the LGBT community, and in the wake of a series of violent attacks against gay men in Dallas that have taken place within the last month. Dr. Stephen Sprinkle, founder and director of the Unfinished Lives Project, said, “It would be folly for Texas authorities to divorce this savage, anti-gay homicide from the homophobic and transphobic campaign against the HERO ordinance in Houston, and from the fallout after the Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage in late June of this year. The LGBT community in Houston is on high alert following the demeaning heterosexist election, and the possible correlation between this killing and the outbreak of anti-LGBTQ violence in Dallas is coincidental only to those who intentionally look the other way.” Sprinkle went on to say that physical violence spikes after media attention like the Marriage Equality decision and the defeat of the equal rights ordinance in metro Houston.
Sarasota, Florida – The Associated Press carried this headline at 2 a.m. on September 11: Investigators Search for Man Who Set Fire at Gay Nightclub. According to the Orlando Sentinel, Sarasota County Sheriff’s Department officials say that neighbors of the popular gay nightclub reported it being on fire at approximately 9 a.m. this past Sunday. Officers are searching for a man in a dark, long-sleeved shirt and light colored shorts, carrying a gas can, who walked up the door of Throb Nightclub, and had his image captured by a surveillance video camera. He allegedly started the fire and ran from the scene. Authorities of the Florida State Fire Marshall’s Arson Unit and the sheriff’s office are asking the cooperation of the public in the search for a hate-filled perpetrator.
This troubling story caught the attention of Vicki Nantz, documentary film maker and LGBT advocate, who traces this anti-LGBT violence back to the speech and actions of Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk jailed for contempt of court for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses, and her attorney and co-founder of arch-conservative Liberty Counsel Mat Staver. Nantz, Producer/Director of films investigating violence against women and the LGBT community, warns her Facebook friends on this 9/11, “Be safe out there, everyone. Hate is in the air.”
What 9/11 has to do with an outbreak of anti-LGBT violence in southwest Florida fourteen years since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center Towers, the Pentagon, and the highjacking of United Airlines 93, drew the attention of Diana Butler Bass, the widely acclaimed commentator on the United States religious scene. Bass wrote on her Facebook wall for September 11, “One day, someone will write a book about how, in the early 21st century, we went from fearing and hating terrorists to fearing and hating people of differing political opinions. The sad and haunting legacy of 9/11 is thus.”
The disrubing irony of the heightened atmosphere of anti-LGBT rhetoric and violence on the 2015 anniversary of 9/11 noted by Nantz and Butler Bass is the courageous role openly gay heroes played on September 11, 2001. The Rev. Fr. Mychal Judge, Franciscan Chaplain of FDNY and one of the first firefighters to die in the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers, won his title as “the Saint of 9/11” that day. Avid rugby player Mark Bingham was one of the brave and desperate men who stormed the cockpit of UA Flight 93 over Pennsylvania, sacrificing himself to bring down the jet liner before its hijackers succeeded in crashing it into the White House or the U.S. Capitol Building. Both were openly gay men who threw themselves into the breach for their fellow human beings at a time of crisis and disaster. Both died sacrificially, not as any of the demeaning epithets being aimed at LGBT people by Cruz, Huckabee, Staver and their ilk since the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all fifty states, but as American heroes.
Butler Bass makes a convincing connection between the fear of terrorists stoked by politicians and pundits since the original September 11, and the demonization of persons of differing political views today. Fear not only twists the guts of the public. Its primitive energy offers craven haters with an ideological agenda to advance a ready vehicle to advance it. And she is also right that fear of the other has seeped so deeply into the American psyche that no community is immune from the temptation to spread rumor and innuendo against those who oppose them politically. Some LGBT people, for example, have indulged themselves in making cruel comments about the physical appearance of Kim Davis and her marital history. The vulnerability of LGBT people in America, however, calls for a reconsideration of post-9/11 manipulation of public fear.
Nantz helps us see that the threat of acts of violence against the lives and property of LGBT people is not simply another example of the political system in the Washington beltway gone awry. It has real consequences, from the arson at a gay nightclub to the epidemic murders of transgender women of color throughout the country. The hate in the air in post-9/11 America is a combination of the historical cultural loathing of LGBT people, and the cynical manipulation of a once-supreme white patriarchal group by the likes of presidential candidates and their legal and media henchmen. While they would deny any connection between their incitement of anti-LGBT sentiment and any outbreak of violence, their words and deeds are in the background of every hate crime perpetrated against the sexual and non-normative gender communities of America, and the reach of their cynical ideology is increasingly global. This anniversary of 9/11, our LGBT neighbors, families, co-workers, and friends are less safe in their persons, jobs, and property than they were even a year ago.
How we have declined from honoring the LGBT heroes of September 11 for their courage and sacrifice, to this 9/11 anniversary when anti-LGBT fear is being manipulated by calls for so-called “Religious Liberty” (read, “the re-imposition of oppression against gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual people”), is the book that cries out for someone to write. Hate is in the air this 9/11, and what it portends is something every American should be worried about.
Transgender Black Woman Murdered in Tampa, Tenth Trans Hate Killing of 2015; Where is the Cisgender Outrage?
Tampa, Florida – The lifeless body of trans woman India Clarke (25) was found near a community center basketball court this week. Cause of death is unknown as of this writing, though her upper body bears signs of bludgeoning with a blunt instrument. Clarke is the 10th transgender person murdered this year, according to some sources. If the past experience of the transgender community is any suggestion of the real number of hate crime homicides against trans people, especially trans women of color, 10 is probably a severe undercount, just the tip of a deadly ice berg. With social outrage over the unjust deaths of so many cisgender Americans over the past year, all of it so very necessary to spur fundamental change on matters of racial injustice, the absence of outcries against the decimation of the transgender community is so obvious as to be revelatory. Where is the cisgender outrage over transphobic hate crime murders?
The story line of murders perpetrated against transgender women of color is monstrously similar. In its press release on the killing of Ms. Clarke, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), headquartered in New York City, recounted the names of the 2015 victims of transphobic hatred we currently know:
1) Papi Edwards, black transgender woman, shot to death in Louisville, Kentucky, January 9.
2) Lamia Beard, black transgender woman, shot to death in Norfolk, Virginia, January 17.
3) Ty Underwood, black transgender woman, shot to death in Tyler, Texas, January 26.
4) Yazmin Vash Payne, black transgender woman, fatally stabbed in Los Angeles, California January 31.
5) Taja Gabrielle de Jesus, latina transgender woman, stabbed to death in San Francisco, California, February 1.
6) Penny Proud, black transgender woman, shot to death in New Orleans, Louisiana, February 10.
7) Kristina Gomez Reinwald, latina transgender woman, found murdered in Miami, Florida, February 15.
8) London Chanel, black transgender women, stabbed to death in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, May 8.
9) Mercedes Williamson, anglo transgender woman, fatally stabbed in George County, Mississippi, May 30.
Two other gender-non conforming persons have been murdered during the calendar year, anglo Bri Golec, stabbed to death in Akron, Ohio, and black Maya Hall, shot to death in Fort Meade, Maryland. The NCAVP is still investigating these killings to determine whether a transphobic motive lay behind their deaths.
NCAVP spokesperson Chai Jindasurat, decried India Clarke’s savage murder:
“India Clark’s death is a tragedy, which is made worse by egregious misgendering by local police and media. We must honor India Clarke, and all of the transgender women, especially teams women of color,” Jindasurat continued, “killed in this epidemic by supporting the leadership of transgender women, public awareness and respect campaigns, speaking out against this violence, and protecting transgender people from harassment and discrimination.”
Trans blogger Lexie Cannes notes the pattern playing out in Ms. Clarke’s homicide, made familiar by the well rehearsed outline of reports of transphobic murder in the mainstream media. She echoes the troubling findings of bloggers Monica Roberts and Carlos Maza who misguidedly, perhaps intentionally misidentifying the gender expression and identity of the victims as “men in dresses.” Cannes quotes Maza at some length:
“The cycle at its worst seems to be the same: a transgender person is found dead,” Maza writes, “law enforcement officials fail to acknowledge the victim’s gender identity, and local news outlets follow law enforcement’s lead, misgendering the victim despite often knowing how the victim wished to be publicly identified.
But failing to report the way Clarke is publicly identified,” Maza continues, “deprives audiences of the information they need to understand her death in the broader context of violence against transgender women. In instances where misgendering is intentional, it’s a statement that her gender identity is little more than a deceptive costume, not worthy of being taken seriously.”
So, where is the outrage from cisgender activists, ministers, and other citizens? Sadly and tellingly, the larger context of the way transgender victims of hate violence are misidentified and hammered in the mainstream press betrays a cultural dehumanization unworthy of the American spirit. Are trans people, especially trans people of color, partakers of a common humanity with us all? Until cisgender America faces their own transphobia, the brutality and dehumanization of our sisters and brothers will continue. This, in the opinion of the Unfinished Lives Project Team, is every bit as wrong as racism, and is racisms secret ally in staining the American conscience.