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.
This is not the first time the bar has been targeted by threats, but the owner, Robert Eikleberry, acknowledged that the anthrax bluff and accompanying note has been by far the most drastic. Eikleberry told the Register that Blazing Saddles, one of the oldest gay bars in operation in the state of Iowa, has been “the biggest target in town” for years. He described his reaction to the incident to EDGEBoston: “I opened it up, white powder popped out, and it was an inflammatory letter. ‘Hate fags, gonna blow this up, gonna blow that up, gonna roast you all after pride’,” he said.
As Gay Star News reports the story, Eikleberry elaborated on terrorist-like threats Wiethorn aimed at him and the patrons of his bar. The message of the letter was, in part, “It’s time for all the faggots and dykes to die on Capital Pride night! Your secret enemies are going to blow up your destination for going to hell tonight, and we’re going to eat roast faggot the following morning. This is your punishment for sinning against God, and hopefully you’ll die from the anthrax on this letter!” Eikleberry went on to say that when the white powder came out at him from the envelope, he called the police immediately. “I opened the mail up thinking it was a thank you letter, it turned out to be a hate letter,” he said.
Police swiftly launched an investigation into the terror threat against the bar and the LGBTQ community, and identified Wiethorn as their top suspect. Under interrogation, Wiethorn admitted sending the letter. He is being held in the Polk County Jail on $2000 bond pending trial.
Fresno, California – Two gay men well-known in Fresno as drag artists say the arson attack on their vehicle was a hate crime solely because of their sexuality. Local law enforcement authorities are investigating the possibility that they are right. ABC Action News 30 reports that Brandon Jackson and his partner Chris Ruiz rushed to stop the fire that had been set to their SUV, but too late to save thousands of dollars of wigs and costumes they use in one of the most successful drag shows in Fresno County.
Ruiz told Fresno County Sheriff’s Deputies that as he ran out of the house to help douse the flames consuming their vehicle, a former lover of his partner’s mother confronted him with a torrent of anti-gay slurs. According to Ruiz, Chuck Bullock Jr. yelled at him, claiming to have set the blaze, “I’m lighting your f***ing car on fire f****t!” Jackson and Ruiz also say that Bullock, whose father was a Christian minister, demeaned them with a flood of Bible verses, condemning them for being abominations. The use of anti-LGBTQ slurs is a prime marker suggesting that the attack was bias motivated, and Deputies are investigating for a hate crime dimension.
After the attack, Bullock allegedly took responsibility for the crime in text messages sent to Jackson’s mother, his ex-lover. He used more anti-gay slurs in the texts and accentuated his profanity with the threat, “I’m going to burn you down!” Officers went to Bullock’s father’s home Tuesday looking for the suspect, but were unsuccessful.
ABC 30 videoed the wreckage of the totaled SUV: the melted interior, the charred remains of gowns and wigs, and even the imprints of Jackson’s hand on the hood where he vainly attempted to put the fire out with his bare hands. Jackson managed to put out the fire with a garden hose. “The smell was god-awful and then it just looked as if it was melting – waxworks — it just looked like it was melting,” he told ABC 30 reporters. “And this was because, simply because of my sexuality.” Thankfully, the loss of the vehicle, while costly, could have been far worse, and Jackson and Ruiz know it. Their SUV is a total loss, but they were the real target. They could have been immolated in their own home.
Seattle, Washington – Openly gay Mayor Ed Murray and Councilwoman Kshama Sawant were targeted with a cascade of hate-filled, anti-gay messages on Facebook on January 14–just nine days after they were sworn into office in Seattle. Now, a Magnolia man stands accused of cyberstalking and hate crimes because of his alleged homophobic tirades and threats, according to Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch. SPLC reports that King County prosecutors charge Michael Munro Taylor, 32, with threatening the life of Mayor Murray, the city’s first openly gay mayor, and Sawant, an outspoken socialist, in a torrent of incriminating emails sent to the city officials.
Omaha, Nebraska – A straight friend of two gays stepped up to defend them from harassment by three belligerent men, and received a thrashing for it. Refusing to retaliate, Ryan Langenegger stood his ground, battered and bloody, and asked his assailants the one question all fearful, homophobic people should have to answer: “Why?”
KMTV Action News 3 reports that Langenegger, who self-identifies as heterosexual, and his out gay friends, Josh Foo and Jacob Gellinger, had dropped into Omaha’s popular Old Market late Saturday night to grab a bite to eat at PepperJax Grill when the three alleged homophobes approached their table. Gellinger who was wearing a dress that evening was the initial target of the most vocal of the men, who called him “disgusting” and the others “faggots.” Attempting to avoid a confrontation, Gellinger, Foo, and Langenegger left the grill, but their three harassers followed them outside and intensified their name-calling. According to Huffington Post, Langenegger stepped between the belligerents and his friends, saying that they should just leave the gay men alone. One of the verbal assailants then punched Langenegger so hard it chipped two of his teeth, deeply gashed his brow between his eyes, and left his face a bloody wreck.
Josh Foo wrote up his own account of what happened on his Facebook page, expressing appreciation for the courage of his straight friend. Referring to a photo of Langenegger taken soon after the assault, Foo posted: “This photo was taken soon after Ryan stood up for my friend and I after being called ‘faggots’,’disgusting’, etc. by a group of men at a restaurant who then followed us outside. We did not provoke this in anyway and also did not retaliate after the assault. Ryan, after being hit, paused and looked at the men and asked ‘Why’? which was the question we were all wondering since we did not do anything wrong besides be ourselves. What Ryan did meant a lot to me and I thank him for standing up for his friends and accepting them for who they are in everyway. He’s a great friend. The world needs more people like him.”
In an interview with KMTV 3, Langenegger called the entire incident “sad, very sad,” going on the say that he sees this sort of harassment against gay people all the time in Omaha. Asked if he thought standing up for his friends was worth the beating he took, Langenegger said “yes!” with no hesitation, adding “It just makes no sense this day and age and in Omaha, for all of this stuff to still be happening and out in the streets.” He hopes that the news of this unprovoked attack will serve as a wake-up call to the LGBTQ community.
Meanwhile, authorities are seeking leads in the case. In the face of unreasoning hatred, Ryan Langenegger’s one-word question demands an answer on behalf of us all: “Why?” May Mr. Langenegger’s tribe increase everywhere, until homophobia, heterosexism, and transphobia have vanished from among us.
Hernandez was elected to a vacant seat on the Sunnyside Unified School System governing board in 2011. Huffington Post reports that at least two scurrilous flyers attacking Hernandez’s sexual orientation and his position on gun control appeared at the same time the recall conflict broke out on the school board. While other school board members are being targeted for recall, Hernandez is the only recall target whose sexuality and character are being smeared.
Right Wing Watch first called attention to the smear flyers which were passed out to constituents anonymously. The caption surrounding a flyer photograph of Hernandez speaking at an Equality Forum reads: “Put a REAL Man on the Sunnyside Board. Daniel Hernandez is LGBT. We need someone who will support Sports and cares about our kids. We don’t need someone who hates our values. RECALL Daniel Hernandez TODAY.” A second flyer attacks Hernandez’s position on guns, deeply ironic given the savage shooting that wounded Representative Giffords and killed several constituents at a Congressional town hall meeting.
The nasty, homophobic nature of the flyers is not news. Tactics like these have been influencing votes and voters for decades in Arizona and around the nation. What is newsworthy, however, is the forthright manner in which Hernandez, an openly gay man, is refusing to succumb to the smears. According to LGBTQ Nation, Hernandez has called for his opponents in the recall effort to distance themselves totally from these anti-gay tactics, and denounce anyone who supports such underhanded politics. Furthermore, in another unprecedented move, U.S. Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) has asked the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the attacks on Hernandez’s sexual orientation as a bias-motivated hate crime.
Hernandez’s recall opponents are scrambling to distance themselves from the hate attacks against a bona fide national hero who happens to be openly gay. The investigation as it proceeds should uncover whatever links may exist between the recall effort and homophobic intent.