by Stephen V. Sprinkle
A paraphrase of Edwin Markham’s poem, “Victory in Defeat,” goes something like this: “Defeat as well as victory can shake the soul and let the glory out.” We are here tonight to tell the history of hope, not hate: hope born out of the hateful deaths of two men ten years ago, James Byrd, Jr. of Jasper, Texas, and Matthew Wayne Shepard of Laramie, Wyoming. Their stories brought us all together tonight. A decade ago, in the United States of America, they each died brutally at the hands of men who had learned to hate someone different.
Dragged behind a pickup truck in the Lone Star State of Texas for over three miles, James Byrd, Jr. died dismembered in a ditch in the wee hours of a June Sunday morning. People going to church found his body, minus his head and right arm, lying in the road in front of a little cemetery. They called the police, and as the police were speeding on their way to the crime scene, other citizens flagged them down because they had found James Byrd’s head in a drainage ditch.
Bludgeoned into a fatal coma with the butt of a .357 Magnum pistol, young Matthew Shepard was robbed of his shoes, his wallet, and ultimately his life in the Equality State of Wyoming on a cold October night. High in the desolate prairie, Matt’s bloody, broken body was trussed to a buck fence where he was abandoned to freezing wind and unforgiving sun for over 18 hours. When his near-lifeless body was found, the deputy sheriff who cut him free from that buck fence testified that he no longer looked like a human being, but more like a beaten Halloween scarecrow, limp on the ground. She said that his face was slathered with blood except for the tracks of his tears on his cheeks where the blood had been washed away. A few days later, Matt’s heart gave out, and he lost his fight for life in an Intensive Care unit.
Yes, defeat can shake the soul. That is what the poet, Edwin Markham said. Markham was a youth in the American Civil War, and the cataclysm of war ravaged the country in the years of the poet’s childhood. African Americans know the earthquakes of hatred and defeat. Long after that awful war was over, new battles faced African Americans, new defeats challenged hope with hate. Jim Crow, Separate But Equal, Strange Fruit with so many thousands lost to the rope that a sinister new term had to be invented to describe it: “lynching.” Hanging from the limbs of southern trees, shot and cut by the Ku Klux Klan, bombed in their Sunday School rooms, cut down by gunfire on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel… in the defeat of death they lay like rows of grain chopped down in a grisly harvest. We remember their names: Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Emmet Till, the four little girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham: Addie May Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair. Their killings and the murders of too many others to recount tonight show us what hate crimes against a whole race of people can do to shake the soul.
Another slow-rolling holocaust swept the United States from the time in the late 19th century when the term “homosexual” was first coined by doctors who said it was a disease. Who someone loved had already been contested ground in America. In 1958, Mildred Jeter (a woman of white, African-American and Native American heritage) and Richard Loving (a white man) fell in love in the racially mixed, low-income farmland of Caroline County, Virginia. Because of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, they traveled to Washington, D. C. to get married. Shortly after their return to Virginia, police burst into their bedroom at 3 a.m., arrested husband and wife, and carried them away to jail. The Lovings pleaded guilty to being married; they were sentenced to one year in prison. Though the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Virginia law against “miscegenation,” or interracial marriage, in 1967, there are haters who still believe loving someone is a crime worthy of death.
Though silent and hidden for much of the 20th Century, loving someone of the same gender, or seeking to live into a different gender than the one assigned at birth by a doctor, or even being perceived as belonging to such an orientation has often meant assassination and terror. The defeat of death has shaken the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community, with thousands of fatal attacks throughout this land of the free. Their homes have been desecrated, their bars bombed and burned. They are shot in their classrooms before the eyes of their fellow students, beaten to death with fists and clubs, mutilated with knives, and immolated on stacks of kerosene-soaked tires down lonely, desolate roads. Their lives were counted as less worthy than the lives of other citizens, and scriptures have been endlessly quoted to justify their extermination. We remember their names, tonight, too: Harvey Milk and Diane Whipple, Larry King and Simmie Williams, Billy Jack Gaither and Scotty Joe Weaver, Talana Quay Kreeger and Sakia LaTona Gunn, Paul Broussard, Nicolas West, and Kenneth Cummings, Jr., Fred C. Martinez, Jr., Amancio Corrales, and Gwen Amber Rose Araujo.
The ground of hope on which we stand tonight still shakes with the defeat death brings to African Americans and LGBT Americans. Too many times our respective communities have been shaken apart by differences. As the Dallas Voice has said, it would be hard to find lives of two men more different than the lives of James Byrd, Jr. and Matthew Shepard. James Byrd was a 49-year-old black man, a father and a grandfather, living in Southeast Texas. Matthew Shepard was a 21-year-old white man, a son of privilege going to school at the University of Wyoming.
One of them was a political science major, longing to advocate for the poor and oppressed, ready to launch out into life for the very first time. One of them was unemployed, living on disability checks, and like the Black Church tradition sometimes says, “tryin’ to make a way out of no way.”
But if they are indeed united in the defeat of death, the souls of the Byrd Family and the Shepard Family shaken by the earthquake of terror that only a hate crime can effect, we believe James Byrd and Matthew Shepard are united in something far wider and more vast than the shadow of death. They are forever united in the history of hope, a living hope, a hope worth living for.
James Byrd, Jr. and Matthew Shepard represent living hope. As Rev. Karen Thompson, Senior Pastor of MCC Austin at Freedom Oaks has said so well, “It is important that we not let our lasting images of these two men…be images of them as victims of hate. Rather,” she goes on to say, “we are called by their memories to do all we can to ensure that hate will not be the final word.” Ignorance and fear would have us accept defeat in the face of hate, but we cannot do that, because we cannot permit the killers to own the stories of James Byrd, Jr. and Matthew Shepard.
When the intense spotlight of publicity glared down on the families of these slain men, the Byrd Family and the Shepard Family showed the way to healing and not hate.
Ten years ago, Diane Hardy-Garcia, former executive director of the parent organization of what is now Equality Texas, approached Stella and James Byrd, Sr. to ask that a Hate Crimes act be named after their son. As she recounted recently to the Dallas Voice, “[James Byrd, Jr.’s] mother was so gracious to us. I explained the history [of the Hate Crimes Law in Texas] to them, and how it had failed before and how we wanted to present it this time as a whole package. And I told her, ‘I’ve got to tell you the truth. I think they will pass it if it is just about race. The hang up is including sexual orientation.’
“I had given [Mrs. Byrd] my card,” Hardy-Garcia remembered, “which clearly said Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby.” After about a minute of silence, Mrs. Byrd said, “Follow me,” and took Hardy-Garcia into a room filled with condolence gifts from all over the world. Then Mrs. Byrd said, “I sent Matthew Shepard’s mother a note. We don’t have a problem.” Though the James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act went down to defeat the first time, as Hardy-Garcia predicted it might because of the inclusion of sexual orientation, the Byrd Family never wavered in their steadfast support.
The Byrd Family kept on calling for healing, not hating, and went on to establish the James Byrd, Jr. Foundation for Racial Healing. Ross Byrd, James Byrd, Jr.’s son, has chosen to oppose the death penalty, and he has campaigned against executing the very men who bludgeoned, spray painted, and chained his father to the back end of a pickup truck, dragging him to his death—all because he and his family believe in hope, not hate.
Matthew Shepard’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, chose hope, not hate, and spoke out against the execution of the two young men who killed their son. Along with Matt’s younger brother, Logan, the Shepards became active in educating against hate through the Matthew Shepard Foundation, an organization they founded to erase hatred through programs of diversity and education.
No one has been more courageously outspoken for the passage of state and federal hate crimes legislation than Judy Shepard, who has said to all who will hear her:
“Matt is no longer with us today because the men who killed him learned to hate. Somehow and somewhere they received the message that the lives of gay people are not as worthy of respect, dignity and honor as the lives of other people. They were given the impression that society condoned or at least was indifferent to violence against gay and lesbian Americans.”
She went on to say, “Today, we have it within our power to send a very different message than the one received by the people who killed my son. It is time to stop living in denial and to address a real problem that is destroying families like mine, James Byrd Jr.’s, and many others across America.”
If we are to rise to the challenge these two great families give us, to shake the soul of Texas and the nation, and to let the glory of a better, more just America shine through, then we have to get real about what it means to live out the hope we proclaim tonight.
- The real problem is that it is ten years since the murders of James Byrd, Jr. and Matthew Shepard, and the United States still does not have a federal hate crimes law that includes sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. There is still no Matthew Shepard Act on the books ten years after—why not?
- The real problem is that even when the Lone Star State has a hate crimes law, the James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act, though there have been over 1800 hate crimes perpetrated in Texas since its passage, there have been only nine hate crimes cases tried under the provisions of this law. Ten years after, why only nine?
- The real problem is that hate crimes are real and are on the rise in America. Don’t let anyone tell you there are not such things as hate crimes, or that “all murders are alike, and we already have the laws to cover them.” Hate crimes are brutally real, targeting whole populations of people with acts of terror. Hate crimes are significantly more violent and brutal than any other forms of domestic crime. You see, every locale and demographic of American society are affected: First Nations, Anglo, Black, Latino/Latina, South and Southeast Asian, Transgender, Gay Men, Lesbians, Disabled, young and mature. Homophobia and racism have long, crooked arms, reaching out to snatch the life away from women and men whose murders are underreported to begin with, and whose memories vanish so quickly.
We can’t talk about crimes like these tonight in the abstract. What does hate crime look like in the year 2008? Here is what it looks like:
- February 14, 2008: the senseless shooting of Lawrence “Larry” King, 15 years old, who was targeted because of his sexual orientation and non-conformity with traditional gender roles, in Oxnard, CA.
- June 17, 2008: a hate crime attack perpetrated by 12 young men and women against Black teenager Tizaya Robinson, 17 years old, in Marshfield, MA.
- July 17, 2008: the brutal and tragic hate murder of male-to-female transgender Latina, Angie Zapata, 18 years old, in Greeley, CO.
- July 29, 2008: the killing of Luis Eduardo Ramirez Zavala, 25 years old, an undocumented Mexican immigrant of Shenandoah, PA who was fatally beaten at the hands of five white teenagers.
- September 4, 2008: openly gay man, Richard Hernandez, 34 years old, murdered and dismembered inside his apartment in Dallas, TX.
- October 6, 2008: Pvt. 2nd Class Michael Handman, 20 years old, a Jewish soldier in the US Army, was moved to a secure location at Fort Benning, GA far from the scene of an anti-Semitic assault by a fellow soldier that left him hospitalized with a concussion and other serious injuries.
What must we then do, if we are to move through the manifold defeats of hate crime violence in this land, to a land of hope, and not hate? Like you, I take courage from the leadership of the Byrd and Shepard Families. Like you, I need that courage tonight, to rededicate myself to healing and not hating, to hope, and not hate.
I believe we must first move past our personal feelings of powerlessness and denial, beyond the natural psychological barriers we all face when we stare into the mirror of such violence, and see our own part in it. Oh, yes, though it would be convenient to lay the blame exclusively somewhere else, we in the LGBT and Racial/Ethnic minority communities still have much understanding to learn, and much forgiveness to ask of each other, if we are ever to move beyond being defeated people ourselves, and find our way together into a better future for all our people. Sweet Honey in the Rock, an all-female Black a capella choir, say it this way in the lyrics of their song, “Rise in Love”:
We have much work to do if we are to live into the hope we long for and talk about. We must renew our efforts to name, claim and reject the racism that too many LGBT people harbor against people of color, and to name, claim and reject the homophobia and heterosexism that too many racial/ethnic communities still hold against gay folk. We have to get over it! In a paraphrase of the Good Book, how can we say that we love justice and harbor ill will against others of us? We have to get “shook up and shook a-loose” ourselves if we are ever to lead our nation to a better society.
And finally, we must move beyond just feeling bad about injustice. Americans are good about feeling bad. Perhaps we get angry, perhaps we get mad enough when we hear the outrageous stories of hate crimes in our community that we pay attention for a news cycle or two. Perhaps we attend a rally like this, and even write a little check to an advocacy group. And once we are past the first flush of emotion, then the economy gets our attention, or the fine Texas autumn, and we go dormant until hate strikes again, for hate surely will strike again if we do not act. Yes, Americans are good at feeling bad, until we start to feel better.
We cannot afford to let emotion alone motivate the work of justice. We who believe in justice cannot rest! We who believe in justice cannot rest until it comes! (An homage to “Ella’s Song,” by Sweet Honey in the Rock.) When memory shakes the soul like an earthquake, we have the obligation and opportunity to remember James Byrd, Jr., and refuse to rest until Texas perfects the hate crimes statutes it has, and applies them not just nine times, but all 1800 times.
We who believe in justice cannot rest! We who believe in justice cannot rest until it comes! When a mother like Judy Shepard challenges us to send a different message to America than the one delivered by the men who killed her son, we must embrace that memory with all its pain, and break out of defeat into action. We must join Judy Shepard in agitating our lawmakers and opinion-makers until the Matthew Shepard Act is passed in the new Congress, and signed into law by a new President of these United States.
We who believe in justice cannot rest! We who believe in justice cannot rest until it comes! Until Black folks and gay folks, women and men, Latinos and Latinas, and all the citizens of this nation can live free and love without fear of acts of violence, until hate is overcome by acts of love and forgiveness and hope, until the glory of this land of the free and this home of the brave shines on all people without distinction and without discrimination.
Not another ten years! Not another 12 months! This very night, each one here must find the courage and resolve to lift up Byrd and Shepard as signs of our hope, a hope worth working for, a hope worth agitating for, a hope worth staying shook up about…
For we who believe in justice cannot rest! We who believe in justice cannot rest until it comes!
Stephen V. Sprinkle
The Unfinished Lives Project
The Hate Crimes Bill has provided an excellent summary of a new report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs showing anti-LGBT violence has been on the rise since the murder of Lawrence “Larry” King in Oxnard, California, at the beginning of this year.
“The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) reports a recent rash of at least 13 brutal and violent hate crimes that have occurred throughout the country on the heels of the murder of 15 year-old Lawrence King in Los Angeles and the brutal beating of Duanna Johnson, both in February of 2008,” says the Hate Crimes Bill’s website. “NCAVP reports that these hate crimes may indicate a frightening trend of increases in both the number and severity of anti-LGBT violence.”
The NCAVP findings come after several anti-LGBT hate crimes, including the police beating of a transgender woman in Memphis, Tennessee; the harassment and beating of a gay man on a New York subway; the murder of a transgender woman in Memphis, Tennessee; the alleged police beating of a gay man in Greeley, Colorado; the beating of a priest in Queens, New York, for protecting a group of LGBT youth living at a shelter for homeless youth; the midnight home-invasion and arson, in Central New York, by a self-proclaimed Neo-Nazi, who targeted a sleeping 65-year-old gay man (the victim was able to flee the home, unhurt); the fatal bludgeoning of 18-year-old Angie Zapata, a transgender Latina woman in Greeley, Colorado; the beating of gay man Jimmy Lee Dean, in Dallas, Texas, whose injuries were so severe that he was in intensive care and could not be interviewed or identified until five days after the crime; the severe injury of a man in upstate New York, whose two assailants beat, kicked, and shouted anti-gay slurs until they had broken ten bones in their victim’s face; the attack against an 18-year-old living in St Helens, in the United Kingdom, who died a week later from his injuries; the (at least partially) anti-gay-motivated shooting rampage in a Knoxville, Tennessee, church that claimed two lives and wounded seven others; the mob-beating and stabbing of a man perceived to be gay in Staten Island, New York; the ongoing and escalating harassment (for nearly 8 years) of a gay male couple living in Cleveland, Ohio, by anti-gay neighbors; and the ongoing and escalating harassment (for nearly 20 years) of a gay male couple living in a rural Pennsylvania town, who have suffered incidents of gunfire, vandalism, stalking, acts of intimidation, and the indifference from local police.
In a grim coincidence, more than one anti-LGBT hate crime has occurred in both Memphis, Tennessee, and Greeley, Colorado, since the beginning of 2008.
Unfinished Lives also offers our own analysis of the significance of anti-LGBT hate-crime statistics in the United States. The NCAVP’s findings and the Hate Crimes Bill’s detailed summary confirm what has been a growing concern for LGBT persons living in the United States.
July 21 marks the birthday of Satendar Singh, the victim of a 2007 anti-gay hate crime in Lake Natoma State Park in California. Russian evangelical Christians mobbed Satendar, shouted homophobic slurs, and beat him severely enough to cause a fatal brain injury. What began as a day to picnic and dance with friends is now a day of mourning for the LGBT community.
On Satendar’s birthday, we remember and celebrate his life. Singh would have been 28 years old today.
This “Being Gay Today” video describes the events leading to Satendar Singh’s death: