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.
Heidelberg, Pennsylvania – A gay man in a southwest suburb of Pittsburgh woke up screaming with his leg set afire by a couple of one-time “friends.” Steven Iorio, 37, of Heidelberg, fell into a deep sleep in the early hours of September 22 after a night of drinking, only to feel his left leg burning after two local men set it ablaze with a bottle of Bacardi 151 Rum, according to WXPI Channel 11 News. Iorio came back to an apartment complex on West Railroad Street and passed out on a couch to sleep off the effects of too much to drink at the Heidelway Bar and Restaurant. An eyewitness identified Brandon Washington, 25, and David A. Blair Jr., 31, of writing anti-gay epithets on Iorio’s jeans, and drawing on his face while he was sleeping. Then the pair soaked Iorio’s leg with the highly flammable rum, before Blair allegedly set the liquor on fire. Two other people from the apartments ran to see the source of the commotion after being roused by Iorio’s yells of pain.
Iorio’s friend, Tina Cook, told WXPI that she received a frantic early morning call, summoning her to the scene. After a look at the severity of the second and third degree burns on the back of Iorio’s leg, Cook insisted that he go to the hospital for treatment. She is clear on the anti-gay motivation for the immolation. “They wrote disturbing [anti-gay] things on his pants and drew on his face,” Cook said. Heidelberg Police Chief Vernon Barkeley told Chartiers Valley Patch blog that his department has been investigating the attack for the better part of a month to determine the identity of all the people inside the apartment living room when Iorio’s leg was set alight. Chief Vernon said that the attack could have endangered everyone present in the 13-unit apartment complex that night, had the blaze spread to draperies and the building. He described the continuing suffering the victim faces since the potentially fatal crime: “[Iorio] is still seeing doctors for these injuries while racking up numerous medical bills,” Barkley said. “He will have permanent scarring and is in pain daily.” Iorio will probably carry scars for the rest of his life as a reminder of the way his Allegheny County drinking buddies treat gays. As of this writing, he wounds have still not healed.
No news source to date says that the two alleged perpetrators of this deadly prank have been arrested for the crime. Instead, the pair was charged with aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, conspiracy, ethnic intimidation, and risking a catastrophe, and allowed to go home. Nor has there been any comment about what the eyewitness was doing when the two men who proved to be anything but friends, were setting Iorio afire.
When Steven Iorio was asked by a WXPI reporter if he considered Blair and Washington “friends,” he answered with a resounding “No!”
Washington, DC – On a red letter day when lawmakers voted to end the most notorious anti-gay policy in the federal canon, LGBT servicemembers and veterans who have been murdered because of their sexual and gender non-conformity must not be forgotten during the celebrations over passage of repeal of DADT. In a historic vote in the history of the human rights movement, the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to end the ban on LGBT patriots from serving openly in the armed services of the United States. Saturday afternoon, 65 Senators voted for repeal with 31 in opposition. A simple majority of 51 was all that was required for passage of the Senate bill, which is identical to the one passed earlier in the week by the House of Representatives. Eight GOP Senators joined their Democratic colleagues to pass the repeal of the 17-year-old discriminatory policy that ended the military careers of 13,500 women and men because of their sexual orientation. Joe Manchin, the freshman Senator for West Virginia, was the only Democrat not voting for passage. According to the New York Times, his office informed the public that he had a “family commitment” he could not break.The bill now goes to President Obama for his signature to set the repeal in motion. GOP opponents of the repeal criticized the Democratic leadership of the Senate for the vote in the lame duck session just before the Holiday recess. Senator Carl Levin, the chair of the Senate Armed Service Committee, disputed the Republican claims that Democrats were ramming legislation through just to please the so-called “gay lobby.” In remarks to the New York Times, Senator Levin (D-Michigan) said: “I’m not here for partisan reasons. I’m here because men and women wearing the uniform of the United States who are gay and lesbian have died for this country, because gay and lesbian men and women wearing the uniform of this country have their lives on the line right now.” Yet it is not only for the living that this vote is significant. Our military dead are honored by this historic vote to end anti-LGBT discrimination, among whom are far too many gay servicemembers who were killed because of their sexual orientation. Our gay military martyrs, murdered because of homophobia, heterosexism, and transphobia in the armed services loom large in the memory of the LGBTQ community today because they are both a sign of hope and caution. They are a sign of hope that no more women and men need lose their lives in the military because of their sexual orientation and gender presentation. They are a sign of caution, because the passage of DADT repeal in no way guarantees the end of anti-gay violence in the military. We must name our LGBT military dead until violence against queer servicemembers ceases forever: Seaman Allen Schindler was beaten to death by shipmates in a public toilet in Sasebo, Japan. PFC Barry Winchell was murdered with a baseball bat in the Army barracks at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Seaman August Provost was shot to death on base in San Diego, and then his body was set afire in a guard shack in the vain attempt to destroy evidence of the murder. Army veteran Michael Scott Goucher was lured into a fatal ambush by local youths near his home in Pennsylvania. These four are representative of the many more slaughtered by ignorance and hate by fellow servicemembers and civilians. Pundits say that after President Obama signs the Repeal Act into law, it will still take at least sixty days for the military ban to be lifted for LGBT military personnel. Until that time, the current discriminatory law stays in effect. But the culture of violence that harasses and kills LGBT women and men who wear the uniform remains virulently poised to take more lives until the root of fear is eliminated in the armed services. To that end, the historic passage of the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is simply the beginning of a new campaign, in the name of our gay military martyrs, to replace the fear and loathing of the sexual minority with education and respect.
Michael Scott Goucher, 21, thought he was meeting Shawn “Skippy” Freemore, 19, for a second tryst when he left his Stroudsburg, PA, apartment on the night of February 3, 2009 (see Towleroad, “Internet Tryst Leads to Murder of Pennsylvania Army Veteran, 2/13/2009”). Instead, Goucher was being set up for murder. Goucher met Freemore online. According to his MySpace page, Freemore identified as bisexual, but more interested in men. After the initial meet up in January, Freemore enlisted his friend, Ian Seagraves, 17, to ambush Goucher.
Goucher followed Freemore out of his car in a wooded area off of Snow Hill Road in Price Township. Seagraves, who was hiding under a nearby bridge, surprised Goucher, stabbing him in the neck. During the attack, his two assailants stabbed Goucher “45 to 50 times” according to police affadavits. They rifled his pockets, taking credit cards, his ID, and a cell phone. A DVD belonging to Goucher was later confiscated at Seagraves’ home. They covered his body with snow, and drove his car away.
When he was arrested, Freemore contended that he had acted alone and used the “gay panic” defense, saying that he resisted Goucher’s sexual advances in the car, and only after Goucher pursued him outside, stabbed him in the neck and stomach “about 20 times.” On February 11, 2009, Freemore showed police the location of Goucher’s body. Detectives secured a knife and a meat cleaver near the body, and a roll of duct tape with Seagraves’ fingerprint under the bridge. Seagraves, who apparently celebrated his part in the murder by changing his MySpace moniker to “ThrOwt Stabba,” was soon arrested, and the pair is now charged with premeditated murder.
This is one murder the FBI will surely miss in its Hate Crimes Statistics. The murky details of online hookups, closeted gayness, and bisexuality mingle with drug and alcohol addiction (on Freemore’s part at least), theft, and the involvement of the teenage men in a violence-exalting subculture called “the Juggaloes.” Anti-gay hate murder has been facilitated online before, as the story of Michael J. Sandy showed in 2006, as well as the role that homosexual self-loathing plays in the psychological makeup of some attackers. But this was a brutal, homophobia-instigated and motivated hate crime.
Goucher, a U.S. Army veteran, was a contributing member of his community. He worked for the local school system, and volunteered as the assistant organist of the Zion United Church of Christ in Stroudsburg, where he had impressed the pastor and the membership with his talent, sincerity, and friendliness. He was captain of the East Stroudsburg Crime Watch. He was a gay man. Though he came out to his family as early as 14, according to his uncle, William Searfoss, Goucher did keep his orientation from his Army superiors.
His killers will be judged according to the evidence. Allegedly, they own the guilt for this terrible crime. But Freemore and Seagraves are, in their own ways, victims of American-style homophobia, too. They were products of the same school system as Michael Goucher. They loathed gay men enough to turn a consensual sexual encounter into a bloodbath, with all the marks of homophobic overkill. They victimized Michael Goucher, giving way to their own self-loathing.
UPDATE: Following a Supreme Court ruling that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without parole, Ian Seagraves was given a new hearing in hopes of securing a lesser sentence. His attorney filed a petition to the court based on the Supreme Court decision. But the judge was unmoved by the arguments, and after hearing the profanity laced lyrics of Seagraves’ song about the Goucher murder, reaffirmed the sentence Seagraves was serving. Goucher’s uncle, William Searfoss, said to PA Homepage, that the focus of the story can now return to Michael Goucher: “This isn’t about [Seagraves]. This is about Mike.”
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.