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.
Corpus Christi, Texas – A gay university student says he was captured, beaten for hours, raped, and would surely have died if he had not escaped his assailants through a window. Keire Gartica, 25, a Texas A&M Corpus Christi Political Science student, was found naked and bleeding from multiple wounds on Thursday after his harrowing escape. The police took him to a hospital where he was treated and released. Gartica says his attackers, two Hispanic men in their 20s or 30s, held him hostage and repeatedly assaulted him, calling him racial and homophobic slurs, after he came by their house on Elizabeth Street to repay a $5 debt he owed them.
KRIS TV News reports that police are treating the investigation as a simple assault until the District Attorney makes a determination on hate crimes charges. Gartica, in the meanwhile, has left Corpus Christi for his home in another locale to recover from his wounds. According to his Facebook page, authorities are “dragging their feet,” and police have not yet interviewed him about the heinous hate crime which took place almost a week ago. On Sunday, Gartica posted: “I was the victim of a heinous hate crime that has rendered me a shell of myself. Action ten news in Corpus is covering the story and I conducted an extended interview that airs tonight at ten. There is also footage of me immediately after my escape thursday night on the action ten site… the people responsible for this will be held accountable and brought to justice.”
The attack was prolonged and brutal. Gartica told KZTV 10 reporters that he was forced to clean the house naked by his assailants, who beat him with a belt buckle, glass cups, a frying pan, a pistol, and their fists while he complied in fear of his life. At one point, an attacker threw bleach in his eyes, blinding him. The men debased him racially, and violated him sexually with a variety of items. Gartica is certain he would not be alive today if he had not taken a chance and jumped out of a window.
Now Gartica, shaken by his ordeal, has lost his sense of security. He says he will not feel safe again until his attackers are apprehended and are behind bars. As he said in a telephone interview for Six News, “I don’t feel right at all. It’s hard to fathom that this actually happened. It doesn’t seem like this actually happened.” Though Gartica is appreciative of the outpouring of support for him by friends and classmates all over the state of Texas, he posted on his Facebook page,“It has been almost a week. I just feel powerless.”
Lamar County, Texas – The first of three accused gay bashers has been sentenced to eight years in prison by a Paris, Texas court on Thursday, February 23, following a plea bargain agreement. As reported in the Dallas Voice, James Mitchell Laster, 33, pled guilty to assault with a deadly weapon in the October 30, 2011 attack on Burke Burnett, a gay man who was attending a pre-Halloween party with friends at the time of the hate crime assault. Burnett, 26, was beaten, bruised, and burned when Laster and two other men yelling anti-gay slurs bodily threw him into a burning garbage barrel because he was gay. The story made national news because of the graphic nature of Burnett’s injuries. Gary Young, Lamar County District Attorney, released at statement to the Paris News, saying that Laster also pled guilty to the hate crime enhancement charge lodged against him for his role in the brutal attack. Laster will have to serve at least four years of his sentence before he becomes eligible for parole.
25-year-old Micky Joe Smith of Brookston, and 33-year-old Daniel Shawn Martin of Paris are still in jail pending trial for their part in the savage gay bashing of Burnett, who received 3o stitches to close his wounds, and suffered second-degree burns over a good portion of his body from being thrown in the burning trash barrel. Burnett, who now lives in Houston, was unavailable for comment on the sentence at the time of this report.
Significantly, this case is one of the few recent instances when the Texas hate crimes law has been invoked in sentencing. The Austin American-Statesman reported in January 2012 that the Texas statute has had “little effect” in prosecuting bias-motivated crimes in the Lone Star State. Since the law was passed in 2001, there have been no fewer than 2000 cases in the state which were bias-motivated, yet the hate crimes statute was invoked in only ten of these prosecutions. The reluctance of Texas prosecutors to use the hate crimes statute stands in sharp contrast to California, where prosecutors filed hate crimes charges in 230 cases in 2010 alone, and New York, where around a dozen hate crimes are prosecuted a year. The use of the Texas hate crime law in the Laster sentencing may set a precedent for its use by prosecutors in the two remaining trials stemming from the Burnett gay bashing.
Washington, D.C. The Washington Blade reports that over 200 attended a Tuesday vigil for a slain transgender woman at the bus stop where she died just the week before. Members of the family of the victim, Deoni Jones, appealed to the large crowd to help develop leads for the police, an appeal that appears to have borne fruit.
Ms. Jones, 23, was waiting for a bus at approximately 8:15 p.m. on February 2 when a male stepped forward and stabbed her in the face, a wound the autopsy report says was the fatal blow. The suspect was caught on a surveillance video, and according to breaking news from WJLA.com, Metropolitan Police have arrested 55-year-old Gary Niles Montgomery and charged him as Jones’s alleged murderer. It has not yet been determined whether anti-transgender hate crimes charges will also be filed against Montgomery. He appeared in court for his arraignment on February 11, and is being held without bail. His preliminary hearing is scheduled for February 24.
This horrible attack is the third murder of a transgender woman in Washington, D.C. in a little over a year. The two previous transphobic murders remain unsolved, and the city’s transgender community has called for more comprehensive protection.
Santa Maria, California – A 25-year-old man pled no contest on Wednesday to the attempted murder of a gay waiter, and received a 26-years-to-life sentence for the homophobic hate crime attack. Curtis Martin gained entrance to Denny’s Restaurant on East Main Street in Santa Maria just before opening time on a day in mid-September 2010 on the pretense of using the restroom. Once inside, Martin asked a waiter whether he was gay, and then stabbed him twice, once on the side of the neck and then in his throat, according to Central Coast News. Witnesses testified that Martin was yelling anti-gay epithets at his victim as he carried out the brutal attack. He fled in a car, but Santa Maria Police apprehended him within a few blocks of the restaurant. The victim survived, and is still recovering from the aftermath of his wounds.
Mercury News reports that Martin was charged with a hate crime which enhanced his sentence for attempted murder with a deadly weapon. No other motive has been uncovered for the crime than irrational hatred of someone he perceived to be gay. The assailant and his victim did not know each other prior to the savage attack. As Instinct Magazine suggests, now even an American dining icon like Denny’s is no longer exempt from hate crimes against LGBTQ people. We at Unfinished Lives hope Martin serves his full sentence. No one should have to fear going out to eat because of their sexual orientation.
Russellville, Arkansas – Jake Burris, campaign manager for Democratic Congressional candidate Ken Aden, came home with his four children to find their pet cat slaughtered on the front porch. “LIBERAL” was scrawled in magic marker on the lifeless body. In a clear example of terrorism, the innocent animal had been bashed in the head and left so that it could not be missed by Burris, who is locked in a tight campaign struggle against a right-wing Republican opponent to elect his candidate to the U.S. House of Representatives. But instead of Burris finding the carcass of the family pet before his children, his little boy found their kitty first. Blue Arkansas wrote movingly about this atrocity:
“This is terrorism. There’s no other word for it. A police report has been filed. Jake said the kids seem to be handling it okay. The one that discovered the cat was too young to be able to read and Jake had quickly gotten the others into the house before they saw it. Pope County is an insanely conservative area and the Aden campaign has been shaking things up even there and it looks like another right wing sociopath with a taste for violence has come crawling out of the woodwork in response. I asked Aden for a comment on the record:
‘“This is sickening. To kill a child’s pet…I’m at a loss for words…I’ve seen the best and the worst of humanity, but this is something else.”’
Defenseless, innocent victims pay the price of hate ideology and violence first–our pets. Violence against human victims is underreported, but statistics on this dimension of hate violence are non-existent. The numbers of pets slain in hate killings must be astronomical. Political liberals, progressives, LGBTQ people, women, racial/ethnic minorities have all experienced the terrible shock, anger, and raw fear Jake Burris and his family faced yesterday at the hands of irrational hate groups who send a message of terror by killing cats, dogs, birds and other family pets.
The murder of pet animals is often a prelude to anti-human violence. Gay man Charlie Howard found his cat dead on the front steps of his apartment in Bangor, Maine with its neck broken shortly before a gang of Bangor’s youth threw him off the State Street Bridge. Friends of Charlie’s said that after he found his cat killed, he became depressed and fearful. He had every reason to be, as it turned out. Charlie drowned in Kenduskeag Stream because three boys hated him because of his sexual orientation. The pet killing was a telegraphic message of homophobia, sent from people who warmed up to killing Charlie by taking the life of his companion.
I know the feeling that terrorized Charlie Howard and that the Jake Burris and his family face now. In the early 1990’s, I came home from pastoral hospital visits to parishioners to find my English Bulldog Buck and my Basset Hound Beau butchered, hanging up in a tree in my Eastern NC parsonage yard. Anonymous opponents suspected I was gay, and tried to drive me out of the church I was serving by slaughtering my pets. In those days, I lived a single, closeted life, serving churches with the fear of discovery of my sexual orientation. My dogs were my only companions, and paid the ultimate price because cowards thought I would run. I did not run. I stayed at the church and fought back successfully. But the loss is still with me.
Reuters reports that the campaign of Republican incumbent Steve Womack, Aden’s opponent in the heavily conservative 3rd District of Arkansas, has condemned the killing of Burris’s cat. Candidate Aden and Burris said they do not believe anyone in the Womack campaign perpetrated the crime. The Russellville Police Department is treating this incident as an animal cruelty case, and the investigation is ongoing. But the fact remains that the atmosphere of irrational hatred propounded by unreasoning prejudice is lethal.
Jake Burris told Blue Arkansas, “I’ve got a gun and I know how to use it. If I have to protect my kids I’ll do it without hesitation.”
We have a duty to all life to find a cure for hate. Our pets pay as terrible a price as we do because of hate violence. Perhaps the shock of a story like this can awaken the consciences of our neighbors to work with us to create a world safe for all creatures to live without fear. ~ Stephen V. Sprinkle, Founder and Director of the Unfinished Lives Project, Associate Prof at Brite Divinity School, Fort Worth, Texas