Unfinished Lives

Remembering LGBT Hate Crime Victims

The Arc of Justice Bends Like A Rainbow: Heartbreaks, Memories, Dreams

Dallas, Texas – To contribute to the spiritual discussion about the events of this June: the outrageous attack on Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and the victory of Marriage Equality in the U.S. Supreme Court, here is the text of my Sunday sermon for 6/28/15:

The Arc of Justice Bends Like a Rainbow: Heartbreaks, Memories, Dreams
A Sermon for Pride Sunday, June 28, 2015
The New Church – Chiesa Nuova
Dallas, Texas

Psalms 85:7-12
Hebrews 11:29-40
Luke 4:18-20

The Rev. Dr. Stephen V. Sprinkle, Professor of Practical Theology, Brite Divinity School, Fort Worth, Texas

The Rev. Dr. Stephen V. Sprinkle, Professor of Practical Theology, Brite Divinity School, Fort Worth, Texas

“They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed. It is so ordered.” These words are among the phrases of Friday that are imprinted into my consciousness and yours, too, I suspect. You will recognize them as the conclusion of the Majority Opinion of Obergefell v. Hodges, the decision striking down the bans that forbade marriage to millions of same-sex Americans in 14 states, including our own. “It is so ordered . . .”

But these are not the only words that won’t go away from my mind. Words from cries, and joyous shouts, and eulogies, from late last week and from the recent events of our lives that have culminated upon us this very June like “a thunderbolt” as our President, the Honorable Barack Obama said when he made his historic remarks in the White House Rose Garden celebrating the victory of Marriage Equality for all 50 states.
Here are some other stunning words our President used just this past Friday, 6/26/15, the same day LGBTQ people and our allies danced on the steps of the United States Supreme Court, and at the crossroads of Oak Lawn and Cedar Springs right here in Dallas. Immediately following his Rose Garden remarks, he boarded Air Force One to fly down to Charleston, SC beside our First Lady Michelle, to eulogize slain Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the other eight members of his flock, cut down by hatred in a Bible Study/Prayer Meeting at Mother Emanuel AME Church. Do you feel the whiplash of it? Having to deliver words of celebration at one moment, and then words appropriate to the outrageous deaths of Black Americans because of race hatred, as best we can tell—All in the same day?
Our President tried to make sense of it all from the stage of the University of Charleston, to find a way forward for the nation:

“Whatever solutions we find will necessarily be incomplete” he said. “But it would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allow ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again.
“Once the eulogies have been delivered, once the TV cameras move on, to go back to business as usual. That’s what we so often do to avoid uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society.”

President Obama continued:

“To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change, that’s how we lose our way again. It would be a refutation of the forgiveness expressed by those families if we merely slipped into old habits whereby those who disagree with us are not merely wrong, but bad; where we shout instead of listen; where we barricade ourselves behind preconceived notions or well-practiced cynicism.
“Reverend Pinckney once said, ‘Across the south, we have a deep appreciation of history. We haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history.’”

History, you see, is hard to make sense of when you are in the middle of it, like we are this morning—When we are struck by a two-sided thunderbolt of history, one side damp with tears of joy for decades of struggle to win against homophobia and heterosexism for LGBTQ human equality, but the other side wet with the tears of unfathomable grief because of America’s “original sin,” the sin of racism.

You and I and our President are not alone in trying to make sense of it all, trying to sort out our emotions about the events of 6/26/15. On Friday, my friend Professor John Blevins who teaches at Emory University put it this way on his Facebook wall:

“Not sure” Dr. Blevins wrote, “how to temper the feelings of the Supreme Court ruling with the reminder that today in Charleston, SC there is a funeral for an African-American man and local church pastor who would have supported and cheered this ruling were he not gunned down in cold, calculated, hate-filled violence. We progress and regress. But I want to believe– have to believe– that Love Wins. Yes, the Supreme Court ruling offers some sense of that but so does the testimony of Reverend Pinckney– both in his life and in his death. We should remember that.”

Whatever else and whoever else we are this morning, we are the Church, and we are called upon to remember our heartbreaks, to dance with our dreams in our hearts around the Table of Jesus Christ, and to learn with appreciation from the history of others. We are the New Church, the Chiesa Nuova, founded on the memories and merits of St. Francis of Assisi. We are straight, bi-, and gay, trans- and cisgender, multiracial and multilingual, and we share something vital and living with Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston. We have been given a common task: to speak the truth alongside one another until all the bad news comes to redemption in the Amazing Grace of God. We, Mother Emanuel and New Church together, are called by the God of Life to remember the steadfast love of Jesus Christ, and to set all events of celebration and sorrow in the context of a future in which LOVE WINS, not just for some of us, but for ALL of us!

The Church must engage the events of these jumbled up, joyous and heartbreaking days, and re-tell them to a hurting society both in words and deeds of effective love. We are the storytellers! Who else besides the Community of Faith remembers and re-tells the stories of the justice prophets of Israel and the evangelists of the early Christian movement? Who else remembers and re-tells the stories of the Underground Railroad, and Jim Crow, and the struggle for women’s right to vote and equal pay; who else remembers and re-tells the breathtaking saga of the time of the Stonewall Riots in New York City, and the first brave voices of the sexual minority here in North Texas, of the lesbian Lavender Menace, and the life-and-death struggle against HIV/AIDS, of Harvey Milk’s famous call, “I’m Here to Recruit You!”, and of the first legal “I Do’s” spoken on the steps of the Records Building right here in Dallas between Lesbian couples and Gay couples set on letting the whole Lone Star State know that LOVE Wins!

If others want to tell the stories of our times in differing ways, let them. We welcome the stories and the histories of others, and we must grow in appreciation of those histories because we are all members of the One Human Family. But, in humility, and with our knees trembling from awe and joy, we of the Community of Faith must continue the tradition of telling the Good News in the midst of a world were goodness is not so obvious an outcome at all. Like our grieving sisters and brothers at Mother Emanuel, in English, Español, and the other tongues of our languages, the Church has this task: to interpret the events of everyday life, great and small, in the harmonies of the love of God. It is our responsibility to pull together the threads of the rulings of the Supreme Court, and the horror of the slayings at home and abroad, and to weave out of them a roadmap of justice and mercy so the human race can see a way forward in the storm, and find rivers of cool water in dry places—sweet destinies of deliverance and Amazing Grace for all the sorts and conditions of our fragile humankind.

Put succinctly, it is our mandate to follow the example of Jesus the Christ: to read aloud the ancient stories of God’s people, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, good news to the poor, deliverance to the captives, freedom for all those oppressed, recovery of sight to the blind, and then to roll up the scroll, and announce: “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Justice KennedyDid you ever in your wildest dreams imagine that you would live into a world where Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell would be repealed? Where DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, and Proposition 8 would be overthrown? Where Marriage Equality would become the law of the land in all 50 states of the USA, and Justice Anthony Kennedy could pen these words on behalf of the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court?

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

Did you ever imagine that 150 years after the Civil War, that 52 years after Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech, and 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, you would still be living in a world where young Latino/Latina “Dreamers” are still in peril of being deported from the land that has become their home, where a black teenage girl in a bikini could be wrestled down and choked at a pool party in McKinney, Texas, where we must confront that reality over and over again that, no matter what we say, black, brown, female, and transgender lives mean less than white male lives? Or that the peaceful welcome of a church sanctuary could be desecrated by the cold, violent hand of hatred?

Well, that is the world we have, isn’t it? Filled with joys and sorrows. Where by the grace of God we must rededicate ourselves to bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice in this time and place we have been given. That is what the Community of Faith must be about in our lifetime. President Obama, standing squarely in the tradition of the Black Church, concluded his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, saying:

“…History can’t be a sword to justify injustice or a shield against progress. It must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, how to break the cycle, a roadway toward a better world. He knew that the path of grace involves an open mind. But more importantly, an open heart.
“That’s what I felt this week — an open heart. That more than any particular policy or analysis is what’s called upon right now, I think. It’s what a friend of mine, the writer Marilyn Robinson, calls ‘that reservoir of goodness beyond and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.’
“That reservoir of goodness. If we can find that grace, anything is possible. If we can tap that grace, everything can change. Amazing grace, amazing grace.”

Since Love Wins, since Love must win for everybody, let us throw a party where everyone is invited to celebrate with us, where everybody is somebody and nobody is nobody, and then roll up our sleeves and get to the work at hand!
Love Wins! Thanks be to God! Amen.

June 30, 2015 Posted by | African Americans, Brite Divinity School, Dr. Stephen V. Sprinkle, GLBTQ, Heterosexism and homophobia, Homosexuality and the Bible, Justice Anthony Kennedy, LGBTQ, Marriage Equality, Mother Emanuel AME Church, President Barack Obama, Racism, Social Justice Advocacy, Texas, transgender persons, transphobia, U.S. Supreme Court | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Gay Native American Murder Sentence Decried as Too Light; Mother Indicts Judge and Wyoming Court

David Moss, 25, gay Arapaho beaten to death with a bat and brass knuckles by teenagers.

David Moss, 25, gay Arapaho beaten to death with a bat and brass knuckles by teenagers.

Riverton, Wyoming – Santana Mendoza, the second teenage defendant in the September 2013 murder of a gay Native American was sentenced for manslaughter yesterday in the death of a gay Native American, and the victim’s mother is crying foul.  Her son’s murder was a hate crime, Victoria Moss said, and the sentences the court handed down to the teens who killed him show the world that the life of a Native American gay man is worth less than if he were straight and white.  County 10 reports that Ms. Moss declared that since this is National LGBTQ Pride Month, she would be honoring her son while gay people and allies celebrated Pride.  “This Saturday,” she said, “I will be celebrating the pride I have for my gay son.”

David Ronald Moss Jr., 25, was bludgeoned to death by teenagers Santana Mendoza and John Potter on the Rails to Trails Pathway behind a Riverton trailer park on September 4, 2013. Moss’s companion, Aleeah Crispin, was beaten into brain damage by the teens during the same attack, leaving her unable to speak for weeks afterwards. Mendoza and Potter, 16 and 15 at the time of the brutal assault, were both tried as adults. Both initially pled not guilty to all charges.  In April of this year, after a plea deal reducing the charge from second degree murder to manslaughter, Potter was sentenced, as reported by County 10.  After the same plea deal was accepted by District Attorney Michael Bennett for Mendoza, his sentence was handed down by Ninth Circuit Judge Norman E. Young after a one-hour sentencing hearing at which Crispin herself testified.  Mendoza’s sentence mirrors Potter’s sentence almost perfectly: 12 to 18 years for the murder of Moss, minus time served, and 8 to 10 years for the assault on Crispin, both sentences to run concurrently.  The sentence also mandates that the youths share a restitution of $12,000 to be paid to the living victim and the families. Moss’s mother is convinced that her son’s sexual orientation and Native American heritage played into the judge’s decision to hand down a light sentence that would never have been tolerated by the white, straight community if the victim had been one of their own.  Some say that the revelation of Moss’s sexual orientation came as a surprise to them.

Judge Young denies being influenced by the knowledge that Moss was gay.  He told County 1o that he now believes neither of the youths “intended” to kill Moss, who succumbed to blunt force trauma to his head according to the Coroner’s report. What Judge Young does admit to considering was the age of the defendants.  Both were born in 1997.  He said that he had never sentenced anyone in his career as young as they.

The attack was swift, terrifying and brutal.  Mendoza testified that he and Potter saw two friends eating fast food near the beginning of the pathway.  The Daily Ranger reported that while Mendoza watched Moss and Crispin, Potter left to retrieve a ball bat and brass knuckles that they used in the attack on Moss and Crispin. The teens beat them in the face with the bat, and repeated kicked them. When they left, Mendoza testified, both victims were unconscious, and Moss was making a “snoring” sound. The next morning, two unresponsive bodies were found on the trail.  Moss was dead.  Crispin was beaten mute, and left with significant brain injuries.

Hate crime was never considered during the investigation. Instead, law enforcement and the District Attorney sought for other motives for the senseless crime.

Moss was an enrolled member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, and proud of it.  His obituary portrayed a young man who was devoted to family, especially to his niece, Morning Star, and liked by a wide circle of family and friends.

The accusation of David Moss’s mother still hangs in the air as the two youths serve out their sentences: What is the comparative worth of the life of a gay Native American?  Where is the justice in any of this senselessness?

June 26, 2014 Posted by | anti-LGBT hate crime murder, Beatings and battery, Bludgeoning, gay bashing, gay men, GLBTQ, Hate Crimes, Heterosexism and homophobia, LGBTQ, Native Americans, Northern Arapaho Tribe, Racism, women, Wyoming | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Florida Transwoman Discovered Burned to Death Behind Garbage Cans; Media Disrespect Her in Her Death

Transwoman Yaz'min Shanchez, 31, immolated to death behind a trash dumpster down a private road in Fort Myers {Facebook photo).

Transwoman Yaz’min Shanchez, 31, immolated to death behind a trash dumpster down a private road in Fort Myers {Facebook photo).

Fort Myers, Florida – A 31-year-old transgender woman of color was found burned to death in Fort Myers behind a garbage dumpster, according to the Naples News.  Yaz’min Shanchez who identified as a woman since 2004 was found on June 19 behind a Budget Truck Rental site on a dead-end road in an industrial part of the city. The victim’s father arrived at the scene to find his child’s body charred and bloody, according to reports in the media. Lt. Jay Rodriguez said that hate crime is not a dimension of the investigation as things now stand. Though authorities wish to rule out anti-transgender hatred as a motive, fire is often used as a weapon against LGBTQ people, and is often a tip off to homophobic and transphobic hate crimes.

“We have no indication at this time to say this was specifically done because it was a male living as a female or anything like that,” Lt. Rodriguez said. “If you really think about it, a hate crime is killing someone for a specific reason, being black, Hispanic, gay. We’re investigating as we would any other homicide.”  Yet, recent reports from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) show that while numbers of other bias-driven crimes are declining slightly, anti-LGBTQ hate crimes, especially those perpetrated against transgender people of color, are escalating.  The reports document that:

  • Transgender women, especially transgender women of color, were two to three times more likely to experience physical violence, police violence, and discrimination than victims who were not transgender women.
  • LGBTQ people of color were 1.8 times more likely to encounter hate-motivated violence than white LGBTQ people.

The Center for American Progress is sounding the alarm about the precipitous increase in anti-LGBTQ and anti-gender variant hate crimes in the U.S. by calling on law enforcement states like Florida to strengthen the Matthew Shepard/James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act by passing local and state protection statutes for transgender people, and by aggressively educating law enforcement agencies and the general public.

The immolation of Yaz’min Shanchez indicates that the work it will take to educate the media and law enforcement about the nature of transphobia and racism will be immense.  News reports quoting Shanchez’s family show that while they loved her, they had never reconciled themselves to her chosen way of identifying herself as a woman.  After ten years, her father was still referring to her as “he,” and “him.”  The police report led with the identification of the victim by a cisgender name, Eddie James Owen, though the family acknowledged to police repeatedly that she had identified as a transgender woman.  Naples News does little or nothing to redress this problem in their report of the murder. While how a person is identified within a family is a matter they must resolve themselves, there is no excuse for media and law enforcement to add disrespect of the victim’s self-identification by insisting on cisgender language.  The transgender community and its allies are already in enough pain, fear, and turmoil without compounding the problems surrounding Ms. Shanchez’s murder.

EDGE on the Net quotes GLAAD spokesperson Ross Murray as saying that whether Shanchez died of a transphobic hate crime or not, “no one deserves to be violently murdered and set on fire and put behind a Dumpster.” Murray added, “Particularly transgender women of color, face the most violence against them. I think that transgender people are still marginalized and stigmatized in our society. We tend to talk about transgender people in a way that discounts their experience and makes them a butt of a joke or deviant or suspicious and doesn’t take (their) whole life into account.”

Over 200 people participated in a Sunday vigil organized by The Southwest Florida Equality Coalition and the Center of Southwest Florida for Ms. Shanchez.  Naples News reports that Heather Lunsford, a founder of The Center, told the crowd, “We’re here to show unity. We’re in support of any community members, especially on the LGBT spectrum. [We’re here to bring awareness] especially because of the nature of the crime committed against [Shancez].” In a poignant moment, attendee Jenna Satterfield said to a reporter, “The amount of violence in this crime screams the perpetrators were trying to send a message. In spite of the fact we’re lesbian, bisexual, gay or transgendered, we’re no different than anybody else … We’re no different and we mean no harm.”

June 23, 2014 Posted by | African Americans, anti-LGBT hate crime murder, Burning and branding, Center for American Progress, Florida, GLAAD, GLBTQ, Hate Crime Statistics, Hate Crimes, immolation, LGBTQ, Matthew Shepard Act, Media Issues, National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), Racism, Social Justice Advocacy, Southwest Florida Equality Coalition, The Center of Southwest Florida, transgender persons, transphobia, Vigils | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Florida Transwoman Discovered Burned to Death Behind Garbage Cans; Media Disrespect Her in Her Death

New York Gay Man Attacked by Hasidic Jewish Safety Patrol Members; Five Arrested So Far

Taj Patterson, 22, gay man savagely attacked by Hasidic Jews in Williamsburg, NY shouting anti-gay slurs (NY Post images).

Taj Patterson, 22, gay man savagely attacked by Hasidic Jews in Williamsburg, NY shouting anti-gay slurs (NY Post images).

Williamsburg, New York – A gang of Hasidic Jews, some identified as members of the Satmar Hasidic Shomrim (Safety Patrol), shouted homophobic  and racial slurs as they brutally beat a gay black man in Williamsburg on December 1.  The victim, 22-year-old Taj Patterson, suffered multiple injuries including a crushed eye socket, a torn retina, and cuts to his right knee and hip.  This week, five hasidim were arrested for the attack by the New York Police Department’s Hate Crimes Task Force.  They have been charged with Gang Assault in the First Degree and a variety of other charges, though at this point a hate crimes charge has not been lodged, even considering the report of witnesses that a barrage of homophobic slurs accompanied the assault.  The charges carry a maximum sentence of 25 years for each assailant proved guilty.  Failed Messiah, a blog covering news in the Hasidic community since 2004, identified those arrested as  Pinchas Braver, 20, Aharon Hollender, 28, Abraham Winkler, 39, Mayer Herskovic, 21, and Joseph Fried, 25. Two of the alleged assailants fled from the United States to Israel immediately following the incident, but were apprehended there.

The five suspects and a number of other hasidim who allegedly participated in the attack are all members of the Satmar Hasidic Jewish community, a large and influential ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect with pre-World War II roots in Hungary.  According to A Life Apart: Hasidism in America, the Satmar Hasidim number at least 45,000 in Williamsburg today.  The Shomrim is a volunteer neighborhood watch drawn from the Satmar community.  Activists in Williamsburg quickly denied the involvement of the Shomrim in the attack, but according to the Brooklyn Paper, the denials left room to conclude that some of the attackers were indeed members of the watch group.  An Orthodox rabbi who decried the attack did not mention the  participation of the Shomrim in the December attack.  Rabbi David Niederman, president of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn, said, “The bedrock of the Williamsburg community is tolerance for one and another. Any act of violence by any individual, against anyone, for whatever reason, is condemned in the strongest possible terms.”  

EDGE on the Net reports that Patterson is a fashion student studying at the New York City College of Technology.  While he says he does not remember much from the attack that occurred with swift savagery, he clearly recalls at least one of his assailants shouting, “Stay down, faggot, stay the fuck down,” as he kicked Patterson in the face.  Since the horrific incident, Patterson has undergone surgery to repair his torn retina.

The true heroine of the whole bloody affair was the driver of Bus 57 who slammed on her brakes and stepped out of her bus snapping pictures of the assault with her cell phone, according to the New York Post.  The NYPD say that the attacking gang fled the scene when they realized she was taking their pictures.

April 25, 2014 Posted by | African Americans, Anti-LGBT hate crime, Beatings and battery, Brooklyn, Gang violence, gay bashing, gay men, GLBTQ, Hasidic Jews, Hate Crimes, Heterosexism and homophobia, Israel, LGBTQ, New York, New York City, Racism, religious intolerance, Slurs and epithets | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Remembering James Byrd Jr.: Hate Crime Murder 15 Years Ago Today

James Byrd Jr. (May 2, 1949-June 7, 1998)

James Byrd Jr. (May 2, 1949-June 7, 1998)

Jasper, Texas – James Byrd Jr., father of three children, never intended to become a key player in the struggle to protect LGBTQ people from hate crime violence.  But when he fell into the hands of three haters by accepting a ride from them on June 7, 1998, he became one of the most famous hate crimes murder victims of all time.

Byrd, 49, was looking for a ride home to be with his family.  Instead, his three abductors, Shawn Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer, and John King, aged 23 to 31 years of age, drove him out to a lonely road outside of the small town of Jasper, Texas, beat him senseless, urinated on him, and tied his ankles to the hitch of their pick up truck–apparently for no reason other than race hatred.  It was a lynching-by dragging.  Byrd’s killers dragged him three miles along an asphalt road until he died.  Speeding along the road, his body struck a concrete culvert, severing his right arm, shoulder, and head.  Investigators located 81 sites along the route where remains of Byrd’s body were scattered.  Jasper County District Attorney Guy James Gray, said that the murder of James Byrd Jr. was the worst he had seen in over 20 years as a prosecutor.  Berry, Brewer, and King dumped Byrd’s body beside the cemetery of an African American Church, and went on to celebrate their deed at a barbecue–feeling that no one in Jasper County or the State of Texas would miss a lone African American.

They were desperately wrong.  Brewer and King, well-know white supremacists, were early suspects, causing DA Gray to investigate the murder as a hate crime.  The FBI was called in to assist in the investigation within 24 hours of Byrd’s remains being found.  Echoes of lynchings throughout the South amplified the outrage surrounding Byrd’s hate crime murder.  Brewer, King, and Berry were arrested, and eventually convicted of murder as a hate crime.  Brewer and King were sentenced to death, and on September 21, 2011, Brewer was put to death by lethal injection.  King awaits execution on death row.  Berry was sentenced to life in prison.  The Byrd Family opposed the death penalty for the men who killed their beloved James, believing that more deaths could never bring peace or closure to his murder.  Only justice for everyone could.

James Byrd Jr.'s gravesite.

James Byrd Jr.’s gravesite.

In May 2001, Texas enacted the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act into law. Because of advocacy within the Byrd Family, James Byrd Jr.’s name lent credibility to make the statute a gay-inclusive hate crimes protection law, and linked it to the Laramie, Wyoming anti-gay murder of Matthew Shepard. Then, after decades of advocacy, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law, extending federal protections to LGBT people in America for the first time in history.  Judy and Dennis Shepard, parents of Matthew, were joined at the White House by Betty Bryd Boatner and Louvon Harris, sisters of James, for the signing ceremony.  President Obama said:

“This is the culmination of a struggle that has lasted more than a decade.  Time and again, we faced opposition.  Time and again, the measure was defeated or delayed.  Time and again we’ve been reminded of the difficulty of building a nation in which we’re all free to live and love as we see fit.  But the cause endured and the struggle continued, waged by the family of Matthew Shepard, by the family of James Byrd, by folks who held vigils and led marches, by those who rallied and organized and refused to give up, by the late Senator Ted Kennedy who fought so hard for this legislation — (applause) — and all who toiled for years to reach this day.”

Then, the President underlined the ongoing significance of the Act named for James Byrd Jr. and Matthew Shepard:

“You understood that we must stand against crimes that are meant not only to break bones, but to break spirits — not only to inflict harm, but to instill fear.  You understand that the rights afforded every citizen under our Constitution mean nothing if we do not protect those rights — both from unjust laws and violent acts.  And you understand how necessary this law continues to be.”

So, today, we remember James Byrd Jr.  His death has not been in vain.  The road toward full equality for all Americans is a long one.  Many have died in the 15 years since the murders of Byrd and Shepard at the hands of irrational hatred.  More will die, succumbing to injustices of the worst kind.  But James Byrd Jr. is not forgotten, and his killers have not had the last word on his life.  The struggle continues, and right is on the side of life and inclusion.  This 15th anniversary of James Byrd Jr.’s death, we who believe in justice cannot allow ourselves to rest.  We who believe in justice cannot rest until it comes.

June 7, 2013 Posted by | African Americans, anti-LGBT hate crime murder, gay men, GLBTQ, Hate Crimes, hate crimes prevention, Heterosexism and homophobia, LGBTQ, Matthew Shepard Act, Racism, Remembrances, Texas, White supremacist groups, Wyoming | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Remembering James Byrd Jr.: Hate Crime Murder 15 Years Ago Today

Cleveland Transgender Woman’s Body Found With Multiple Stab Wounds; Now 3 Trans Murders in April

Transgender woman Cemia Acoff, 20, stabbed to death and submerged in a pond west of Cleveland.

Transgender woman Cemia Acoff, 20, stabbed to death and submerged in a pond west of Cleveland.

Cleveland, Ohio – The badly decomposed body of a local transgender woman was found sunken in a pond on Wednesday, April 17.  The victim, Ms. Cemia Acoff, 20 years of age, also known as Ci Ci Dove by her friends, had been reported missing since March 27.  The pond, located in Olmstead Township west of Cleveland, was built to recycle runoff water from a once thriving greenhouse operation in the area.  Ms. Acoff’s body, riddled with stab wounds and naked from the waist down, was tied to a concrete block in order to weigh the corpse down to the bottom of the pond.  The Advocate reports that a resident of a close by apartment complex discovered the body, and notified police.  The coroner had to identify Ms. Acoff by testing her DNA, because of the state of the her remains.

Adding insult to the grief of family and friends, local news outlets heaped disrespect upon Ms. Acoff’s memory, sensationalizing her transition and employing a deeply insensitive reportage template to her story, referring to her as “a man in a dress,” a stock response of transphobic ignorance in situations like these.  The Cleveland Plain Dealer and Fox 8 were called to task by  GLAAD, faith leaders, and local LGBTQ advocates. For example, Fox 8 published a whole paragraph in their report demeaning Ms. Acoff’s character for having a police record, and describing the clothes found on her corpse.  The outcry against such negative coverage of the murder of a transgender woman caused both the Plain Dealer and Fox 8 to modify their previous stories, but GLAAD representative Aaron McQuade issued a statement to the press calling on both local news outlets to meet with GLAAD and members of the transgender community to learn what more they need to do to redress the damage they have already done to the memory of Ms. Acoff.  In part, McQuade stated: “The truth is, when someone like Cemia appears to identify as female sometimes and male other times, it’s because it’s still socially unacceptable (and often dangerous) to be transgender. The fact that some people in Acoff’s life didn’t know she sometimes identified as female, and the fact that her legal identification might not have reflected her gender identity, doesn’t change the fact that she was a transgender woman.”  

CemiaTransGriot points that the murder of Ms. Acoff is the third anti-transgender hate crime homicide of an African American transwoman reported in the month of April alone.  Besides Ms. Acoff, 29-year-old Kelly Young was shot to death in Baltimore on April 3, and 30-year-old  Ashley Sinclair of Orlando, Florida who was also found shot to death the next day, Thursday, April 4.  The murder of transwomen of color has reached alarming proportions throughout the nation in recent months–all the more reason to get the sad news of the loss of Cemia and her transgender sisters of color widely, sensitively, and accurately distributed throughout the media.  For a further report on the slow rolling decimation of the transgender population in the United States, see the landmark study, “Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey,” which may be accessed in detail on the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force website.

As of this writing, Ms. Acoff’s killer or killers remain at large with no leads.

May 1, 2013 Posted by | African Americans, Character assassination, Florida, gender identity/expression, GLAAD, GLBTQ, gun violence, Hate Crime Statistics, Hate Crimes, LGBTQ, Maryland, Media Issues, Ohio, Racism, Slurs and epithets, Social Justice Advocacy, stabbings, transgender persons, transphobia, Unsolved LGBT Crimes | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Cleveland Transgender Woman’s Body Found With Multiple Stab Wounds; Now 3 Trans Murders in April

Gay, Black Classmates Targeted in White Power Teen’s Bomb Plot

Derek Shrout, 17, alleged hate crime bomb plotter, escorted from Russell County Court on Monday (Ledger-Enquirer image).

Derek Shrout, 17, alleged hate crime bomb plotter, escorted from Russell County Court on Monday (Ledger-Enquirer image).

Seale, Alabama – Eastern Alabama police announce that a hate crime bomb plot targeting gay and black classmates of a 17-year-old white supremacist has been foiled in Russell County.

Authorities arrested Derek Shrout, a self-proclaimed white power advocate,  last Friday, responding swiftly to threats to bomb Russell County High School written in Shrout’s own personal journal.  The journal, carelessly left behind in a classroom by Shrout, fell into the hands of a teacher, who rushed the document into the hands of police investigators. According to WTVM-TV, Shrout threatened in his journal to harm six students and one teacher, citing hatred of blacks and gays as his motive.  Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor told reporters, “The journal contained several plans that looked like potential terrorist attacks, and attacks of violence and danger on the school.” Five of the students Shrout specifically named were black.  Shrout believed the sixth student he named was gay, also a class of persons the 17-year-old professed to hate.

Sheriff Taylor said that the mass killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut were an inciting factor in Shrout’s intention to bomb the high school. The first entry showing the student’s intent to attack his school is on December 17, only three days after the horrific Sandy Hook massacre. Fox News reports that law enforcement officers discovered over 25 smokeless tobacco tins and two larger cans with holes drilled in them in Shrout’s rooms on Friday.  The tins were filled with pellets, partially outfitted as homemade bombs and grenades.  One of the tins was labeled “Fat Man,” and another “Little Boy,” apparently in emulation of the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.  The improvised bombs were only “a step or two away from being ready to explode,” the Sheriff observed, going on to say that the quick thinking of school officials averted a horrible outcome. “The system worked and thank God, it did,” he said. “We avoided a very bad situation.”

In his own defense, Shrout claims that the entries in his journal were fictions, and that he never intended to harm classmates or the teacher.  He was held in custody on $75,000 bond on a felony charge of assault until a court appearance this Monday, when he made bail. The presiding judge released Shrout under the following conditions:  he must remain at home; wear a GPS locator bracelet on his ankle; refrain from initiating contact with anyone connected to the school; and be monitored by a parent while on the Internet.  A court date for the teen has been set for February 12.

Shrout planned to attack gay and black classmates at his high school (Russell County Sheriff's Office mugshot).

Shrout planned to attack gay and black classmates at his high school (Russell County Sheriff’s Office mugshot).

Shrout, who moved to Alabama from Kansas with his military family, had become well-known in Russell County High for his anti-gay and racist views.  Classmates noted that he and a circle of other white supremacist friends often espoused white power propaganda, and gave each other the Nazi salute. Senior Class President David Kelly is quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, “In the hallway, at breakfast, at the lunch tables, after school where we have our bus parking lot, he’d have his big old group of friends and they’d go around doing the whole white power crazy stuff.”

Authorities say that the teen was involved in neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups, and had learned bomb making from the internet.  Now his classmates are expressing anger and frustration at Shrout’s intended attack on their school.  David White, who used to hang out with Shrout after JROTC meetings, exclaimed to reporters, “Why would you want to go to a school and blow it up?  You know you’re going to hit somebody else; you’re not just going to, in particular, hit one person.  You’re going to injure more than one.”

January 8, 2013 Posted by | African Americans, Alabama, Anti-LGBT hate crime, Bombs and explosives, gay teens, GLBTQ, Hate Crimes, Heterosexism and homophobia, LGBTQ, Neo-Nazis and White Supremacy, Racism | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Remembering the 16th Street Baptist Church Martyrs: A Special Comment on Religion and Violence

Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Denise McNair. They did not die in vain.

Birmingham, Alabama – Today (September 15) marks the 49th anniversary of the senseless murder of four little girls attending Sunday School at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama: Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins who were 14, and Denise McNair who was 12.  The church was bombed on September 15, 1963 by a Ku Klux Klan related group in a vain attempt to terrorize the African American community. The nation was stunned by the news, and virtually overnight, these four young innocents became the leading figures in a renewed non-violent Civil Rights movement led by Christian clergy.  Non-violent outrage over their deaths, arguably, became the impetus for the greatest achievement of the black liberation movement in the United States: the Voter Rights Act of 1965.

Wesley, Robertson, Collins, and McNair should, of course, be remembered perpetually for the loss of their young lives to race hatred in the great Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s.  But this year, their loss, and the response of the African American Christian community to their outrageous murders at the time, is a lesson the world needs most acutely.  In the wake of violence throughout the Muslim world over a blasphemous online video defaming the Prophet, and the mounting death toll of American diplomats and Muslim demonstrators, the world needs to pause, take a deep breath, remember the 16th Street children, and choose better ways of protest.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a movingly personal speech Thursday in the aftermath of attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in the Middle East, calling on religions of the world to affirm non-violence rather than bloodshed. ABC OTUS News reports that Secretary Clinton, speaking at an Eid ul-Fitr reception marking the end of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, decried both the “inflammable and despicable” anti-Islamic film circulating on the internet, and the violence that took the lives of four Americans at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.  While all religions inevitably face insults and defamation, she said, the way in which believers choose to respond to these affronts is what separates people of true faith from pretenders who use such events as excuses to lash out with violence. “When Christians are subject to insults to their faith, and that certainly happens, we expect them not to resort to violence. When Hindus or Buddhists are subjected to insults to their faiths, and that also certainly happens, we expect them not to resort to violence,” Clinton said. “The same goes for all faiths, including Islam.”  

Speaking out of her own faith as a United Methodist Christian, Secretary Clinton went on to say, “I so strongly believe that the great religions of the world are stronger than any insults. They have withstood offense for centuries. Refraining from violence, then, is not a sign of weakness in one’s faith; it is absolutely the opposite, a sign that one’s faith is unshakable.”  Rather than take the path of violence, she said, when one person acts with violence, a million should respond with deeds of religious tolerance and reconciliation. Instead of amplifying hatred, she concluded, each of us must commit ourselves to acts of religious tolerance in our own communities of faith.

Reflecting on the lessons of the 16th Street martyrs, the verdict of history is that only the power of love can conquer senseless hatred–the sort of love typified by the non-violent Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the wake of irrational hate crimes like the murders of four little girls nearly fifty years ago. Hate crimes are brutal teachers, but the precepts they teach can lead toward justice and hope, and away from hatred and fear.  The difference is the choices we make and the deeds we do. When confronted with savagery, African American Christians and their allies answered with courage and a greater love–love for what is best in faith, what is best in society, and what is supreme in human experience: the power of reconciliation and hope.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his eulogy for the four little girls on September 18, 1963, said to the grieving city of Birmingham:

“These tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color. The spilled blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole citizenry of Birmingham to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future. Indeed this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience. And so I stand here to say this afternoon to all assembled here, that in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. We must not become bitter, nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. No, we must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality.”

Never has the challenge to true hearts been greater than today.  The lessons of our forebears and the martyrs who preceded us point away from fear and violence and toward justice and love.  The Unfinished Lives Project Team, then, offers this simple prayer for a better world: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

September 15, 2012 Posted by | African Americans, Alabama, Hate Crimes, Racism, religious intolerance, Remembrances, Social Justice Advocacy, U.S. State Department | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Remembering the 16th Street Baptist Church Martyrs: A Special Comment on Religion and Violence

Remembering Sakia Gunn (1987-2003): A Special Comment on Her Birthday

Sakia LaTona Gunn, murdered by a male homophobe as she defended her friends from him. She was not yet 16 when she died.

Newark, New Jersey – On Saturday, Sakia LaTona Gunn would have been 25 years old–but instead, she was murdered by a homophobe on the make for young lesbians.  Sakia’s story never got the press attention other LGBTQ hate crimes murder victims did.  She was a young, black, poor girl from the wrong side of the Hudson River.  But among those who know her story, there is great power for change still waiting to be released until justice finally comes for Sakia–and for all queer youth caught in the national nightmare of violence against young people of color that just won’t seem to go away.

The narrative of her last night is chilling.  Sakia and her friends returned from a great day at the Chelsea Piers over in the Big Apple.  They laughed, joked, sneaked drinks, and held each other in a blissful freedom they did not know back home.  Late, late–or early, depending on how you keep time–Sakia and her friends stood waiting for a bus to pick them up at one of the busiest bus stops in Newark, when two older, much more powerful men drove by cat-calling at them, trolling for something young and vulnerable.  They recognized that the girls were Aggressives–gender non-conforming youth who lived the hip hop life as fully as they could.  And something snapped within Richard McCullough when his blandishments were rejected by Sakia.

When McCullough, much larger and stronger than any of the girls he attacked, moved against her friends, Sakia defended them with her life.  McCullough stabbed her in the chest with a switchblade knife, later lamely claiming that she had “run” onto the knife he somehow was wielding in self defense.  Neither the jury nor the judge bought his story, and he was convicted of manslaughter in a plea bargain and sentenced to 20 years (rather than face a murder charge and be subject to far more prison time).

Sakia’s funeral was huge.  Over 2,500 people attended the wake, though it was only slightly covered in the gay media, and virtually not at all in the mainstream press–a fact that has been controversial ever since her story broke.  Racism and sexism played their part in dampening the story, as did Sakia’s self identification as a lesbian Aggressive, effectively rendering her a minority within a minority.  A courageous filmmaker, Chas Bennet Brack, worked tirelessly to bring Sakia’s story to the big screen as a documentary.  “Dreams Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Film Project” became an award winner at film festivals around the country.  Sakia’s story became a subject of research, scholarship, and artistic interest, with plays, articles, and books dedicated to her memory.  Among them is the IPPY Award winning Unfinished Lives: Reviving the Memories of LGBTQ Hate Crimes Victims (Resource Publications, 2011), by Stephen V. Sprinkle, the founder and director of the Unfinished Lives Project.

Against the odds, Sakia Gunn intended on being a basketball star.  She found love and friendship in plenty during her woefully shortened life.  But her story persistently clamors for attention, crying out for justice for youth of color, queer people, and economically disadvantaged persons of all races and backgrounds.  Though she never wished it, she has become an ongoing inspiration–a brave young woman unafraid to be who she was in a hostile world, one who defended her friends.  What greater love can anyone have than that?

May 27, 2012 Posted by | anti-LGBT hate crime murder, gay teens, Gender Variant Youth, GLBTQ, Hate Crimes, Heterosexism and homophobia, Lesbian women, LGBTQ, New Jersey, Racism, Remembrances, Sakia Gunn Film Project, Social Justice Advocacy, stabbings | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Gender, Sexuality, and Justice Initiative Launched in the Southwest

Rev. Dr. Joretta Marshall, Director of the Carpenter Initiative at Brite Divinity School

Fort Worth, Texas – Brite Divinity School, on the campus of Texas Christian University, launched a ground-breaking program set on changing the role of theological higher education in the human rights struggle in the Southwestern United States.  At Chapel on Tuesday, Rev. Dr. Joretta Marshall, Professor of Pastoral Theology and Pastoral Counseling, preached to inaugurate the Carpenter Initiative on Gender, Sexuality, and Justice, made possible by a grant of $250,000 over five years by The E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.  Dr. Marshall headed the effort to gain the grant from the Carpenter Foundation, which is the leading grantor of funding for sexuality, gender, and justice concerns in the nation.  She has been named the Director of the Carpenter Initiative in addition to her professorial duties.

The Rev. Ann B. Day, daughter of the originators of the Carpenter Foundation and an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ, was instrumental in reviewing Brite’s proposal, and advising the foundation to make the grant.  The Disciples News Service reported that “the Carpenter Initiative will not only help cover the salary costs of the faculty member who directs the program, but will also support courses at Brite that address these issues, and fund programmatic initiatives in the wider community.”  These programmatic initiatives will engage matters of human rights, articulation of a public theology of full inclusion in the faith community of those marginalized because of gender, gender variance, and sexual orientation, and the development of resources local congregations and denominational offices need to move their membership toward long-lasting acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Dr. Stephen Sprinkle, a member of the Brite faculty and Director of the Unfinished Lives Project, said, “This initiative is the next vital step in Brite’s ‘coming out’ process as a center for the full inclusion of all God’s children, especially those who have formerly been shunned by churches, synagogues, and mosques because of their actual or perceived sexual difference.”  Over the course of several years, Dr. Marshall and Dr. Sprinkle, together with allies in the faculty, staff, board of trustees, and alumni of the school, have worked for the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community, along with the commitments Brite has also made to Black Church studies, Asian/Korean Church studies, and Latina/o Church studies.  By vote of the Board of Trustees, Brite has officially acted to welcome students, faculty and staff regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender expression, making it unique in the Southwestern United States.  The roots of Brite’s shift toward this progressive stance reach back at least to 1992, when administration opened married student housing on the campus to partnered same-sex couples, and to the hiring of the first openly gay faculty member in 1994.

At a community conversation held immediately after the inauguration service, members of the Brite community voiced a whole bevy of vibrant ideas about the directions the Carpenter Initiative could take, including an institution-wide process to become Open and Affirming, a center for civil discourse on issues of human rights in North Texas, resources on homosexuality and the Bible, a history project to record and preserve the story of the LGBTQ movement on both the Brite and TCU campuses, and a think-tank to delve into the sources of violence and fear in American religious life.  Brite’s Office of Advancement is actively seeking support for the expansion of Brite’s developing leadership in public theology and social justice.

October 5, 2011 Posted by | African Americans, Anglo Americans, Asian Americans, Bisexual persons, Brite Divinity School, gay men, gender identity/expression, GLBTQ, Hate Crimes, hate crimes prevention, hate speech, Heterosexism and homophobia, Homosexuality and the Bible, Latino and Latina Americans, Lesbian women, LGBTQ, Native Americans, Popular Culture, Public Theology, Queer, Racism, religious hate speech, religious intolerance, Social Justice Advocacy, Texas, transgender persons, transphobia, women | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Gender, Sexuality, and Justice Initiative Launched in the Southwest

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