Atlanta, Georgia – Trapped between anguish over family disapproval of his sexual orientation and nationwide protests over the police killings of black men, a young man climbed a tree in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park and hanged himself. Police discovered the body of 22-year-old London Jermaine, aka Michael George Smith Jr., hanged by the neck near the Charles Allen entrance to the popular urban park early on July 7. Smith, a resident of Midtown and computer science student, had migrated from Hackensack, New Jersey to take up a new life in Atlanta. While there is no evidence of foul play reported by Project Q Atlanta, Smith’s death is a casebook of reasons why the suicides of young gay men may be “murder by suicide,” in which the victims are driven by despair to take their own lives after anti-gay shaming.
Because of his large social media footprint, we are able to trace the pressure that drove him to seek a way to stop the hurt he felt. On June 13, Smith posted a complaint and cry for help: “Being Gay in America is Hard. Being Black in America is Hard. Imagine being both #NoH8.” Family played a large part in browbeating Smith because of their extreme negative attitudes toward gays. On June 17, he posted a screen capture of a text message from a brother, and a sharp reaction to the disapproval of his mother: “God doesn’t born gay people. You make yourself gay.” Smith added this status to the duplicated message: “My mother is teaching my siblings to dispise Gays.. I’m done with Life. I’m Hurt To The Core.” According to posts on his Facebook page, he was also facing health issues.
Just minutes before his drop from the tree in Piedmont Park, Smith left this despairing message on Facebook: “I’ll see y’all in the next Life…Deadass [followed by emoticons] Father forgive me”
Bossip.com reports the storm of criticism Atlanta Police and Mayor Kasim Reed faced following the discovery of Smith’s body. Widespread speculation about a possible “modern lynching” dogged the investigation, and put bulletins to the public on the fast track. With the nation aflame with anger and confusion over the apparently unjustifiable shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota, Atlanta officials feared that the public hanging of a young black man could cause an outbreak of violence in their city. The APD reported finding a tall rolling trash receptacle beside the scene of Smith’s death with a footprint on its top corresponding to his shoe. They also found pollen on his clothing indicating he climbed the tree to the limb where the rope that asphyxiated him was tied. There were no signs of struggle, the police reported.
The FBI were called in to carry out an investigation separate from the APD, and spokesperson Special Agent Stephen Emmett issued this statement to Project Q confirming the conclusion that Smith carried out his own death: “A review of the findings of the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s report by both APD and the FBI failed to indicate any signs of foul play or other evidence that would support going forward with a federal hate crime based investigation.”
Young gay men are under severe pressure due to the tension over advances in LGBTQ rights in the U.S., especially young gay men who are African American. Michael George Smith Jr. faced an almost perfect storm of difficulties from family, the culmination of too many deaths of young black men at the hands of unaccountable police officers, and questions about his own health. Too many young men, both those of color and white alike, have succumbed to despair, underlining the epidemic numbers of suicides in the LGBTQ community, compared with the rate of suicide for the dominant ethnic population. The Trevor Project, the nation’s leading anti-suicide hotline, details the grim suicide statistics for lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals. While suicide is the greatest cause of death in the U.S. for young people from 10 to 24, gay youth are three times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers, and gay youth from highly disapproving families are 8.4 times more likely to attempt to take their own lives than children of families that are accepting.
The degree of hostility towards LGBTQ Americans, especially young gay men of color, is exacting a terrifying cost from the ranks of the nation’s youth. Whether from opposition rooted in conservative religious traditions, ignorance, or backlash against newly minted rights for the LGBTQ community, the loss of young lives like Michael George Smith Jr.’s is not simply tragic. It is a national health emergency.
Orlando, Florida – The names of the deceased in the worst mass shooting is U.S. history are slowly being released to the public. 50 died in the initial homophobic attack on the Pulse Nightclub, and 53 were hospitalized. Printed here are the 49 names assembled by Huffington Post by 7 p.m., June 13. All but one of the victims has been identified, and authorities are notifying next of kin. The effort to inform those many more who loved them also is ongoing, as well. We publish them here with their ages at the time of their deaths. All those who were gunned down by unreasoning hatred of who they were have names…lives…loves…. Everyone one, those named here and those remaining to be named, was someone’s child, sister, brother, friend, lover, co-worker, team member. All are our Rainbow Family, and we shall not forget them. May they have found rest, and may their deaths, heinous as the crime was that took away their lives, usher in a better world than they ever knew. One where Everybody is Somebody, and nobody is nobody.
Darryl Roman Burt II, 29
Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32
Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21
Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50
Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25
Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31
Oscar A. Aracena-Montero, 26
Enrique L. Rios Jr., 25
Miguel Angel Honorato, 30
Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40
Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32
Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19
Cory James Connell, 21
Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37
Luis Daniel Conde, 39
Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25
Jerald Arthur Wright, 31
Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25
Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25
Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34
Stanley Almodovar III, 23
Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22
Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36
Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22
Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20
Luis S. Vielma, 22
Kimberly Morris, 37
Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30
Anthony Luis Laureano Disla, 25
Amanda Alvear, 25
Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26
Martin Benitez Torres, 33
Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37
Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35
Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35
Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33
Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, 27
Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33
Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49
Yilmary Rodriguez Sulivan, 24
Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32
Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28
Frank Hernandez, 27
Paul Terrell Henry, 41
Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24
Akyra Monet Murray, 18
Antonio Brown, 29
Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 25
Jerald Arthur Wright, 31
From the Dean of Brite Divinity School, Fort Worth:
Once again, the world is confronted with the reality of gun violence and a mass shooting. Brite stands with, and prayers for this world, particularly for those families and friends most closely affected by the killing of human lives in such an outrageous moment. We are mindful, as well, of the way in which violence in the LBGTQ community has a deep impact on those who already feel vulnerable in the world, and in our churches and faith communities.
Remember that Brite’s meditation chapel is always open (on the second floor of the Moore building). Monday at noon, the Dean will host a prayer service on the plaza outside of Harrison for anyone who would like to gather to remember, to grieve the loss of life, to speak to the fear instilled through such violence, and to invite others to stand in solidarity in the midst of such tremendous pain.
I invite any of you, your friends, or others in the community to join me at the Plaza outside of the Bass Conference center at noon tomorrow [Monday, June 13] for an opportunity to lament, to grieve, to speak truth about fear, to stand with one another, and to stand with those in Orlando.
I send this with the many mixed feelings that this day brings,
Joretta L. Marshall
Orlando, Florida – Investigators have learned that the Orlando Massacre shooter who killed at least 50 people and wounded 53 others at a gay nightclub early Sunday was a licensed security officer. Omar Mateen, a resident of Fort Pierce, Florida, who worked since 2007 as a security officer at a firm named G4S, legally purchased the weapons he used to slaughter his victims, a pistol and a military-grade assault rifle, as ABC News reports. He held two firearms licenses, both of which expire in September 2017. According to NBC News, Mateen appears to have been “self-radicalized.” There was no indication beforehand that he intended to attack the club. The assault was apparently well planned, however, since he had to travel over 100 miles from his apartment in Fort Pierce to carry out the hit.
Further reports establish that during or immediately before his attack on Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Mateen called 911 to claim allegiance to Al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS, and the claim solidarity with the Boston Marathon bombers. His father, Mir Seddique, who immigrated to the U.S. from Afghanistan, told reporters that his son had been outrage two months before the attack by seeing a gay couple kiss in public while he and his family were in Miami. His ex-wife, who divorced Mateen in 2011, told reporters that he was disturbed mentally and prone to violence. Family members report that Mateen, 29, has a 3-year-old son.
Some commentators are making comparisons of Mateen with the Charleston, SC killer, Dylann Roof, a loner, who became radicalized from the internet and acted on his impulses to murder black Christians at a prayer meeting at the Mother Emanuel AME Church. Roof had no direct ties with the KKK or white supremacy groups. Likewise, Mateen appears to have had no direct ties to ISIS or Al-Baghdadi. Mir Seddique, his father, disclaimed any relationship between his son’s actions and religion, saying instead that anger over a gay public display of affection might have been the precipitating motive for his attack.
Muslim Americans are denouncing the act, and claiming solidarity with the LGBT community. NBC News reports that Council on American-Islamic Relations Orlando Regional Coordinator Rasha Mubarak said, “We condemn this monstrous attack and offer our heartfelt condolences to the families and loved ones of all those killed or injured. The Muslim community joins our fellow Americans in repudiating anyone or any group that would claim to justify or excuse such an appalling act of violence.”
The death count is expected to rise as hospital staffs struggle to treat the dozens of victims of the attack, which is now established as the worst, most deadly mass shooting in United States history.
“Washington, D.C. – President Barack Obama declared to the nation today that “in the face of hatred, we will love one another,” claiming solidarity with the people of Orlando and especially the LGBT community.
The President, speaking from the White House Press Room, said, in part:
“This is an especially heartbreaking day for all our friends — our fellow Americans — who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The shooter targeted a nightclub where people came together to be with friends, to dance and to sing, and to live. The place where they were attacked is more than a nightclub — it is a place of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds, and to advocate for their civil rights.
So this is a sobering reminder that attacks on any American — regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation — is an attack on all of us and on the fundamental values of equality and dignity that define us as a country. And no act of hate or terror will ever change who we are or the values that make us Americans.”
The President also alluded to the type of firearms used by the attacker, Omar Mateen, whom the President called “a person filled with hatred.” With the mass shootings of Sandy Hook, Aurora, Colorado, and a Sikh Temple in the background of his remarks, he said:
“Today marks the most deadly shooting in American history. The shooter was apparently armed with a handgun and a powerful assault rifle. This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship, or a movie theater, or in a nightclub. And we have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be. And to actively do nothing is a decision as well.”
Further, the President pledged the full power and authority of the United States government as this investigation proceeds. He ordered that flags be flown at half-staff in honor of the dead in Orlando, and as an act of national mourning.
Orlando, Florida – A lone, heavily armed gunman has attacked a gay nightclub at 2 a.m. June 12 in what NBC News describes as “the worst mass shooting in American history.” Fifty are dead, fifty-three are wounded and in area hospitals. The gunman, who took at least one hostage, was killed in a shootout with SWAT Team members. One police officer was wounded in the gun battle.
Pulse Nightclub billed as “the hottest gay nightclub in Orlando” erupted in gunfire as approximately 320 patrons were enjoying Latin night. The carnage was horrific. Officials are still clearing the building of bodies and meticulously sweeping for evidence. Survivors describe barely escaping with their lives. Family members and loved ones are seeking their relatives, lovers and friends. Authorities are trying to reach the families of the victims, and HIPPA restrictions have been waived so that loved ones can be given information on the wounded and deceased.
The gunman is identified as Omar Mateen, born 1986, but living in Port Saint Lucie, Florida. He was married, with a three year old child. His father, contacted by NBC News, said that there was no religious motivation behind the attack. His son was outraged, he said, after seeing two gay men kissing in Miami recently in view of his wife and child. The anti-gay motive has yet to be confirmed by officials. He was armed with an automatic rifle and a hand gun. Police report that he was wearing body armor.
The siege lasted for three hours before Mateen was killed by law enforcement. Apparently he was named on a watch list of persons of interest by the FBI, but was not considered seriously, and his name was dismissed over three years ago. Mateen is reported to have an Associates degree in criminology. He may have had a security job. Officials have much more yet to reveal about him, but are not yet ready to reveal what they know and what they suspect.
A state of emergency has been declared for Orlando and Orange County. Blood donations are being called for by health authorities. Counseling is being provided for the gay community at the GLBT Community Center on Mills Avenue.
The Orlando LGBT community is in shock in the wake of this unfolding terror attack. Whatever the motivation, this attack is one of a long list of other hate driven acts of violence against gays, lesbians, bisexual people, and transgender persons. In terms of mass attacks driven by homophobia and heterosexism, this is the most serious in the nation’s history. It calls to mind the horror of the UpStairs Lounge arson in New Orleans in 1973. Gay and lesbian nightclubs across the nation will be on alert, as will Pride Month celebrations and observances.
Unfinished Lives expresses our sincere heartbreak at this awful, senseless loss of life. Coverage and analysis will continue.
Montgomery County, Texas – The body of a gay man was found murdered in a stand of trees in Montgomery County, north of Houston, on Saturday. His truck was also found at the scene by Sheriff’s Deputies, burned. Authorities told KTRK Television 13 that the victim, identified as 28-year-old Marc Pourner of Spring, Texas, may well have been restrained prior to his murder.
The victim’s father, Mark Pourner, who identified the corpse of his missing son on Saturday, told journalists that Marc was a well-liked bookkeeper for Randall’s Food Market, “a good friend to many and a man with a big heart.” Speaking to an interviewer for KTRK, Marc’s father said that the “speed and cold efficiency” with which his son had been killed indicated to him and the family that whoever did this had killed before, and, in all probability, would kill again. When questioned about a possible motive, he said that the family believed this was a hate crime murder, and that his son was openly gay.
Pourner’s roommates and friends grew worried after receiving a “disturbing phone call” Thursday night, and when he did not report for work last Friday, they alerted the authorities. About Magazine News reports that “a person of interest” tipped off the Sheriff’s Department, leading to the discovery of the body. The corpse showed evidence of blunt force trauma to Pourner’s head, and signs of having been tied and gagged. A source described as close to the investigation says that an arrest in the case is near at hand.
Speaking to Project Q on behalf of the Sheriff’s Department, Lt. Brady Fitzgerald described the investigation and the area where Pourner’s body was discovered:
“We responded to that area and we located the burned vehicle. The body was close to the vehicle in a pathway,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a residential area that is sparsely populated. It was thick in the woods where they discovered the vehicle itself and the body. It would obviously have to be intentionally placed there.” When questioned about the details of the investigation, Fitzgerald went on to say, “We are still looking into the case. If he was murdered in reference to him being gay, it would be a hate crime and that’s the way it would be investigated if that was a motive.” Though he would not affirm that an arrest was imminent, Fitzgerald did tell Project Q that there was no evidence that Pourner had been robbed.
An online campaign has been started to pay for the expenses of the funeral.
This homicide takes place in the context of a heated election in nearby Houston focusing attention on the LGBT community, and in the wake of a series of violent attacks against gay men in Dallas that have taken place within the last month. Dr. Stephen Sprinkle, founder and director of the Unfinished Lives Project, said, “It would be folly for Texas authorities to divorce this savage, anti-gay homicide from the homophobic and transphobic campaign against the HERO ordinance in Houston, and from the fallout after the Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage in late June of this year. The LGBT community in Houston is on high alert following the demeaning heterosexist election, and the possible correlation between this killing and the outbreak of anti-LGBTQ violence in Dallas is coincidental only to those who intentionally look the other way.” Sprinkle went on to say that physical violence spikes after media attention like the Marriage Equality decision and the defeat of the equal rights ordinance in metro Houston.
Last week the Fright-Right overwhelmed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) with a campaign Mayor Annise Parker called, “a wad of deliberate, fear mongering lies.” In the first major test of LGBTQ equality since the Supreme Court of the United States made marriage equality the law of the land, justice advocates living behind the Red State Line were unable to dispel the ugly toilet myth that Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance was a ploy by sexual predators to invade women’s bathrooms with rape on their minds. The conservative pulpits and the media-for-hire scared enough of the electorate in the country’s fourth largest city to deal a telling blow against the illusion that non-hetero equality is a settled issue in Red State America.
Meanwhile, in Dallas, the carnage of rising violence against the LGBTQ community rages on, seemingly unabated, though activists, local merchants, and the powerful Tavern Guild in the Cedar Springs/Oak Lawn “Gayborhood” have at long last joined hands in a united front to oppose it. Since the unsolved murder of transgender woman of color, Ms. Shade Shuler, in the Medical District in late July of this year, there have been more than ten savage attacks on LGBT people, with a car jacking at gunpoint a block from one of Dallas’s most frequented gay bars, and a severe beating elsewhere in the community just this past Sunday night. Ironically, the two latest assaults took place mere hours after a major street protest marched through the streets demanding for an end to the violence. Young gay men are being actively and consistently hunted in the Gayborhood of Big D for the first time in many years, and the as-yet-unidentified queer hunters have used ball bats, fists, box cutters, and pistols to shock the community into what the post-SCOTUS Marriage Equality Decision era is beginning to look like below the Mason-Dixon Line.
The message the opponents of LGBTQ equality want to deliver is fear. Fear of bodily harm on the streets of one of the most vibrant gay neighborhoods in the Lone Star State, and fear of perverts in the rest rooms of one of America’s most diverse and inclusive cities. This is what the backlash against LGBTQ justice is shaping up to look like. The truth is, no matter what the Supremes have ruled in June, nothing definitive is settled yet on the matter of equality for non-normative sexual and gender-expressive minorities in the USA. Many autopsies will be done on the HERO vote in Houston and the campaign that led up to it. Suffice it to say that the Reactionary Right is simply better at stirring up their voter base with fear than progressives. We may believe reason will be the victor in the long term, but reason cannot take out of people what irrationality put in them to start with.
LGBTQ communities have long known that violence against its residents is meant to be a terror-message for all LGBTQ people. The truth is that, no matter the success of federal anti-bias hate crime legislation six years ago with the enactment of the Matthew Shepard/James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Law, assaults and murders of transgender women of color and gay men are registering historic highs today, with no sign of slacking off. So many alleged hate crimes against these very populations in Dallas are a bellweather the nation cannot afford to ignore. Hate crime violence is not simply a local problem in the streets of Big D. It is a symptom of a mounting backlash that seems to be growing in intensity wherever the noise machine of the Fright-Right can find willing bad actors to do its bidding. It will not stop in Houston and Dallas, or in Red State America, until this whole society comes to grips with how susceptible all of us are to messages of fear.
The large human rights advocacy groups must take heterosexist, homophobic, transphobic fear mongering seriously, and get out on the streets like the progressives of Houston and the street activists of Dallas. This is the hard grassroots work of converting hearts and minds in the face of unreasoning, deliberate fear. Local and state governments must join hands with merchants, opinion leaders, and residents of every county, town, and city where lives and livelihoods are at stake, to combat the cynical fearfulness being propounded by a dedicated and well-funded few who hope to stampede equality back into the darkness of the benighted past.
This is not where we Texas progressives thought we would be after SCOTUS ruled in favor of the rights of all of us to exist, love, and marry whom we choose. The call back to the hard work of relationship building and confronting fright with the force of our persons and integrity, from local elections to national elections, is not the message the LGBTQ and allied communities wanted to hear, but that seems to be the take-away from Houston and Dallas for those who have ears to hear. So, if the Right is better at Fright, we must triumph through love, effective deeds of love done the hard way. Only love can cast out fear in the end.
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.