Unfinished Lives

Remembering LGBT Hate Crime Victims

How Laramie’s LGBT Decision Awakens Us

Matthew_Shepard-ART-SM

Matthew Wayne Shepard, artwork copyright by Peeler/Rose Designs.

After 17 years of dogmatic slumber and denial over the grisly murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, Laramie’s City Council passed the state’s first broad LGBT protection ordinance. Council members voted 7–2 to prohibit discrimination in the city limits against persons based on sexual orientation and gender identity in matters of housing, employment, and access to public facilities such as cafés. Like Rip Van Winkle rousing from a long sleep, the city that still only memorializes Matt with a plaque on a park bench awakened and finally addressed its phobias head-on. What took place in Laramie on May 12 was not just a one-off decision. It has implications for the rest of the nation, too.

Like Laramie, no town wants to admit that a bias-driven hate crime took place there. Locales loathe bad publicity. They fear being labeled. So, they deny the problem in a variety of ways. They indulge in blaming the victim. Or sweep the killing under the rug. Or blame “outside agitators” and “other mitigating factors.” The common refrain is “Things like that just don’t happen here.”

But they do happen in American hometowns everywhere, all the time. The only healthy, sane thing for a city or town to do when a murder marks a place forever is to own up to it squarely, and do something to address the root causes that allowed prejudice to take root in the first place. Ask Dallas. Or Memphis. Or Birmingham. You surely can’t make the facts go away. You can and you must rebuild your civic reputation by ensuring that justice and equality for all your citizens take the place of dehumanization and denial. Laramie started that painful process by doing the right thing last Wednesday night.

For seventeen long years, local townsfolk and university students of conscience lobbied Laramie’s elected officials, tried to reason with them, and stood up to their xenophobic neighbors. They opposed the powerful anti-human rights forces that were invested in re-writing the story of the nighttime abduction and brutal beating of slim, slight Matt Shepard by two local men gone bad that unfolded before the world in the Albany County Courthouse. Too many gay people saw no evidence that anything would ever change in Laramie, so they packed up their talent and their verve for living, and left town one or two at a time. Though LGBT people and their allies lost the argument year after year, those who remained persisted in pointing out that the perpetrators, Henderson and McKinney, weren’t “outsiders.” They were homegrown products of Laramie public schools, men who grew up in the same city as Pioneer Days and UW Cowboy Pride. Matt Shepard was not to blame for his own death, no matter what deniers contended, they argued. After losing a close vote to enact a similar statewide discrimination law in February, Wyoming Equality and local advocates mounted the effort that finally passed the first broadly inclusive anti-discrimination ordinance in the “Equality State.” Its provisions will go into effect before the end of the month.

This plaque on a UW park bench is the sole memorial to Matthew Shepard currently in Laramie, Wyoming.

This plaque on a UW park bench is the sole memorial to Matthew Shepard currently in Laramie, Wyoming.

No victim of hate crime ever “had it coming.” No family ever deserves the horror and grief Judy, Dennis, and Logan Shepard have suffered. The public outcry raised by Matt’s death roused other states and municipalities long before Laramie woke up to what happened at the Fireside Lounge and on that cold, high ridge with the buck fence above town. In October 2009, President Obama signed The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law, saying, “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.” Now, Laramie transgender high school student Rihanna Kelver can more confidently go about her life, relieved that she will not lose her job because of how she identifies, one of the first practical results of this ordinance.

Throughout the rest of the country, however, hate crime violence against LGBT Americans is hitting historic highs. With widespread publicity concerning the cause célèbre of the day, Marriage Equality, attacks on vulnerable persons, especially gay men and transgender people of color, are alarmingly on the rise. Thinly veiled efforts to turn back the clock on equality cloaked in the garb of “religious freedom,” the RFRAs, are proliferating around the nation. Seeking to stall justice, retrogrades like Texas are trying to enact pre-emptive laws inoculating the states against a possible Supreme Court decision striking down the bans against same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile, like Laramie prior to Wednesday night’s anti-discrimination victory, the rest of the nation seems to have drifted back into a Rip Van Winkle coma while innocent LGBT people by their thousands face brutalization and harm in towns and cities every succeeding year. Laramie, the longtime hold out for LGBT protections, has awakened to its responsibility for its most vulnerable residents. If Laramie can do it, after so many years of misdirection, denial, and historical revisionism, surely the rest of us must wake up to our responsibilities, as well.

Justice must bloom in the thousands of urban and rural settings where everyday Americans live and work. It is high time for all forms of heterosexism and homophobia to be put on notice that hate is not an American value. Local advocates must press their elected officials to pass anti-discrimination laws and make them stick. One of the most encouraging signs of this awakened determination to do right by everybody is the Golden Rule attitude of Laramie resident Mike Sumner who said during public speak out time before the City Council vote, “As a Christian I do sin when I fail to follow the loving and compassionate example of Jesus Christ,” he said. “And I believe that a vote against this ordinance is the same as throwing the first stone.”

Drop the stones in your hand, America. Laramie has shown us how to do it.

May 17, 2015 Posted by | Anti-LGBT hate crime, anti-LGBT hate crime murder, Beatings and battery, Blame the victim, gay bashing, gay men, GLBTQ, Hate Crimes, Heterosexism and homophobia, LGBTQ, Matthew Shepard, Matthew Shepard Act, University of Wyoming, 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

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

Hate Crimes and Capital Punishment: A Special Comment

Lawrence Russell Brewer, on the day he was booked for the murder of James Byrd Jr.

Huntsville, Texas – On September 21 at 6:11 p.m., before witnesses whom included his hate crime victim’s family and his own, Lawrence Russell Brewer, 44, was injected with lethal drugs in the execution chamber of Huntsville Prison.  Ten minutes later, he was pronounced dead.  Sentenced to death for the 1998 dragging murder of James Byrd Jr., there was no doubt about the convict’s guilt.  Brewer and two accomplices, John William King and Shawn Allen Berry, abducted Byrd, a 49-year-old African American, in Jasper, Texas, beat him, bound him with a log chain attached to the backend of a pickup truck, and dragged him three miles down a rough East Texas road until his head was detached from his body when it hit a culvert.  The racially-motivated murder made the nation shudder–and marked a decisive moment in the hate crime justice movement for LGBTQ people as well as for African Americans. But the justice of capital punishment for hate crime murders is still up for serious question, even after the execution of a bigoted man who displayed no remorse for his crime.  Brewer had even urinated on Byrd before dragging him to his death.

In Texas, the racist murder of James Byrd Jr. was quickly equated with the anti-gay murder of young Matthew Wayne Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, that occurred barely four months later.  After abortive attempts to get a state hate crimes statute naming gays and lesbians as a protected class, the Byrd family agreed to sign on with Shepard’s family to achieve a landmark Texas law including African Americans and LGB persons as protected classes from prejudicial murder.  Governor Rick Perry, who today is the notably anti-gay Republican front runner for President, signed the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act into law back in May 2001, inclusive of “sexual preference” as a protected category.  It took the federal government eight more years to enact a comprehensive hate crimes law inclusive of LGBT people in the United States. The James Byrd Jr. and Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, also known as the Matthew Shepard Act, was signed into law by President Obama in October 2009.  The families of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. were honored guests at the presidential signing ceremony in the White House.

Can state-sanctioned execution remedy anti-gay or racially motivated hate crime murders?  Brewer’s death by lethal injection, in the same week as the hotly contested execution of Troy Davis in Georgia, brought that issue to a head for the national media, human and civil rights activists, moral theologians, and the families of victims alike.  Lawrence O’Donnell, MSNBC anchor of “The Last Word,” opined that the only way to prevent the execution of putatively innocent death row inmates like Davis is to outlaw the execution of even the most unrepentant of guilty killers like Brewer.  Dick Gregory, the fabled comedian and human rights activist, was present in Huntsville protesting the execution of James Byrd Jr.’s murderer for just that reason.  The Houston Chronicle quotes Gregory as saying, “Any state killing is wrong. If Adolph Hitler were to be executed,” he said, “I would be here to protest . . . I believe life in prison is punishment. Execution is revenge.”

Ross Byrd, James Byrd’s son, who is now 32, spoke out to Reuters the night before Brewer’s execution for the murder of his father. “You can’t fight murder with murder,” Byrd said, representing his family. “Life in prison would have been fine. I know he can’t hurt my daddy anymore. I wish the state would take in mind that this isn’t what we want.”  The Reuters article concludes by presenting Ross Byrd’s position that for the state to execute Brewer is no more that a continuation of the cycle of violence that destroyed his father’s life on that lonely road in the dead of night in 1998. Byrd believes that all people, the government included, should decide not to perpetuate that cycle of death. “Everybody’s in that position,” he said. “And I hope they will stand back and look at it before they go down that road of hate. Like Ghandi said, an eye for an eye, and the whole world will go blind.”

Dennis Shepard, Matthew Shepard’s father, took a similar position on the day his son’s second killer was sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison.  Speaking to Aaron James McKinney, the roofer who beat Matt into a fatal coma with a pistol, Shepard said that Matt was not opposed to the death penalty. As a matter of fact, at a family meeting, Matt had said that heinous murders like the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. deserved capital punishment. “Mr. McKinney,” Shepard said, “I, too, believe in the death penalty. I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney. However, this is the time to begin the healing process. To show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy. To use this as the first step in my own closure about losing Matt. Mr. McKinney, I am not doing this because of your family. I am definitely not doing this because of the crass and unwarranted pressures put on by the religious community. If anything, that hardens my resolve to see you die. Mr. McKinney, I’m going to grant you life, as hard as that is for me to do, because of Matthew.”  Shepard concluded, “Mr. McKinney, I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives. May you have a long life, and may you thank Matthew every day for it.”

Admittedly, all other hate crimes victims’ families do not necessarily agree with Mr. Byrd and Mr. Shepard.  Some support capital punishment as justice for the heinous nature of the crimes committed against their loved ones.  But Lawrence Russell Brewer’s Texas execution is not so cut and dried as the most ardent supporters of capital punishment would like to believe.  The world is far grayer than any black-and-white wishes for closure can achieve in a culture where bigotry kills innocent people everyday, and where the state can and does execute anyone it deems legal to terminate. What is right and what is wrong about capital punishment for hate crimes murder perpetrators?  What is just for the victims and their families, and for the society the killers have also grievously wounded by their deeds of hatred?  We at the Unfinished Lives Project do not claim to have the final truth about these monumental issues.  But we do agree with Ross Byrd and Dennis Shepard.  Until our fallible knowledge is replaced by the divine in some other world than this and some other time than ours, we will err on the side of mercy.  Honor the dead.  Break the cycle.  Stop the killing.

September 27, 2011 Posted by | African Americans, Anglo Americans, anti-LGBT hate crime murder, Bisexual persons, capital punishment, Dragging murders, Execution, gay bashing, gay men, Georgia, GLBTQ, gun violence, Hate Crimes, hate crimes prevention, Heterosexism and homophobia, Law and Order, Legislation, Lesbian women, LGBTQ, Matthew Shepard Act, Perpetrators of Hate Crime, President Barack Obama, Racism, Social Justice Advocacy, Special Comments, Texas, transgender persons, Wyoming | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Hate Crimes and Capital Punishment: A Special Comment

   

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: