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.
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.
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.
Washington, DC – The Federal Bureau of Investigation has issued its 2013 hate crimes statistics today: Hate Crime Statistics, 2013, the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program’s first publication to present data collected under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act of 2009. A snapshot of the findings may be garnered from the press release that may be accessed here. Hate Crimes against persons because of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender non-conformity comprised over one fifth of the total. 20.2 percent were targeted because of anti-sexual orientation bias, 0.3 percent for anti-gender bias, and 0.5 percent for anti-gender identity bias. 1,461 persons were victimized because of bias against sexual orientation.
To be a gay man, or to be perceived as a gay man, remains the most dangerous sexual orientation identification in the United States. 60.9 percent were victims of crimes motivated by their offenders’ anti-gay (male) bias. 22.5 percent were victims of anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (mixed group) bias. 13.1 percent were victims of anti-lesbian bias. 1.8 percent were victims of anti-bisexual bias. 1.6 percent were victims of anti-heterosexual bias.
Anti-sexual orientation hate crimes add up to the second largest hate crime category reported by the FBI this year. First in number are anti-racial hate crimes, and third in number are hate crimes based on antipathy of one’s religion. A staggering 7,242 persons in the United States were victims of hate crimes last year. Five murders and 21 rapes (15 from agencies that collected data using the revised rape definition and 6 from agencies that used the legacy definition) were reported as hate crimes. While FBI data are collected from cooperating law enforcement agencies around the country, most experts agree that the numbers of hate crimes reported are a severe undercount.
Most hate crime incidents (31.5 percent) occurred in or near residences/homes. More than 18 percent (18.1) occurred on highways/roads/alleys/streets/sidewalks; 8.3 percent occurred at schools/colleges; 5.7 percent happened at parking/drop lots/garages; and 3.5 percent took place in churches/synagogues/temples/mosques. The location was considered other/unknown for 13.2 percent of hate crime incidents. The remainder of hate crime incidents took place at other specified or multiple locations.
The complete FBI report may be accessed here, complete with tables and commentary.
Hillsboro, Oregon – A bizarre anti-gay crime case at a busy highway street crossing has attracted national attention as Federal prosecutors issued hate crimes charges against a man whose homophobic rage was sparked by the sight of a pink poodle. The assailant, George Mason Jr., 22, was charged this week with a violation of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act for attacking a gay man with a heavy bolt cutter and screaming anti-gay slurs during a peaceful, midday stroll with his boyfriend and their pink-dyed poodle on March 1. Multiple witnesses say Mason shouted slurs at the gay couple from his SUV, did a U turn, raced back to the intersection, and allegedly attacked David Beltier with his fists and the bolt cutter. Beltier sustained blows to the upper arm, and to the back of his head. The assault could very nearly have cost Beltier his life.
Portland, Oregon court documents record the hate crime in legal language, but preserve the horror of the assault, coming from a complete stranger: “(Mason) willfully caused bodily injury and, through the use of a dangerous weapon, attempted to cause bodily injury to (Beltier), who is gay, because of (Beltier’s) actual and perceived sexual orientation.” The Associated Press, in a story carried by the Columbus (IN) Republic, also reports that Mason faces Oregon state charges including second-degree intimidation, second-degree assault, unlawful use of a weapon, and reckless driving. The intimidation charge is a bias-motivation charge in the Oregon state code. Mason’s wife, Saraya Gardner, who was in Mason’s vehicle at the time of the attack, has also been charged in the case for obstructing justice.
In an interview in Komonews.com, Beltier and his partner, Jeremy Mark, recounted that they were crossing the street with their pink-dyed poodle, Beauty, when the attack occurred. Beauty, explained Beltier and Mark, had been harmlessly dyed pink with Kool-Aid for a bit of pre-Easter fun, and to match their two other pastel-dyed dogs. The sight of the pink poodle proved too much for Mason, who screamed profanities at the couple from his moving vehicle. The intersection was filled with witnesses who blared their horns in protest of the attacker. Beltier credits the witnesses with saving his life. “If I didn’t hear all the other people honking, all the people seeing what was going on, he could have probably severely hurt me, maybe even killed me right there and then,” he said. The New York Daily News reports Mark’s account of the slurs Mason hurled at his boyfriend. “[Mason] was saying, “Your poodle is a weird color and that’s just un-American” and “f— you, you f–s” and shouting,” Mark said.
Beltier then picked up the story for Komo News: “After that, [Mason] turns around, he goes back to his car, runs back to his car and brings out this long wrench-looking crowbar tool or something like that, and he comes back after me.” Mason then struck Beltier on the upper arm and in the back of the head. Beltier’s boyfriend was frantic with fear for his lover’s life. “I just couldn’t believe it,” said Mark. “I was shouting at the guy to stop. There’s no need for violence. There’s nothing to provoke him. … I was fearing for his life.”
As Mason raced away from the scene of the crime, witnesses tried to block his vehicle, and one witness took off after him, capturing Mason’s license plate number. The information led to the arrest of Mason and his wife, Gardner.
Though officials advised the gay couple to eliminate the bright pink color from his pet’s fur, Beltier and Mark remain adamant. They say that they did nothing wrong, and they are not going to let fear dictate their lives. They just allowed Beauty’s fur to grow out naturally over time.
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.
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.