Community leaders, family, friends, and LGBT activists gathered yeserday at an emotional vigil to honor the life of 17-year-old gay teenager, Simmie Williams Jr, at the spot where he was murdered last week in what many consider a hate-crime. Among the group of community leaders, Williams' mom, Denise King, stood with a picture of Simmie in her hands.
The group also gathered to bring attention to the attack on Melbourne Brunner, who was severely beaten Saturday outside the Floridian, a popular, gay-friendly diner, by a man shouting anti-gay slurs at him and his partner, such as “you know what I do to faggots? I break their necks.”
Many in the LGBT community see these events as a very unsettling trend in South Florida, which has created an atmosphere of intolerance and fear in South Florida.
Several local and state leaders also joined the rally and called on their counterparts to include sexual orientation and gender identity to laws that provide equal rights for gay, lesbian and transgendered people, as well as school bullying measures. They believe Williams and Brunner are just the latest casualties in what many see as a growing war on gay and transgendered people in Florida. "People aren't born hating gay people, they are taught to hate gay people," said Matt Forman, Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, who was also at the rally.
Also at the vigil was gay youth Adam Hopper, of Melbourne, FL, who was the survivor of a recent hate crime in early February. Beaten and left for dead outside of a bar, Hopper is now permanently disabled and must undergo numerous surgeries. He told his story, further underscoring the trend of hate in Florida.
Following the vigil, more than 150 people gathered at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Fort Lauderdale for a town-hall forum to discuss the attacks. Tears, applause, and outrage permeated the room, with the LGBT community demanding that the South Florida community to stand up with them and demand change.
The crowd contributed more than $3,500 to the family to help pay for Williams' funeral. The community also added to the Crime Stoppers reward for information leading to an arrest in Williams' murder. The amount quickly jumped from $1,000 to over $15,000 in a matter of minutes.
Many at the vigil and forum said that comments by Mayor Jim Naugle last year condemning gays as promiscuous, predatory, and unhappy have contributed to a dangerous climate of hostility and violence against the LGBT community.
Not surprisingly, Naugle didn't attend either event, but he released a statement saying he stands by his remarks, saying, "The comments were responsible and supported by residents in the city."
It is time that Florida, and all of America, begin to have the conversation about hate-based violence and the terror that hate crimes inflict. We demand that EVERY official from every level of government needs to speak out and say we will not tolerate this violence in our communities.
We must act now to try and diffuse the dangerous situation quickly growing in our society.
Waymom Hudson is founder and President of Fight OUT Loud, a national non-profit organization dedicated to empowering the LGBT community to fight discrimination and hate. www.fightOUTloud.org