While the nation reverberates with the gunshots that assassinated activist abortion doctor George Tiller, many Americans are finally, reluctantly having a long-overdue discussion about hate speech, admitting that it leads to hate deeds. But the anti-abortionists are not interested in discussions. They're furious at being criticized, and more fanatically convinced than ever that God wants abortionists dead. Indeed, they're broadening their suppressive efforts to birth control as well, insisting that contraceptives also kill babies.
The other night on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow pointed out a disturbing fact. Despite government efforts to punish violent anti-abortionists, their terrorist campaign is actually succeeding. And it's terrorism by every definition, because it uses threats of death and injury to cowe people into doing what the terrorists want. Thanks to decades of harassment, most of the doctors, nurses and volunteers have given up and fled the abortion field. Tiller himself knew he was living on borrowed time. On top of this, federal and state government has woven a sticky web of laws that limit access to this procedure. Today, nearly 90 percent of U.S. counties have no access to abortion. So abortions are still technically "legal" in the U.S., but it's hard for most women to get one now.
A similar disturbing fact is coming clear with the hate speech aimed at LGBT Americans. Because it comes from the same people who oppose abortion, and its long-term attrition is working against us too. Sure, it hasn't blunted our collective will. But it has pushed the gay-bashing statistics higher than ever. Worse, it has slowed our progress towards equal protection under the law, by encouraging more Americans to oppose us "because God wants fags dead."
As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Stonewall, we are compelled to remember that thousands of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgendered people have been murdered since 1969. For the years 1992-94, there's a partial listing -- just partial, mind you -- of 168 murders nationwide. This shockingly long list was published by Out Magazine, from a report by New York City's Anti-Violence Project. The list describes how the victims died, so it makes for grisly reading.
More to the point, our community has seen numerous murders of our own activists.
One Activist a Year
I searched Google under "gay activist murdered," "lesbian activist murdered," "transgender activist murdered" and "AIDS activist murdered." It's shocking to see how global the killing field is. Most activist murders take place in other countries that boil over with religious homophobia -- Jamaica, Brazil, Turkey, Russia, Argentina, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Colombia, Iraq, Zimbabwe, Mexico. Perhaps the only U.S. activist to be killed abroad was pioneering Wisconsin transgender activist Felicia Melton-Smyth, who was murdered in 2008 in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where she'd gone with a group of vacationers.
But -- some of our activists are routinely murdered right here in the U.S.
Only one gay-activist killing has made a blip in American history -- that of San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk. In 1978, Milk was formally assassinated -- shot dead at his desk in city hall by fellow supervisor Dan White, who was a right-wing religious nutter. Like Tiller, Milk knew he was living on borrowed time. There's no doubt that Dan White meant to send a political message.
But in the last 10 years, an average of one activist a year has been murdered. Yet their deaths, unlike that of George Tiller, seldom made a ripple in the national media. It has been a quiet, if no less deadly, attrition that has cut deep into the communities that knew the victims. From this, I conclude that the murder of a heterosexual abortionist is "important" enough to spark a national meltdown of conscience ... but the murder of a gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender activist is not quite as "important."
Often law enforcement insisted that these were not hate crimes. They attributed the attackers' motives to robbery, or insisted that the victims brought it on themselves sexually in some way. Most weren't publicly assassinated, as Milk was. Many died in more private circumstances.
But all these activist victims had two things in common. One -- they had drawn attention to themselves, either nationally or locally, by being prominent in civil rights, philanthropy, public service, social work, community organizing -- or simply being popular community figures. In some cases, their visibility may have been the lightning rod that drew that strike of death their way. And two -- their killers could hear all those decades of hate speech ringing in their memory, telling them that God wants fags dead.
For the list below, I've pored over news reports and aim to include only activists who were apparently murdered by strangers or people they knew casually:
- 2008 -- Scott Graham, popular community activist and interior designer, was murdered at his home in West Palm Beach. Graham helped launch the Palm Beach Human Rights Council in 1988.
- 2007 -- Donald Young was shot to death in his Chicago home. He was choir director and deacon at Trinity United Church of Christ in the city. The church is associated with the candidacy of Barack Obama; Young was a personal friend of Obama's.
- 2007 -- Robin Malta, community organizer and grand marshal of Southern Decadence, was beaten to death in his New Orleans home. Local gay media mentioned his death as part of a wave of anti-gay violence in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Southern Decadence is a long-standing target of anti-gay religionists in the South.
- 2006 -- Humanitarian and AIDS activist Emery Lane, MD, was beaten to death in his home in Louisville, KY. Retired, he had been a University of Louisiana medical-school professor. In this case, his activist reputation had drawn an ex-convict, whom Lane befriended and helped -- who later brought in a confederate to help him murder Lane.
- 2005 -- Brooklyn student Rashawn Brazell was gruesomely murdered in Brooklyn. His dismembered body parts, showing signs of torture, were found in garbage bags all over the borough. Only 19, Rashawn was out to his family, had already done work with homeless people, and was aiming for a career in medical administration and service to the needy. His still-unsolved murder was widely publicized.
- 2005 -- Wanda Alston was a NOW board member and director of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender Affairs, a cabinet-level post in the mayor's office in Washington D.C. She was stabbed to death in her home.
- 2004 -- Henser Leiva, a Miami gay activist, researcher and nightclub performer, was found bound and beaten to death in his home. The case is still unsolved.
- 2004 -- Well-known college professor Morgan Lewis, an openly gay native American, was found shot to death outside the faculty building on Northern State U. campus in Aberdeen, S.D. Crime still unsolved.
- 2002 -- Knoxville activist Joseph Camber was beaten and strangled by Chad Allen Conyers in Tennessee. Camber had been a president of Knoxville Pride, and worked with HIV/AIDS patients. His murder had such an impact in Tennessee that it inspired the start-up of Pink Pistols, an organization of gun-owning gays that now has chapters in at least 31 states.
- 2001 -- Georgia assistant district attorney Ahmed Dabarran was found beaten to death in his apartment. In the Georgia activist community, the Dabarran case still festers today because the "gay panic" defense got acquittal for killer Roderiqus Reshad Reed.
- 1999 -- Transgender activist Tacy Ranta was shot to death on a Baltimore street. She was co-founder of TranQuility, a Baltimore transgender support group, as well as a prominent figure in the transgender advocacy group It's Time America. Ranta also lobbied for hate-crime bills.
The list extends back into the past, and includes:
- 1994 -- activist Jon Simmons was found murdered in West Hollywood, CA. He was a prominent Chicagoan and city-government liaison to the gay community there. His body was left in a dark alley, with an execution-style gunshot wound to the head. Simmons and his brother had been on an vacation visit to Los Angeles. Another cold case, that a few L.A. detectives are still working on.
- 1991 -- Paul Broussard, popular Houston banker, was assaulted, beaten and stabbed to death by 10 youths in a parking lot in his Montrose neighborhood -- one of the few murder cases to get national publicity, because of the mob-violence circumstances.
Little Justice for Our Dead
Once in a while, murderers of LGBT people get a severe sentence. But more often than not, they invoke "gay panic" as their defense and get a slap on the wrist. Joseph Camber's murderer is a grim standout -- he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 years of "diversion," meaning that if he stays out of trouble for 15 years, the case will actually be dismissed.
After the Camber murder, Tennessee Guerilla Women poured out their righteous wrath against "Tennessee legislators who filed more than a dozen hate-filled anti-gay bills this legislative session." Their website asked the following question:
"With this kind of leadership, and murderers free to walk the streets, can we really expect hate crime to decrease? And who do we hold responsible if yet more gays are murdered? Why, the leaders of the postmodern witch hunt, of course. Murderers should be locked up. Those who inspire them with hateful rhetoric and discriminatory laws should be required to cough up financial compensation for every last victim. Those who lead the state and the country into the darkness of hate and intolerance should be made to understand that it is they who are responsible for the consequences."
In my opinion, a lot of people should be called to account -- from religious leaders who preach that homosexuals should die, to right-wing talk-show hosts who do anti-gay rabble-rousing, to police and prosecutors who deny equal justice to our victims. And to conservative judges like Texas's Jack Hampton, who refused to impose the maximum sentence on two young men who murdered a gay man. He told the press: "I put prostitutes and gays at about the same level, and I'd be hard pressed to give someone life for killing a prostitute."
Yet right-wing religious leaders continue to put a fierce effort into whipping up that frenzy of hate for LGBT people. If anything, our recent successes on the civil-rights front (like same-sex marriage legalized in several states) have made them more bloodthirsty than ever.
Even children don't escape their lethal vehemence. Recently in California, a right-wing group attacked SB 777, the new Student Civil Rights Act. They wanted to nix its specific protections for students with gender and sexual-orientation issues. Last week the Sacramento Superior Court dismissed their lawsuit. But the right-wingers will surely appeal, since they hope that violence will intimidate LGBT children into staying in the closet, or out of school entirely. When children are murdered right in the classroom -- like 15-year-old Lawrence King was in 2008 -- the fundies are unmoved, and try to put the blame on the child, not on their own hate.
Meanwhile, right-wing California media continue to churn out the verbal poison. In the Huffington Post, Michael Rowe commented recently, "Even by the flexible moral, ethical, and professional standards of American talk radio, the May 28th segment of KRXQ 98.5 FM Sacramento's Rob, Arnie, & Dawn in the Morning radio talk show makes for a sickening half-hour of ugliness and cruelty. For once, the focus was not LGBT adults, but minors. The hosts, Rob Williams and Arnie States, devoted the segment in question to a vicious diatribe against transgender children, some as young as five, focusing in particular on the case of one Omaha family raising a gender dysphoric child, and their decision to support her transition from male to female."
The incessant sermons and media comments and murder music send a message that it's okay to kill LGBT people -- that law enforcement will likely let you off lightly. So when will the hate-speakers ever be called to account by enough Americans who have a heart? When will enough people understand that there's a straight line from the tongue to the trigger?
Obama's Position on Violent Extremism
On Thursday this week, President Obama stood before the Muslim world in Cairo and told them point-blank that "extremist violence" is not acceptable. He said:
"We will ... relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security because we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject, the killing of innocent men, women, and children. And it is my first duty as president to protect the American people.." Obama's words applied specifically to Al Quaeda, and to violent extremists among Palestinians.
I think it's great that our President made such a powerful statement to the world, and an appeal to end this kind of violence everywhere. But charity begins at home, as the Bible itself has said. When will our President start protecting his more vulnerable constituents -- women who are denied reproductive choice, LGBT people who are denied equality under the law? When will he actively confront the violent extremism right here in the U.S. -- the threat of death and destruction being incited by Americans against other Americans?
If Obama fails to deal with extremism here at home, his failure will be noted by the rest of the world. Why? Because the American extremists who hate abortion and gays also believe that God wants Muslims dead. They push for "holy war" on Islam, and support every unwarranted act of violence by Israel against the Palestinians -- a situation that Obama is trying hard to defuse.
If every American is supposedly equal under the law, then -- in the great scales of national consciousness -- the unjust and violent deaths of LGBT people ought to weigh just as heavily as the death of an abortionist. But equality won't come until the new administration somehow nullifies the vigilante violence of a small minority whose faith tells them that God wants certain people dead. And the administration's efforts must be supported by enough Americans who openly reject religious hate speech and violence.
Until America figures out how to end this kind of domestic terrorism in a way that is democratic, more killings will happen.
If I have missed any murders of LGBT activists, hopefully commenters will add them to the list in their comments below.