Editing notes (2015): some sidebar remarks made around 2004, along with some contextual links and reflections more recently, are embedded as mouseover messages throughout this article. This draft was intended as an op-ed for either focusPOINT or Lavender Magazine, the two principal periodicals serving the Twin Cities’ queer community in the late ’90s. At the time, there weren’t any reporters or op-ed writers on staff for either who weren’t cis. So this piece ever seeing the light of day in print was an exercise in futility.
I began to write this commentary on queer violence before Matthew Shepard was killed. Mid-way into writing I received an e-mail informing me that he had been attacked in Wyoming. Monday morning, I was bathing and listening to NPR when they reported his death. Not surprisingly, I curled up and cried in the tub.
I felt compelled to write because Debra Davis’s commentary in October 7th’s focusPOINT, about her experience of being transgender(ed), left me with discontent. I admire Davis for coming out in ways most of us will never have to. By coming out through the media, she showed that trans-identified people have a face, personality and identity. I am also glad that she left us with statistical data profiling the rate of suicide among trans people.
But her personal account of checking into a motel room to put on a dress, makeup and nail polish for an evening out in public left a bitter, even sour taste in my mouth. It wasn’t so much the story itself that annoyed me. What bothered me was that her writing concluded without a premise, point or even lesson we could learn from her experience. She left a gaping void in her commentary. What Davis could have used as a stepping stone for highlighting violence motivated by transphobia and homophobia was instead laboriously spent on her story of crossdressing, which leaves me feeling somewhat frustrated and ignored as a transqueer individual. It was all about her.
That frustration is what’s compelled me to highlight what she left out in her commentary, in which she ignores not only the victims of trans violence, but also how hate crimes motivated by genderphobia are not documented by the federal government. However, hate crimes based on sexual orientation are. If we have a law which reports or prosecutes hate crimes, how effective can that law be if some people within a minority group (in this case, queer) are not covered? Why bother having a hate crimes law in the first place?
Violence against queer people is no less horrifying than hate crimes against other minorities. Period. In 1991, when I was eighteen and living in Houston, Paul Broussard, a gay college graduate, was fatally beaten by a squad of high school rednecks from a fringe suburb. Broussard, who was clubbed to death with pipes and bats, was murdered just outside Heaven, a queer-friendly club in a queer neighbourhood. Fortunately, his death wasn’t in vain. Shortly after the incident, the Houston queer community organized a voluntary patrol of neighbourhood streets known as Q Patrol. Comprised of citizens in the community working partly with police, Q Patrol deterred further hate crimes from occurring in the area.
While Broussard’s death sobered other Houstonians as well as it did me, it’s the needless deaths of several trans and intersex people since then that have hit home. Now their memories live in me. When someone who is threatened by my existence harasses me — and believe me, there isn’t a shortage of these people — I remember the names of those trans and intersex victims who died simply because they existed, and how somebody really couldn’t handle that. It is their memory that keeps me moving when someone tries to knock me down, and it was their common fight to exist that I share when I refuse to become a victim of those who cannot tolerate me. I underscore each of their lives — and horrendous deaths — in an attempt to highlight how queer violence is not limited to victims like Broussard and how none of us are immune to the risk of being hurt by hate.
Deaths like the triple murder that took Brandon Teena’s life in 1993 just after being raped two days earlier by his former friends, one of whom shot him execution-style just after stabbing Brandon in the stomach, haunt me. And I stress his murder, since seemingly progressive writers in The Village Voice and most recently, Rob Nelson of City Pages insist Brandon was a woman. All I can say is, “Yeah, right. Say Rob, listen up: Brandon was trans-identified, like myself. Call me, we’ll do lunch sometime.”
It is murders like Debbie Forte’s in 1995 which tear me to pieces. The same day as the Brandon Teena murder trial was taking place, Debbie was brutally murdered by a man she was dating. Upon discovery of her genitals, he repeatedly stabbed her in the chest, slashed her body, and smashed her nose, head and face. There were also signs of strangulation.
Senseless deaths like Tyra Hunter’s infuriate me. Tyra was critically wounded and later died from internal bleeding in a hit-and-run pedestrian accident in 1995. An EMT cut her trousers open, discovered her penis, then refused to treat her while he made off-colour jokes about her body to horrified bystanders. Twenty minutes passed before the EMT supervisor arrived on scene and tried to treat her wounds in vain.
Slayings like Christian Paige, who was beaten, strangled, and stabbed over a dozen times before the murderer(s) set her house afire, add to my frustration. And on Victoria Day 1996 during a fireworks show, I happened to be near Toronto when three sex workers, two of them trans-identified, were stalked and shot to death by a serial killer. All three victims were forced to kneel and face their aggressor before being shot, which led Metro Toronto police to believe that they were forced to listen to a statement made by him before their execution (yes, the bastard was apprehended, weeks later, in his home out in the suburbs, where his wife and kids lived). I was aghast not only by the incident, but also in the realization that their deaths occurred only blocks from where I would be a few days later while their killer was still on the loose.
Chanelle Pickett’s assailant strangled her for eight minutes, after she had already suffered extensive head injuries. Her murderer, who immediately turned himself in, alleged to police that he panicked when he discovered that she had a penis. The District Attorney believed him until several transactivists testified that he was a regular at the local queer bars and was notorious for picking up pre-surgical transwomen. The jury found him innocent of murder and guilty on one count of assault. He is slated to walk free this November in Massachusetts.
Most recently, the death of Logan Smith, who died at the age of twenty-three in Chicago, makes me stare in disbelief. Logan was pulled over by police on a minor traffic violation, and during the altercation that followed, he was kicked in the stomach by the officers. Logan, who was born with intersex genitals and an external bladder, died in police custody from septic infection after being denied treatment by officers who ignored his persistent complaints of severe abdominal pain.
Recounting the stories of these victims to hate crime and trans violence may make you sick and cause you to wonder how justice failed more than once. “But what about the Hate Crimes Statistics Act signed by President Clinton in 1996?” you might be wondering. Forget it. Even though the Hate Crimes bill is supposed to track all hate-motivated crimes in the nation, hate crimes motivated by the victims gender expression do not count. Not only does this exclude crimes against transqueers, stone butches, drag queens, intersex people, passing women, leather daddies and gendertrash who fall between the cracks of description, but it also excludes violence against any of us who aren’t straight-acting or straight-looking enough to escape homophobic sentiment.
You likely aren’t surprised by the abundance of homophobic and transphobic people who would eagerly tell you how each of these victims deserved what they got. Homophobia and transphobia burn on the same fuel. Nonetheless, transphobia extends the grasp of homophobia because it forces people to question and confront their own sense of gender identity as well as their sexual identity (not to mention presentation), and this is intimidating. Trans-identification challenges the rules of gender expression that are beaten into our heads from the moment we’re born. Our parents (“one day, he’s gonna be just like his father: big and strong!”); our family (“oh, my niece is growing up into such a lovely little lady! Here’s a pink bow for your cute little ponytail!”); our peers (take your pick from such colourful metaphors like “faggot”, “sissy”, “queerbait”, or better yet, “[insert your own from personal experience]”); our colleagues, advertising, pop culture — you name it — pressure all of us to comply with a gender identity were told we should have, never mind who we’re attracted to.
Even some people in the queer community consider “trans-ness” to be threatening. Take, for instance, the recent and sometimes reluctant inclusion of “T” in “GLB” (let’s just call it “LTBG” to drive people nuts) to label the “queer community”. Some argue that trans and intersex issues are different from the issues that gay men, lesbians and bi-identified people have to contend with. To this day, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) still refuses to include transpeople in their campaign for the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), in the belief that including the language of “transgender(ed)” or even “gender identity” in the bill “would cost ENDA twenty votes” in Congress. [EDITING note: Here was U.S. Representative (and cis white gay man) Barney Frank, in 2007, repeating close to verbatim what he had been saying since at least 1998, when this op-ed piece was drafted.] The HRC’s insistence and arrogance to exclude some queer people in their mission for equality will defeat their main intent of seeking equal protection for many gays and lesbians, never mind the transqueers, stone butches, bisexuals, drag queens, intersex people, passing women, leather daddies and gendertrash who fall between the cracks of description. See a trend here? All of us are queer, and while we continue to add more labels to galvanize our identity, someone will inevitably be left out. And hate could care less how we label ourselves. At the end of the day, its our sexually- and gender-queered bodies which run the risk of being pummelled by a bat, or worse.
Why even have an incomplete and under-enforced hate crimes law? Will it reduce the incidence of violence against any group? It certainly didn’t stop the brutal Jasper, Texas lynching and dragging last June of James Byrd, Jr., a black man, by a trio of white racists, and it doesn’t stop bullets from piercing the storefront windows of local queer bookstores. Chanelle Pickett’s murderer, William Palmer, was found not guilty of first-degree murder and received limited punishment on an assault charge, even though her death couldn’t have been more clearly motivated by hate. This cannot happen again but it probably will, over and over.
Enforcement of hate crimes punishment could escalate the severity of a violent crime at least a notch, if not more. For example, the law would bump up a Class A misdemeanour to at least a Class C felony, perhaps even higher. It could compel a perpetrator to think twice about victimizing a minority. While hindsight may be perfect, an enforced hate crimes prevention law could have deterred Byrd’s dragging or even Chanelle Pickett’s death.
Notwithstanding, tracking hate crimes statistics provides law enforcement a powerful means of pinpointing hotbeds of hate in the community. It’s a collection of data. But data gathering is compromised if it isn’t enforced and reported in every jurisdiction and is meaningless if some marginal minorities are excluded, such as people who identify as genderqueer.
Exclusion will not work. Lobbying for a state or federal bill against hate crimes will fail if we leave out some in our community. Taking the first steps towards eliminating hate violence are the most difficult. Yes, in the queer community, we are just beginning to do that, but we have a lot of kinks to iron out. The biggest one is unity. We won’t succeed in equal rights or in the prevention of hate violence if unity doesn’t exist. Excluding our trans- and gender-variant family because they are the queerest of the queer in our community makes all of us the hypocrite. Exclusion will only force us to add on to the master’s house, rather than letting us use our own fabulous tools to tear it down.