By Joseph Jones
Watching the news in recent years fills me with tread and terror the like that I had never felt before a queer person in America. And it all started with the shooting at the Pulse Nightclub, a popular gay bar in Orlando, a safe place where queer people could dance, socialize, live free, and fall in love without fear, judgment, or danger. But on that night in June, Pride Month ironically, that bubble of safety, acceptance, and community was penetrated by someone motivated by hate, and hate alone. I naively believed our lives as queer people were no longer in jeopardy. However, this tragedy put in stark terms the realization that we have not completely moved past violent hatred towards queer people, and if gay bars are no longer safe spaces for queer people, then where is there?
I hoped that those feelings of dread and terror would go away, but instead of dissipating, they have actually amplified. Every day it seems I hear news of another queer bashing, or of more and more transgender women of color being found brutally murdered. Last week, a 50 year old man was attacked in Philadelphia outside the Toasted Walnut, a local gay bar. Witnesses report that four men and a woman pulled up to the establishment in a car, exited the vehicle, and then assaulted the victim as he excited the bar. The man went to a hospital and treated for a head injury. A local news station ABC 6 reported that people on social media indicated a similar attack occurred the night before. And an even more high-profile incident occurred recently when Jussie Smollett, an openly gay actor from the TV show Empire, was hospitalized after he was the victim of a vicious homophobic and racially motivated hate crime in Chicago. Two assailants attacked Smollett, put his head in a noose, and poured bleach all over his body. TMZ reports that shortly before the attack someone yelled, “Aren’t you that faggot empire n*****?” While the injuries that Smollets sustained were not life threatening, Smollett was still hospitalized with a fractured rib. The actor has since been released from the hospital according to TMZ.
The most concerning reports from the assault on Jussie Smollett is that the perpetrators were Trump supporters, or so they would appear to be, as Smollett’s himself says that the attackers yelled, “MAGA country” during the assault. This was confirmed with the Chicago Police Department by CBS News. President Trump commented on the attack on Smollett’s life during an oval office press conference when prompted with a question asked by April Ryan, Washington bureau chief for American Urban Radio Networks. The President gave a pithy response saying, “That I can tell you is horrible. I’ve seen it. Last night. It’s horrible. “It doesn’t get worse, as far as I’m concerned,” He did not make any statement regarding the “MAGA country” language used by the attackers, nor was he asked about it by any of the reporters in the press pool. Al Sharpton called on Trump to condemn the attack telling TMZ that his silence would be very, very deafening.” While it may not be fair to label all Trump supporters as homophobic and racist or to completely blame the President’s rhetoric for the attack, this incident does appear to confirm much of the concerns that many queer people voiced leading up to Trump’s inauguration as President, and also is representative of a dangerous ramification of his impact on American politics.
When Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States, many queer people, myself included, feared that his swearing into office would usher in a sweeping tide of anti-LGBTQ legislation and embolden prejudiced and bigoted views towards queer people. A lot of our close friends, family members, and even some people in our own community all attempted to reassure us that “we should wait and see” and that maybe nothing would change at all. As a wild card, Trump was an unpredictable dark horse candidate that many people didn’t believe would actually win the presidency, let alone the nomination. And on that night in November, he became one of the most powerful people in the world, and that terrified me.
I remember being in a car with another queer friend of mine and feeling so hopeless. I feared that all of the progress that I personally had witnessed in my lifetime as of yet would be erased and we would regress back to a time where same-sex marriage was left to individual states, and where a queer couple would be unable to kiss or hold hands in public. I can think of countless examples of times when Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, illustrated his support for the LGBTQ community in ways that were both public and also genuine. From signing a bill repealing “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” in 2010 and in May 2012 becoming the first sitting American President to support same-sex marriage, there was no question that President Obama was our “Ally in Chief”.
During the Obama administration, I felt much more comfortable with being out as my authentic self than I do currently while President Trump and the Republican party is in control. Historically this is a staunch conservative party that uses traditional Christian values as justification for fostering hostility towards the LGBTQ community. Knowing that members of my family and friend network voted for a candidate that could possibly put my rights, liberties, and freedoms into jeopardy, made me seriously question my relationship with those individuals. How could they possibly in good conscious vote for Trump, without thinking of how their vote would affect me and people like me?
Despite the reassurance and that of various talking heads, it wasn’t long before Trump made clear his intentions regarding the LGBTQ community, such as failing to make an official declaration proclaiming June national Pride Month for two consecutive years, attempting to issue a ban preventing transgender service members from serving in the military, a plan to roll-back President Obama’s executive order extending protections for LGBTQ federal workers, the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, a judge with a record of opposing civil rights for LGBTQ people. With these and other examples it is clear that President Trump is no ally to the LGBTQ community and is much more of a threat to the rights and liberties of queer people.
Since Donald Trump took office in 2016, the number of hate crimes reported nationwide rose from 6,121 to 7,175 in 2017, according to the numbers provided by the FBI. The three most common types of hate crimes were based race (59.6%), religion (20.6%), and sexual orientation (15.8%). The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) is a national coalition created with the aim of preventing, responding to, and ending all forms of violence against and within the LGBTQ community. They released their own report in 2017 examining hate violence. The report says that “NCAVP recorded 52 reports of hate violence related homicides in 2017, the highest number recorded in the 21 years of collecting this date and an 86% increase in single incident reports compared to 2016.” The majority of the victims were people of color and transgender or gender non-conforming. 71% of the victims were POC, 52% were transgender or gender non-conforming, and 40% were specifically transgender women of color.
The study from NCAVP also shows that while hate crime violence is on the rise, the number of reported hate crimes decreased 20% and have been on a steady decline since 2010. NCAVP does not attribute this decline to an actual decrease of hate violence, but rather that some violence is simply going unreported. The coalition identified in their report some of the reasons they believe they have seen a decrease in reported hate crimes. “Two factors have likely contributed to this multi-year decline: a decreased capacity of organizations to collect information due in part, to funding cuts; and the normalization of hate violence among LGBTQ and HIV-affected people.”
The severity of violent crimes also saw an increase in 2017. 46% of LGBTQ people who were victims of hate violence also sustained an injury (an increase from 31% in 2016), 42% needed medical attention (an increase of 23% in 2016) and 27% of the attacks the assailants used weapons (an increase from 13% in 2016).
The 2017 report from NCAVP also highlights the political climate in which these incidents of violence took place, and how the current administration’s hostility to the LGBTQ community may have influenced hate-based violence. They identify specific actions of the Trump regime that create an unwelcoming environment for LGBTQ people, such as the Departments of Justice and Education withdrawing guidance for protection of transgender students at school, the eliminations of questions for LGBTQ people from important date collection tools by the Department of Health and Human Services, the Census bureau retracting a proposal to collect information about the LGBTQ community on the 2020 census, and the Department of Justice arguing that the Civil Rights Act does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The coalition also identified that some hate-based violence was directed not at individuals, but organizations like theirs. “In the midst of a near-constant stream of anti-LGBTQ executive orders, memos, and more, violence against marginalized communities became commonplace. At least thirteen LGBTQ centers across the country, including some organizations that are members of the NCAVP, were vandalized or attacked by arson or gunfire in early 2017.”
Even more recently in 2018 NCAVP published Crisis of Hate, a report documenting LGBTQ hate violence homicides in 2017. A startling total of 52 anti-LGBTQ homicides were reported in 2017, an 86% increase from 28 killings in 2016. That is the equivalent of one LGBTQ individual murdered per week. NCAVP says that a majority of the victims were POC, transgender and gender non-conforming people. 71% were POC with 31 of the victims being black, 4 were latinx, 2 were Asian, and 1 was native American. The coalition recorded 27 cases of hate-violence homicides of transgender and gender con-conforming compared to 19 in 2016, and 22 transgender women of color were the victims of hate-violence homicides. Reports of hate-violence homicides of queer, gay, and bi cisgender men also increased from 4 cases in 2016, to 20 in 2017, 55% of which were men of color.
These two reports from NCAVP paint a very troubling portrait of hate motivated violence inflicted towards the LGBTQ community. These numbers are particularly disturbing when placed within the context of a political climate that is also hostile to the LGBTQ community. Only 18 states and the District of Columbia have hate crime laws covering sexual orientation and gender identity. 12 states have hate crime laws which cover sexual orientation, but not gender identity, and 20 states have hate crime laws which do not have language for either. According to information provided by the Movement Advancement Project, only 47% of the LGBTQ population live in states that have hate crime laws which cover sexual orientation and gender identity. 25% live in states with hate crime laws only covering sexual orientation, and 24% live in states with hate crime laws missing language specifically for sexual orientation and gender identity.
With the prominence of hate crime violence directed against the LGBTQ community and POC on the national consciousness thanks to the Jussie Smollett attack, the time is now to enact hate crime legislation nationwide addressing this tragic phenomenon. In order to combat this violence, we need a multi-faceted approach to reconstruct the systems, stigmas, and structures which breed these forms of violence. The NCAVP in their 2017 offered a few key recommendations to address hate-related violence such as, encourage reporting, increase funding for or LGBTQ-specific and affirming services for survivors of violence, expand and improve media coverage to help raise public awareness of LGBTQ hate violence, practice alternative solutions of community-based solutions designed to violence designed by the most impacted individuals, and push for systematic change and “Advocate for and implement comprehensive, long-term systemic change that includes affordable housing, non- discriminatory employment, living wage and anti-discrimination policies that transform LGBTQ survivors’ access to basic needs.”
We as individuals must also condemn attitudes and policies which help to foster prejudice and bias towards individuals in marginalized communities such as LGBTQ people, POC, Muslims, immigrants, and transgender women of color. We must also do what we can to support these individuals that are impacted by hate crime violence. All of these communities are examples of people that in this current day and age are under the constant threat of danger wherever they go.
There’s a quote that I’ve seen in circulation recently that really spoke to me about the state of being for LGBTQ people currently. The quote, unattributed, says “to be visibly queer is to choose your happiness over your safety.” For those that cannot pass through heteronormative society undetected as queer or trans, their very existence makes them more likely to be the victim of hate related violence, with POC even more at risk. When Jussie Smollett’s attackers yelled “MAGA country” as their battle cry, they were sending a very strong message that people like Smollett, black and gay, do not belong in their version of America. But this country is not “MAGA country”, it never has, and it never will. It is a country that is home to everyone who inhabits it, and we must coexist together. In order to truly “Make America Great Again”, as if America was ever great for LGBTQ people, we must create an America that truly does belong to everyone, where there are no marginalized communities pushed to the fringes of society and forced to live under the constant threat of violence. That is my version of America and it should be President Trump and his supporters version of America as well.