A few days after the November 6 General Election, Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed certified that Referendum 74, the ballot initiative that asked voters to approve (keep) or disapprove (deny) same-sex marriage rights, had been approved by popular vote. At that moment – everything changed in my world.
I felt free. For the first time in a very long time I felt like I had the right to marry the man I love and that the people – or as we LGBT’s like to call them – “straight allies” agreed that I deserved that right. We had crossed a divide together and built a bridge. Marching towards victory as brothers and sisters in arms, proved not only to ourselves, but to the rest of the free world that the age of “the gays vs. the breeders” had gone missing…never to be found again.
It was a wonderful time, if only for a moment.
As November came to a close and now December, too, I began to realize what “the blacks” have known all along. The signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did nothing to eradicate racism. The racial slur “nigger” did not go on vacation, just as the homophobic slur “faggot” has yet to take a much needed leave of absence. Because you see, when the bigots have heard that anyone different from their own have advanced politically, they begin to apply pressure socially and the nutcases seem to come out of the woodwork.
The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, a group that supports victims of anti-LGBT harassment, found that violent crimes, including murder, have increased over the years against members of the LGBT community, and In particular, among transgender and people of color members of the community.
It should come as no surprise then, that offenders were mostly white males (non-transgender men) who did not know their victim(s).
According to Suzanna Walters, professor of gender studies at Indiana University and author of All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America, the rise in violence towards the LGBT community is not surprising.
In fact, Walters said it is expected.
Ongoing homophobia is hidden because of increased visibility of support for the LGBT community, she said.
“These positive changes are very real, there is no doubt about it, but the more visible you are as a community the more vulnerable you are, too,” said Walters. “There is a protection in the closet, as awful as that is. Real homophobia with violent outcomes is not a thing of the past and there is much more work to be done.”
To find evidence to back up the claim that as we move towards our ultimate goal of full equality under the law for all LGBT persons, we should come to expect more violence inflicted upon us, could be found in New York – the state that legalized same-sex marriage in 2011. Like Washington State and Seattle, New York is made up of more than just the iconic and presumably gay-friendly New York City. However, according to recent FBI statistics, a majority of incidents happened in popular gay neighborhoods such as Chelsea and the West Village.
In Chicago, Illinois, home state of pro-gay Democratic President Barack Obama and gay travel destination Boystown, The Center on Halsted Anti-Violence Project reports a 12 percent increase of incidents annually since 2009.
Consistent with the chilling trend, the Community United Against Violence reports a 65 percent increase from last year. Over 200 incidents were reported.
In Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, considered the cultural and historical home to our robust LGBT community, violent crime is also on the rise. On Christmas day a man was mugged at gunpoint, another victim was beaten by two men and mugged for his mobile phone, and Gay City Health Project, a leading center for HIV, STD and STI testing, got broken into and the thieves made off with money and a computer.
And that is just what has been reported. According to national statistics, the actual numbers of forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault is always much higher than what is reported.
The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reports that half of all victims do not report the crimes to police, and that, as of 2009, 61 percent of victims that did said they experienced indifferent or abusive police attitudes.
Currently, the Seattle Police Department doesn’t exactly have a glowing public relations record. In fact, SPD is still reeling from a December 2011 report in which the US Department of Justice called SPD’s accountability system “broken.”
In other words, if you take into account SPD’s professional accountability problem and the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs data on victims that do not report crime, it’s easy to deduce that even in progressive Seattle we are only hearing about 50 percent of what members of our community are enduring.
I recently reported on the assault and attempted mugging of a local drag queen on public transportation for the Seattle Gay News.
“I was on my way back to Seattle from visiting family from a small Christmas dinner in Federal Way,” said Roy Jesse Scott, otherwise known as Jessica Paradisco. Near the Othello station, a man boarded the train and immediately sat next to Scott. After declining to let the man use his phone, Scott says things went from bad to worse.
“As I was looking out the window he grabbed my arm and was trying to force me to give him my phone,” he told me.
Scott says he pushed the man away a few times, ‘but each time I kept trying to push him off of me he kept coming back and would use more force, and it was making me sink lower into the corner.
“All of the people around us ignored that this was happening,” Scott said. “Nobody did anything. I kept yelling and trying to free myself and still nobody came.”
Finally, the train came to a stop and the driver came over, which caused his attacker to run away.
Although he wasn’t seriously injured, the incident left him in shock and he says he will never ride light rail again.
The attack and attempted mugging was not reported to SPD, said Scott.
Out of everyone on the train car, Scott was the only passenger that was obvious as a gay man. He is effeminate, does not hide the fact that he is gay, and it is safe to say that the attacker picked him out as an obvious victim.
Still, in supposedly-progressive, safe, pro-gay Seattle no one helped him when he was under attack. I’m willing to bet that some of the passengers had voted to Approve Referendum 74. Some of them might even have LGBT friends and family – or are one, too.
Roy Jesse Scott got lucky. The young man had enough sense about him to sit in the train car attached to the driver’s booth. Otherwise the stopping the train and the driver coming to his aid might not have ever happened. Danny Vega, however, was not so lucky.
On November 15, 2011, around 7:30-8 p.m., Rainier Valley resident Danny Vega, a 58-year-old gay man famous in the Filipino community as a hairdresser and drag pageant personality, was assaulted and robbed while walking in the 4200 block of South Othello Street in Seattle. 12 days later, Vega died at Harborview Medical Center as a result of the attack. The murder is still unsolved. Justice has not been given to Vega and his family. Nobody has come forward to report that they saw or heard anything.
Vega was targeted because he was gay. According to James Saarenas, Vega’s housemate and friend of over 20 years, the gay hairdresser had been harassed by a group of gang members in the weeks leading up to the attack. Saarenas told me that anti-LGBT sentiment is prevalent in the neighborhood.
After meeting with Saarenas, another gay man came forward to tell me his story. He told me that on September 15, 2011 at roughly 8:30 p.m., he was beaten and attacked just 10 steps from his front door in the New Holly neighborhood of Seattle. He went on to tell me, in detail, of 10 similar attacks in the area over the past few weeks. More than half of those targeted were members of the LGBT community and, aside from the incident he was involved in (where attackers made off with a gym bag, jacket, keys, wallet, iPod, and mobile phone), all 10 victims did not report the crimes to SPD.
The police response to his attack was not up to speed. It took officers over 15 minutes to respond which is ridiculous when the victim lives damn near across the street from SPD’s South Precinct.
“I could have walked there in less than five minutes,” he told me.
The criminals involved in crimes against members of the LGBT community are almost never LGBT themselves. It would be a mistake to think that because the campaign for marriage equality was successful in rounding up the allied communities vote for the freedom to marry in Washington State that that would somehow translate into the fallacy that homophobia is on the run and the streets are safer for same-sex couples and individuals; because that is simply not true.
Shaun Knittel is an openly gay leader in Seattle’s LGBTQ community, US Navy veteran, and Founder and Board President of Social Outreach Seattle (SOSea). As a journalist and public affairs specialist living in Seattle with his soon-to-be husband Yee-Shin Huang. His work as a reporter has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the Pacific Northwest. In addition to serving as the Associate Editor at Seattle Gay News, Knittel writes for EDGE Media Network, Out Military News, OutServe Magazine, Best Gay News Magazine and contributes to noiZe Magazine, Village Voice and more.