Suicides and Gay-bashings: More Violence for LGBT People

The violence never seems to end. This past month has been downright horrifying, with at least five teenagers nationwide committing suicide as a result of anti-gay bullying. There were also two attacks against gay victims in New York City communities normally considered LGBT-friendly.

A patron was gay-bashed in the restroom of Manhattan’s legendary Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village – a site considered the very birthplace of the gay-rights movement – on October 3. Police say Matthew Francis, 21, and Christopher Orlando, 17, both of Staten Island, accosted Ben Carver, 34, in the restroom of the Stonewall about 2:30 that morning. According to Carver's account – which he posted on his blog – Francis asked him if he was gay. Thinking Francis was joking, Carver responded, "Where are you, buddy?" Francis answered by saying "In a gay bar. Don't pee next to me, faggot." The men then demanded money, but Carver refused. Francis subsequently punched Carver in the face and Orlando tackled him and pinned his arms, Carver said. Carver, however, fought back, freeing an arm and striking one attacker several times with his elbow. “It was a pretty intense fight,” Carver told the New York Post.

Francis and Orlando fled, but were pursued by bar employees and patrons. The suspects were quickly caught by police and arrested.

Earlier the same weekend, a group of gay men were confronted and assaulted in the nearby Chelsea neighborhood. Six men allegedly confronted the group using anti-gay epithets, and one – later identified as Andrew Jackson, 20 – allegedly threw a trashcan into one victim's head. Jackson was arrested; the five suspects remain at large.

These incidents highlight a distressing, on-going problem of violence directed against the LGBT community. To address the issue, the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance program has just released a new film, Bullied: A Student, a School and a Case that Made History, that highlights the destructive power and the tragic consequences of anti-gay bullying.

The irony of the Greenwich Village attack was not lost on the media and the blogosphere. The Stonewall Inn became the flashpoint for the modern gay rights movement on June 28, 1969, when a police raid triggered an uprising in an era when gay men and women generally stayed deeply closeted. That night, Stonewall patrons fought with officers and several days of demonstrations followed, creating the impetus for a new movement.

Last weekend’s attacks came at the end of period during which at least five teenagers nationwide committed suicide after being bullied or taunted as being homosexual. Two youths, 13-year-old Seth Walsh of Tehachapi, Calif., and 15-year-old Billy Lucas of Greensburg, Ind., hanged themselves after cruel and relentless anti-gay harassment. Thirteen-year-old Asher Brown of Houston fatally shot himself after similar treatment. Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, 18, leaped off the George Washington Bridge to his death after his roommate allegedly posted video on the Internet of him having sex with another man. And in Providence, R.I., openly gay Johnson and Wales University student Raymond Walsh, 19, hanged himself in his dormitory room, although all the circumstances of his death are not yet known. All the deaths happened during the last three weeks of September.

The suicides and the reported New York City attacks have left anger, sadness, and frustration in their wake among LGBT people and their friends, relatives and supporters, and intensified a national dialogue on bullying in schools and beyond and the climate that allows and encourages acts of violence against LGBT people.

Stonewall Inn co-owner Stacy Lentz called the attack “an isolated incident” and “not something that has happened here before.” New York City District 3 Council Member Christine Quinn, who lives in Chelsea and is gay, stated that the incidents over the weekend are "jarring," but that they're "not something that typically happens in Chelsea and Greenwich Village in one weekend."

Still, said Sharon Stapel, executive director of the New York City-based Anti-Violence Project, the danger of homophobia-driven tragedies is an ongoing reality. "I get asked a lot about why there is a sudden spike in violence and my answer is: there is not,” Stapel said in an October 6 editorial. “Instead there has been a sudden spike in attention about this violence. Every day LGBT people endure bullying from our classmates, our families, our employers, our neighbors and strangers. Every day we face judgment because of who we are.”

“[O]ur society treats being gay or transgender as bad, or weird, or … sick, and collectively denounces gay and transgender people,” Stapel said. When that message is the primary message heard in schools, churches, at home and at work, “the conclusion has to be that we, as LGBT people, do not have a place in this society or in this world.”

The threat of violence is ever-present to many LGBT people, even in a place like the Stonewall Inn. “You always expect it,” said Eric Wilson, who attended an October 5 rally at the landmark establishment. “Whenever there's some sort of gain in the gay rights movement, there is always some retribution.” Wilson expressed his thoughts in a New York Daily News video posted on the Internet.

Stonewall beating victim Carver wrote in his blog that when attacked, one should fight back and eliminate the threat, but only to the extent one needs to escape from harm. That’s because, Carver says, “We must be better than these bullies, and we must not give away our power to them by entertaining thoughts of fear and violence. While righteous anger is acceptable, we cannot let them take our peace.”

Carver says he forgave the men immediately and says he'll respect whatever decision the legal system makes. He also extended condolences to the families of Francis and Orlando, saying he's sure it's a difficult time for their mothers.