S.A.M.E. Rally Against Hate Crimes, Bullying Draws 70
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
PHOTOS, top to bottom: Marchers, René Torres, Maya Conti, Jacob Harshbarger, Toni Atkins, Kevin Beiser, Connor Maddocks, Rev. Robbie Robinson, Katherine Mendonça, Lisa Kove, Joshua Napier (singer), Tannyr Denby (singer, “The Equality Song”). (Photo of Jacob Harshbarger by Fernando Lopez, courtesy http://unfinishedlivesblog.com
; all others by Mark Gabrish Conlan, © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine.)
“On January 20, I was walking down the streets of Hillcrest and two kids, 13 and 17, yelled ‘Faggot!’ at me,” San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (S.A.M.E.) member René Torres told an audience of about 70 people at the group’s “Our Streets, Our Lives: One Life Is Too Many” rally against hate crimes and bullying at the North Park Community Park March 26. “Within a few minutes, they were hitting me. I called for help, and some straight people came to my aid. I thank them, but where was our community? Are we just a marketing niche or are we going to stand together for our lives?”
“I can tell my parents that I’m Bisexual,” said Maya Conti, a 10th grader at King/Chávez High School, “and I have friends who support me, but a lot of the kids at school not only aren’t supported by their parents, they get homophobic texts and messages on Facebook and MySpace” — making the point that teen bullying is yet another long-standing reality that the Internet has enabled its perpetrators to carry out more efficiently. “They don’t have any down time when they get out of this cycle,” she added.
“Maya was in fifth grade in Chula Vista when people started calling her ‘lesbo,’” her mother, Lucila Conti, recalled. “It’s also at home. Friends of Maya have parents who treat them like dirt. I really would like to see the schools start organizing more Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA’s) and more students coming to S.A.M.E. meetings. It does get better, but we have to be the voice that makes it better.”
“Last Hallowe’en, I was brutally beaten outside my home,” recalled Jacob Harshbarger, who couldn’t attend the S.A.M.E. rally but wrote a statement that was read on site by S.A.M.E. activist Joshua Napier. “While I still find it hard to remember many of the details of that night, what still haunts me are the enraged voices of my attackers repeatedly yelling things like ‘Faggot!’ and ‘Come kick the fairy.’ Thanks to neighbors who had been woken up by all the commotion, the attack ended. If it weren’t for them, I don’t know how bad things would have gotten.”
Things got bad enough for Harshbarger that night. According to a report posted to the Unfinished Lives Web site, http://unfinishedlivesblog.com/2010/11/02/
, his assailants were “a mixed-gender gang” of three women and two men who accosted him near his North Park home while he was walking his dog. They accosted him, called him a “fucking faggot” and slammed him against the wall of his house, causing a loud “bang” that fortunately alerted one of his neighbors. Harshbarger had a concussion, was bruised behind his eyes and needed 13 stitches to close a split lip.
“The challenges didn’t end with the attack,” Harshbarger said in his statement. “As I dealt with healing wounds and missing work, I also had to deal with an unresponsive police department. They failed to fully investigate the crime scene and question witnesses. They told me it would take two years to get my case solved — even though they had acquired one of my attackers’ cell phones. I felt that the system that was supposed to be there to protect me was treating me as though it was my fault.”
Fortunately, Harshbarger had a community member on his side — marriage equality activist Fernando Lopez — who “refused to sit by and let this happen,” he said. In addition to lobbying the police to take the attack seriously — “Within 48 hours my attackers were behind bars,” Harshbarger said ¬— Lopez also documented Harshbarger’s injuries in a photo posted on the Unfinished Lives site. In his statement, Harshbarger thanked Lopez, former Assemblymember Lori Saldaña and City Councilmember Todd Gloria, and said there was a silver lining in the dark cloud of his attack.
“The dialogue is no longer about my one incident,” he said. “The community has been reawakened to the ongoing need for safety, education and a continuing, collaborative relationship with law enforcement. Knowing that you are taking the time to carry the torch of awareness warms my heart and gives me hope. So please stay vigilant and stay vocal, and never stop fighting for yourselves, your safety or your rights.”
S.A.M.E. held the March 26 rally to build that “torch of awareness” and picked a North Park location not only because Harshbarger’s attack had taken place in North Park but to show that both San Diego’s Queer presence and the danger from anti-Queer violence extend far beyond the so-called “Gayborhood” of Hillcrest. The featured speakers were California State Assemblymember Toni Atkins — who preceded Gloria on the San Diego City Council — San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) board member Kevin Beiser (the first openly Queer person to sit on that board) and Rev. Robbie Robinson, a local African-American minister.
Atkins began her speech by noting that anti-Queer hate violence is not only a nationwide but international problem. “In Edinburgh, Scotland, the murders of three Gay men have that community living in absolute fear,” she said. “Ugandan human rights activist David Kato was murdered a few months ago after his photo appeared in a newspaper. A recent study showed that in Brazil, an LGBT [Queer] person is murdered every day and a half, and that number is increasing. But this is not just a problem that happens somewhere else.”
Referring to the assault on Jacob Harshbarger as well as another attack around the same time “that appeared to be motivated by homophobia,” Atkins stated that “in January, thugs with paint-ball guns terrorized our neighborhood, including an attack on a group standing in the parking lot of our own LGBT Center. That was accompanied by homophobic shouting. A paintball attack might be seen by some to be just a messy nuisance, but at the time, the victims knew only that something had hit them, and they could feel something that could have been blood at the spot where they were shot, all while someone shouted hateful slogans at them.”
Atkins claimed that hate crimes “are actually down in San Diego, thanks to the work of the District Attorney, the San Diego Police Department and the Stonewall Citizens’ Patrol,” a group of volunteers who drive through Hillcrest and other nearby areas at night and report any sign of incipient hate violence to the police. “In San Diego, every anti-LGBT hate crime will be fully investigated and prosecuted,” said Atkins (showing more confidence in local law enforcement than Jacob Harshbarger had!). “But one homophobic hate crime is still one too many. LGBT people have been targeted far more than any other minority group. This violence still occurs, and that’s why your visibility is important.”
Beiser, who in addition to being a school board member is also a math teacher at Granger High School — he won the “Teacher of the Year” award just before he ran for the board — recalled that during the campaign over Proposition 8, which banned legal recognition of same-sex marriage in California, “I heard people called names I don’t dare repeat here.” His response was to partner with the organizers of the National Day of Silence and make hot-pink signs declaring the school a “hate-free zone.”
“All schools need to be safe working and learning environments,” Beiser said. “It’s important for me to say the words ‘Lesbian,’ ‘Gay,’ ‘Bisexual’ and ‘Transgender’ because when we have meetings, the other teachers don’t dare say the word ‘Gay.’” He talked about how all five SDUSD board members, despite party and ideological differences, are working to develop an anti-bullying policy they hope will be a national model. “We also just received a large payment from Verizon,” he said, “with which we can pay for safe zones with signs, equipment, counselors, training and support.”
“Transgender people have been a major target,” said Connor Maddocks, facilities manager at the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center and female-to-male Transgender person who had spoken to S.A.M.E. earlier that month on Transgender issues and how they relate to marriage equality. “Bullying took many forms including, for me, a lifetime of being teased. I felt alone in a world surrounded by so many people. For myself and countless Transgender victims, we feel that we are the freaks, we are the ones not ‘fitting in,’ we don’t conform. … Until we figure out who we are, we can’t find ourselves in life and overcome our inner depression.”
Maddocks said that Transgender people face even more bullying and hate-motivated crime than Lesbians, Gay men and Bisexuals. “Every day we are tortured, beaten, murdered, fired from our jobs, thrown out of our houses,” he said. “We may be the least understood and the smallest group in the LGBT community, but that means there are more of us to join the fight. We need your help, and we are here in turn to help you. There cannot be a cause to stop bullying just against Gay people or just on the basis of religion. We are soldiers in this war, and when you hear a joke about sexism or racism or gender identity or sexual orientation, speak out and say it’s not O.K. to do that. We will make it very uncool to be a bully.”
“I marched in the 1960’s,” said Rev. Robinson. “I witnessed crosses being burned. It’s about equal rights and equal justice for all. We need to push legislators about the threshold of what constitutes a hate crime. It’s hard to prosecute a hate crime because the threshold is so nebulous. Prosecutors will try to duck it. Until we get our legislators to change that thinking and change the laws, you’re going to be marching a long time.”
S.A.M.E. structured the March 26 “Our Streets, Our Lives” event with an opening rally, a march through North Park and another rally, this one an open-mike event, to close. “This is the first time I’ve been at a S.A.M.E. rally,” said Sean, a young man who kicked off the open-mike portion of the event. “In high school I worked for a mega-church for eight years and said [being Queer] was a choice. … There are a lot of Gay people who don’t like other Gay people. There are some Gay people who don’t care about Gay rights. The rights we have are because people fought for them.” Sean thanked S.A.M.E. for staging the event, apologized for his past work for an anti-Queer church and acknowledged singer Lady Gaga for “Born This Way,” the song she introduced at this year’s Grammy Awards whose message is to be who you are and be proud of it.
Katherine Mendonça of the San Diego YWCA linked anti-Queer violence and bullying to another issue of concern to her group: domestic violence against women by their male relationship partners. (Oddly, she didn’t acknowledge that domestic violence occurs in Gay and Lesbian couples, too.) “Domestic violence, like hate crimes and bullying, affects us all,” she said. “It is a crime in which abusers use power and control against their victims. It affects children for generations. Domestic violence, like bullying and hate crimes, knows no social, economic or racial class. One in every four women will experience domestic violence during her lifetime. An estimated 1.3 million women are victims of an assault by an intimate partner each year. In California, 700,000 women experience intimate-partner violence each year: three times the national average.”
She mentioned the case of Diana Gonzalez, a San Diego City College student who was murdered last October 10 by her estranged husband — three weeks after she filed a police report saying he’d kidnapped and raped her. According to Mendonça, the man was arrested for “a few days” but the district attorney did not file charges against him, so he was let go and was later able to kill her. The community responded on December 9 with a march and vigil from City College to the district attorney’s office. “In San Diego, the fatality rate from domestic violence-associated crimes increased 100 percent from last year,” she said.
Mendonça also talked about violence and neglect of Queer youths. She cited a report from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) and the National Coalition for the Homeless that claimed there was “an epidemic of homelessness” among Queer youth. “Danny, a Gay teen, was already trapped as early as seven years old in the tragic downward spiral that led to his homelessness,” she said. “Danny was shoved from one foster home to another, and repeatedly molested. He spent two years in a juvenile correctional facility. At 17, he tried living with his aunt, but she soon ordered him to get his ‘Gay ass’ out of her house. Homeless, Danny got cash by reading people’s Tarot cards, and places to sleep by having survival sex.”
“The worst kind of hate crime is legalized hate crime,” said Lisa Kove, S.A.M.E. member and organizer of DoD Fed Globe, a support organization for Queers in the military and in civilian jobs with the U.S. Department of Defense. (As always, Kove felt legally compelled to state at the beginning of her speech that she was not representing the views of the Defense Department, her employer.) Kove said that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning Queers from serving openly in the U.S. military is still in place — the bill Congress passed last December merely started a process, expected to last at least a year, by which the military will study the issue and “certify” whether they can allow the policy to die — as is the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act,” passed by Congress in 1996 that bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages and allows states to refuse to recognize legal marriages of same-sex couples in other states.
And it’s even worse in other countries, Kove said. “In Uganda, they’re passing laws not only providing the death penalty for Gays but saying that Gays who leave the country should be hunted down and killed,” she stated. (She didn’t mention that U.S. fundamentalist Christian churches and organizations have visited Uganda and lobbied the Ugandan legislature to pass these laws.) Kove said that some people she’s worked with in the U.S. military got post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) just from the burden of having to serve under “don’t ask, don’t tell” and keep quiet about important parts of their personal lives.
“This nonsense about ‘certification’ is because they know the policy is wrong,” Kove said about “don’t ask, don’t tell.” She said she hoped the Log Cabin Republican Club’s suit to invalidate “don’t ask, don’t tell” in court will win so the military will be forced to end the discrimination and not be able to drag out the issue and keep the policy going through the “certification” process. “Oppression needs to die,” said Kove. “Oppression is the basis of all inequality of all people that are treated in a discriminatory manner. No group that is ever treated in a discriminatory manner stays there. There is always the point of confrontation, and that is when the oppressed meet with the oppressor, and eventually equality happens.”