By Sally Huffer, Community Projects Specialist, Montrose Counseling Center
Police in Mesa, Arizona were able to identify the suspect in a shooting (who later confessed) by the Yankees logo tattooed on his forehead.
– Sports Illustrated
This little quip from Sports Illustrated’s weekly feature “Sign of the Apocalypse” got me to thinking. Someone had the Yankees logo tattooed to his forehead? A daring choice, but one that doesn’t have same implications in Mesa, Arizona as it would in, say, Boston, Massachusetts. Openly brandishing a Yankees logo in Bean Town would be tantamount to treason, and the inked individual is almost certainly at risk to a little verbal abuse, and in some neighborhoods, he may be at risk for physical violence.
It doesn’t even have to be as brazen as a tattoo on your forehead. Whatever makes a person different also makes him or her vulnerable. We all know what it’s like to be the odd person out, even if we normally identify with the majority. Sometimes we just censor ourselves and the danger passes, but sometimes we can’t pretend to be something different. And certainly from a fundamental point of view, we shouldn’t have to. Nobody should have to hide who they are because they are afraid. Still, for self-preservation, most of do in one form or another.
Certain marginalized groups have to go about their everyday lives with the threat of verbal abuse or physical violence. And yes, that can change as circumstances change. Maybe you’re the only Latino family in a predominantly white neighborhood, or the only Asian kid at a public school, the only African American attorney at your lawfirm, the only one your family who lost your home in the housing bust. Maybe you carry a few extra pounds but you still want to shop at the health food store. The only one who went to college in a hard-working labor class family. You adjust. You see and hear disapproval, so you try to fit in. And maybe at the end of the day you find sanctuary in the form of your friends and family, your home or just your own bed. Your comfort and safety level is constantly changing. There are times that you are on hyper alert, and other times that you feel you can relax.
On Friday, June 29, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, and our allies around the country are holding vigils to mourn the loss of a young lesbian gunned down in a small Texas town, and her girlfriend who is fighting for her life. Here in Houston, we gather at the Montrose Remembrance Garden at 1000 California Street at 8:15 p.m. We come together in the spirit of sadness and loss, in solidarity with the families of these two teenagers, Mollie Olgin and Kristine Chapa.
Word about the vigils is spreading on the internet, and nearly every article is accompanied by reader comments about how all crimes are hate crimes. Others point out the lack of evidence to suggest that these two women were targeted because of their relationship. Why do “the gays” have to make a scene about it?
First of all, not all crimes are hate crimes. They may be crimes of neglect or disrespect or just opportunity. An empty home with the owner on vacation. An elderly woman leaving her pocketbook on a pew when she goes up for communion. A person distracted by a child in a stroller. A teenager caught up in the music on his iPod or texting. A soccer mom putting groceries in her SUV. A gas station attendant getting knocked over by kids looking for a thrill, some beer, cigarettes or a little cash. Someone getting swindled on eBay or Craigslist. We all take a little risk when we leave our sanctuary, in real life and on the internet, that we will be the target of an opportunistic crime. Anyone can be the victim. You just have to be vulnerable.
When you are an outsider in a group that has a history of being looked down upon, sneered at or brutalized, you carry a vigilance because you cannot ever let down your guard. Crimes motivated by hate affect an entire community. They generate fear. If I were all by myself on the beach today where Mollie and Kristine were shot, I’d be afraid. They haven’t arrested the shooter, and we don’t know why the crime was committed. If I were a teen, I might be even more afraid. If I were petite, even more still. If I were there with a girlfriend, it would make me feel completely vulnerable. If the two girls were black, we might be concerned about the pattern of violence linked to race. We connect the dots in various ways to try to understand why something like this happened, and how can we reduce our own risk.
We have lost too many of our LGBTA friends because of being the odd person out. In the 80s and 90s, it was due to HIV/AIDS and the fact that we had to fight fear and ignorance and demand a place at the table of respect. We had to march because gay men, sex workers and intravenous drug users were throwaway people to the people who make decisions about medical research, drug funding and the provision of services. In recent years, we’ve come to learn that suicide among LGBT youth is a public health crisis. Domestic abuse/violence has claimed the lives and self-respect of too many people who were turned away by law enforcement or the justice system. Or maybe they just didn’t know where to run. They were afraid to ask for help because they carried shame goes along with being battered, but shame because our society continues to tell us that we should not love someone of the same sex/gender. They were afraid to go the emergency room because they’ve seen the media’s mockery of a “man dressed as a woman.”
So while we may not yet know why Mollie and Kristine were targeted, we do know that bias could be an underlying factor. Even if that turns out to be untrue, it is our gut reaction, our first thought. History has taught us to think and feel this way.
More than anything, we want the Chapa and Olgin families to know that our thoughts and prayers are with them. Why begrudge us a little candlelight for them in this giant universe?