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by Malcolm Lazin
Since Matthew Shepard’s murder in 1998, there have been over 16,000 hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This represents about 1,450 annual sexual orientation and gender identity hate crimes. Last year, 29 gay, lesbian and transgender Americans were victims of hate crime murders.
On October 28, 2009, President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which among other classifications added sexual orientation and gender identity to the federal hate crimes statute.
While that appeared to be a cause for celebration, it is the beginning, not the end, for America addressing homophobia in its schools, communities and culture. The FBI recently reported that in 2008 hate crimes were up 2 percent over the prior year. Sexual orientation and gender identity hate crimes increased by 11 percent. One in six hate crimes was perpetrated on gay, lesbian and transgender citizens.
That need for a national call to consciousness was underlined on Nov. 14 when Jorge Lopez Mercado, a 19-year-old student from Caguas, Puerto Rico was found by the side of the road burned, decapitated and with all limbs dismembered from his torso. This crime would be shocking if it occurred in Baghdad or Kabul and is all the more horrific having occurred in a U.S. territory.
Jorge was a well-liked and openly gay teen. He was active in HIV prevention and gay civil rights. The police have arrested Juan Martinez, a 26-year-old father of four. The gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community has called on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for a federal investigation and the first prosecution under the Matthew Shepard Act. In 2002, Puerto Rico included sexual orientation in their hate crimes statute. Despite hate crimes against GLBT citizens, there have been no prosecutions.
About the same day that Jorge was butchered, James Mattison, Jr., a 15-year-old African American high school student from Baltimore was found dead. His body was stuffed in a closet. James was a popular, academically gifted and openly gay teen. His dream was to become a pediatrician.
James was found raped and bludgeoned to the head and throat. The accused Dante Parish is a 35-year-old with a record of violence.
If there is a cause for optimism, it is that those in the religious community who have marginalized GLBT Americans are becoming less likely to engage in overt homophobia. When religious leaders say that gays and lesbians will not go to heaven or assert that they are anything less than the children of the Almighty, they facilitate emotional and physical harm.
Our public schools need to be safe havens for all students. The pejoratives “faggot” and “that’s so gay” are regularly uttered in almost all high schools without sanction.
While mainstream media has made noteworthy strides in the portrayal and coverage of gays and lesbians, there were few news accounts of the gruesome hate crime murders of Jorge Lopez and Jason Mattison, Jr.
If we are to change the dynamic, we must use Jorge and Jason’s murders as a call for a national discussion to include gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans in the pursuit of a more perfect and inclusive America.
Miriam Mercado, Jorge Lopez Mercado’s mother said it best, “When my son told me he was gay, I told him, ‘Now, I love you more.’ I want to tell the world that hatred is not born with human beings, it is a seed that is planted by adults and is fostered by creating a climate of intolerance and violence. We must change our ways and understand that anyone…could have been my son. And I want everybody to know that Jorge was a very much loved son.”