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Does “All Men are Created Equal” Apply

“All men are created equal” is a statement we are all familiar with. Taken from the opening of the Declaration of Independence, this phrase is supposed to represent the ideological foundation of the United States as a place where everyone is treated with the same amount of respect.

It sounds good on paper, but is this principle followed in our daily lives? One only has to consider the (mis)treatment of Native Americans, women, African-Americans, and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II to realize that the country has not always practiced what it preached.

While great strides have been made among all minority groups, the LGBT community continues to be treated as less worthy. Beyond the obvious examples of Proposition 8 and the adoption bans in Florida and Arkansas, other incidents from the latter end of 2008 reveal the ways in which LGBT lives are devalued.

One indicator of societal respect given to a group is the response to crimes against members of a community. For example, there have been multiple articles describing the ways in which the Bernard Madoff financial scandal is a particular affront to the Jewish community. In Memphis, three probable hate crimes have been committed against the transgender community since July 2008, yet there seems to be minimal outrage. The July 1 murder of Ebony Whitaker was followed by Duanna Johnson’s murder on November 9 and the Christmas Eve shooting of Leeneshia Edwards. Of the three, Johnson’s case received the most attention due to the pending lawsuit she had against the Memphis police department, whose beating of Johnson was captured on tape. The last time I checked, none of these crimes were solved, and there were no suspects.

Memphis is not alone in giving less than full effort towards transgendered crime victims.

An underreported story as 2008 wound to a close was the discovery of three gay people found shot to death in a New Orleans home. They had been dead for several days before being discovered on December 13 when someone saw the lower half of a body through a window. Blogs did a more effective job of publicizing the details of the crime, including the orientation of the victims (one of whom was transgender), than the mainstrem media.

In Syracuse, New York, transgender woman Lateisha Green was killed at a party in November 2008. Although eyewitness participation led to a quick arrest, the suspect’s family was quick to suggest that the he had been “provoked” into the killing by being told that Green was transitioning and mentioned the victim’s criminal record.

The claims of provocation in Green’s case are eerily similar to the “gay panic” defense initially claimed by Juan Aguirre and Jose Delatorre, the high school students charged with the strangulation of teacher Matthew Cox in Las Vegas. They killed him in his car after he had given them a ride home, then dumped the body in his apartment before stealing some electronics. Despite robbery appearing to be the prime motive behind the crime, the suspects are claiming that Cox “got sexual” before the murder. This theory is unusual not only because of the circumstances (was he sexually harrassing them while driving?) but Aguirre had told Cox that he was gay, and kissed Cox’s cheek before leaving his body in his residence.

You may have noticed that the victims of these crimes are disproportionately transgender. That is because they are among the most vulerable members of the LGBT community. Faced with persistent employment discrimination, many turn to illegal activity or sex work in order to survive. In the eyes of many people, this makes them “tainted victims” when they are violated, as if they were “asking for it.”

These crimes raise the question of whether hate crime enhancements would be an effective tool for these kinds of cases. I do believe we should have hate crimes legislation, and they may provide additional comfort and satisfaction for victims and their families, but I do not think they will do anything to deter perpetrators of hate-based crimes.

Occasionally, the high profile nature of a crime and community outrage can result in swift action being taken in antigay cases. Examples of this would include the shooting death of Lawrence King and recent arrest of 4 males in the rape of a lesbian in Richmond, California. Both of these crimes received national attention, which placed more pressure on law enforcement to take these attacks seriously.

But not every case has the right combination of timing, socially acceptable or “innocent” victim, and media interest to become a national sensation. For every Lawrence King there are dozens of incidents that go unnoticed, even within the LGBT community.

It makes me wonder if we have become so desensitized to violence that we aren’t interested unless it’s a particularly heinous crime? Do we treat everyone in the LGBT family equally? What are our lives worth? It’s a new year, but this old question still remains unanswered.

From “Blackout” for 1/11/09 by Anthony Rucker


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