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‘Black queer people are victimized every day’

Jussie Smollett attack highlights growing problem of hate crimes

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The alleged racist and homophobic attack on actor Jussie Smollett is being received differently in different communities.

Stacey Long Simmons, director of advocacy at the National LGBTQ Task Force, vividly recalls the time, as a young college student, she was walking outside of campus and a group of white men slowed down and shouted, “N-word bitch go home.”

Simmons hails from Queens, N.Y., where she admits racist incidents did occur but being verbally attacked like that was a “shock to my system.” While the men harassed her for being a black woman she has no doubt that they could have easily swapped out the adjectives to harass her for being a black, bisexual woman.

“If I had been walking down the street holding my girlfriend’s hand at the time I’m sure it would have been you ‘black dyke B-word’” Simmons said. “I don’t think we ever really know why we get attacked. The point is for us to recognize that in the eyes of many we’re problematic no matter what point they enter into whether it’s the race lens, the sexual orientation or gender identity lens.”

It’s a reality that the black LGBTQ community faces every day but it came to the forefront when it was reported that “Empire” star Jussie Smollett suffered an allegedly homophobic and racist attack. At around 2 a.m. on Jan. 29 in Chicago, Smollett was walking from a Subway restaurant when he alleges that two men dressed in black called him “Empire faggot n—er” to get his attention. The actor alleges that the attackers put his neck in a noose, poured “an unknown chemical substance” on him and ran away. Smollett also reported to police that the assailants yelled “MAGA country” during the attack. A few days prior to Smollet’s alleged physical attack, an anonymous letter was sent to Cinespace Studios where “Empire” is filmed. The letter read, “You will die Black fag” and contained a white powder, later identified by a HAZMAT unit as aspirin. Chicago police are currently investigating the incident as a hate crime.

David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, told the Blade that the LGBTQ black community is “surprised but not shocked” by the attack.

“One of the prevailing sentiments I continue to hear from black queer people generally is how frustrating it is that people seem to be surprised at this occurrence,” Johns says. “Black queer people are victimized every single day. I was just thinking about what we’ve experienced just this year reflecting upon Kevin Hart and the jokes about killing his gay son. I mourned the loss of the life of a young, black boy [Giovanni Melton] in Las Vegas because his father killed him suspecting that he was gay last year. Ed Buck, a white donor in Hollywood, is still walking around free as two gay black men have died at his household in the last year. Many of the media outlets that are covering Jussie’s story now didn’t even acknowledge that earlier this year there was a black trans woman [Keanna Mattel] that was murdered by a pastor in Detroit.”

These aren’t new stories for the black LGBTQ community but Smollett’s story was met with skepticism from some on social media who questioned why Smollett was outside getting food at such a late hour. Smollett also initially refused to hand over his phone to police to corroborate his and his manager’s story that they were on the phone with each other during the time of the attack. He has since handed over redacted phone records to police.

Simmons says she noticed people doubting his story as soon as it made the rounds on media outlets.

“It was just an immediate discounting. People saying ‘Who would be outside in Chicago at that time of night in the cold?’ It’s like people are out in the cold all the time. If you’re hungry you’re going to get something to eat. It’s almost as if people’s minds wouldn’t allow them to accept the fact that these types of violent attacks happen. I think there is a level of ignorance or refusal to accept the fact that these things happen on a day-to-day basis,” Simmons said.

It’s a reaction that Janaya “Future” Khan, Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder and campaign director of media, democracy & economic justice for Color of Change, is all too familiar with. Khan, who is black, queer and gender non-conforming, says that the race aspect of Smollett’s identity gave him reason to be questioned in the minds of some people.

“Black people historically are not believed when we say something has happened to us, especially when we say something has happened to us because we’re black. When you have to go to the same policing institutions that have historically not believed you, that criminalizes people that look like you disproportionally, that brutalizes people that look like you based on race, it’s a very impossible moment,” Khan told the Blade.

Although the LGBTQ community has had its own complicated and sometimes violent history with police, being black is an added layer of discrimination.

“I think people in society have been conditioned to not believe people who look like Jussie, who look like me,” Khan said. “It’s pretty disgusting. People also historically have not believed anyone in the LGBT community when they say these things have happened to them. But there’s a way that they’re able to assimilate into society around whiteness that you just cannot as a black person. The discrediting of Jussie, the need for a particular kind of irrefutable proof, is something that black people and people of color are very familiar with.”

Khan has their own personal story about being torn between two integral identities.

In July 2016, Black Lives Matter was invited to march in the Pride parade in Toronto. Khan and the rest of the group marched proudly in the parade using chants such as “Michael Brown say his name” and taking a moment of silence to sit in memory of the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting. In what proved to be a controversial move, the group declared to the crowd that they wanted police floats to be removed from the Pride marches and parade. Some in the crowd began to boo and social media became a firestorm of death threats toward Khan.

“I can tell you as someone who lives as a black person and also identifies as non-binary and queer some of the worst kinds of malice I’ve experienced as a black person have come from the LGBTQ community and it feels like a betrayal,” Khan says. “Now if you’re a black person police continue to brutalize our community and historically that’s also been true of the gay and lesbian community. Stonewall was a riot and it happened because police were brutalizing the LGBTQ population. Somewhere along the line because more seats at the table increased there’s a huge tension point because police at Pride made people of color and black people within the LGBTQ community incredibly uncomfortable. A lot of the contradictions and a lot of the biases and racism really came to a head.”

Black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde famously argued that, “There is no hierarchy of oppression.”

“Within the lesbian community I am Black, and within the Black community I am a lesbian. Any attack against Black people is a lesbian and gay issue, because I and thousands of other Black women are part of the lesbian community. Any attack against lesbians and gays is a Black issue, because thousands of lesbians and gay men are Black,” Lorde wrote in 1983.

Simmons agrees that trying to separate identities isn’t helpful to make progress.

“It’s almost as if the majority of the country refuses to acknowledge the racism that black people experience and black people who aren’t as LGBTQ-affirming as we would like them to be want you to not discuss what you experience as a LGBTQ person because they feel like you’re trying to privilege your LGBTQ identity over your black identity. That’s asking people to carve themselves up in many ways that isn’t fruitful or productive,” Simmons says.

Protection for both black people and LGBTQ people has become an increasing concern over the last couple of years as hate crimes are on the rise.

There was a sharp spike in hate crimes that coincided with the 2018 midterm elections, according to new figures released last week. From October to December 2018, hate crimes in LA rose more than 31 percent, compared to the same period a year before, with African American, LGBTQ, Jewish and Latino communities the most frequent targets. California as a whole saw an 11 percent increase, with 56 percent of crimes being racially motivated and 22 percent directed toward the LGBTQ community, with the sharpest increase in hate crimes against minority trans women. California State University’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism reports that hate crimes have also increased in big cities like New York, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.

As more hate crimes are reported, both Khan and Simmons say they wish black transgender women were given more media attention as their lives become increasingly at risk. Khan notes that as transgender women of color have become more visible on television with shows like “Pose” and activists such as Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, the reality of trans women of color who do not have access to fame or money is often bleak.

What’s the reason for this increase in hate crimes? Khan said it’s related to the Trump administration.

“I think bigots and racists are emboldened. They have found a home and community for themselves that no longer requires hiding on the internet. White supremacists are organizing,” Khan said. “They’ve always existed in America they just are no longer in the underbelly of America anymore. We really need to be confronting that reality that these groups of people will exist far beyond the Trump administration’s rule and they exist far beyond the policies that we can fight. There is something far deeper and darker and more insidious in this country.”

Hope isn’t lost. Khan encourages people to vocalize their beliefs and to “come out of the closet as intersectional feminists, abolitionists, freedom fighters and revolutionaries.”

For Simmons, it’s all about allies showing an interest in learning about the issues the black LGBTQ community faces.

People just have to be willing to take the time.

“If you can learn how to cook a new recipe you can learn how to understand society as it is now and figure out how to be an ally to the different issues that communities of color are grappling with right now,” Simmons says.

(Karen Ocamb contributed to this report)

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VP Harris and Second Gentleman join Pride walk to rally at Freedom Plaza

The Capital Pride Alliance, the organization which produces the annual event organized the intersectional LGBTQ+ walk and celebration.

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Screenshot of coverage from WJLA 7 Washington DC

WASHINGTON – To the shock of on-lookers who then burst into cheers Saturday afternoon, Vice-President Kamala Harris and her husband, the Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, joined in walking with the Pride marchers on 13th Street NW in the District by the Warner Theatre headed to Freedom Plaza.

Accompanying the Vice-President, White House Pool reporter Eugene Daniels noted the Vice President and second gentleman walked with crowd down 13th and stopped at the Pennsylvania Avenue and E Street NW intersection at the corner of the Freedom Plaza where she talked to the crowd for a bit. Daniels could not hear much but reported that she did say: 

“We still have so much to do. We celebrate all the accomplishments. Finally marriage is the law of the land. We need to make sure that our transgender community are all protected.”

“There is so much more work to do and I know we are committed.”

The crowd chanted her name over and over. She stayed for about ten minutes waving and talking. 

The Capital Pride Alliance, the organization which produces the annual event in the nation’s capital, because of the pandemic as the District was reopening, had set-up and organized the intersectional Pride Walk and Rally at Freedom Plaza, LGBTQ+ walk and celebration.

At around 12:30, the march departed down P Street NW and traveled to Logan Circle and then headed south on 13th Street to Freedom Plaza. The march ended at Freedom Plaza where a 1:30 p.m. rally was held and where D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser was one of those who spoke.

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Orlando marks the fifth anniversary of the Pulse massacre

“I echo our mayor to say to the survivors and family members of Pulse: it’s okay to not be okay. This was a tragedy.”

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Pulse Nightclub (Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

ORLANDO, FL – On that morning five summers ago this date, survivors gathered, stunned and grieving over the horror that had been visited upon them and others frantically calling phones that would never be answered again while a community took stock of the mass murder that had claimed the lives of forty-nine innocents. June, 12, 2016 joined a litany of dates of death and suffering in American history this time impacting the LGBTQ community and beyond.

Saturday, survivors and community leaders gather in Orlando, Florida to commemorate and honor those 49 American lives lost in that act of senseless gun violence.

“Orlando was called to action on June 12, 2016. Our city was asked to find in ourselves the strength to respond with empathy when faced with an unthinkable act of violence. We are still working every day to honor the 49 angels and every person impacted by the Pulse tragedy with action. Together, we continue to make Orlando a more inclusive, welcoming and equitable community for all,” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said. ““Orlando United” was our call to action five years ago, but it is up to us all to ensure that this isn’t simply a slogan that we bring out annually as we mark the time that’s passed since the tragedy. Instead, it must be part of our core commitment to real change.”

“We’re still very much in the healing phase and trying to find our way,” Pulse owner Barbara Poma told the Blade on Tuesday during a telephone interview.

The massacre at the time was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Nearly half of the victims were LGBTQ Puerto Ricans. The massacre also sparked renewed calls for gun control.

Poma told the Blade that she expects construction will begin on a “Survivor’s Walk” at the site by the end of the year. A museum — which she described as an “education center” that will “talk about the history of the LGBT community and its struggles and stripes for the last century or so … about why safe spaces were important to this community” and what happened at Pulse and the global response to it — will be built a third of a mile away.

“We really feel it is important to never forget what happened at Pulse and to tell the story of that,” said Poma.

Poma noted the onePULSE Foundation of which she is the executive director met with representatives of the 9/11 Tribute Museum and the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum to discuss the memorial. Poma when she spoke with the Blade acknowledged the plans have been criticized.

“This kind of opposition is not unique to these kind of projects,” she said. “It’s just important to know that really what we’re trying to do is make sure what happened is never forgotten and those lives were never forgotten,” added Poma.

In a rare bipartisan move, a bill that designates the former Pulse nightclub a national memorial was passed by unanimous consent in the U.S. Senate this past Wednesday.

“The tragedy at Pulse rocked our community and served as a reminder of the work we have to do to uproot hate and bigotry. We’re proud of the bipartisan coalition of Florida Congressional leaders for leading the effort to recognize this hallowed ground as a national memorial site.,” Brandon J. Wolf, the Development Officer and Media Relations Manager for LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida and a Pulse survivor told the Blade. “Our visibility matters. May the 49 lives stolen never be forgotten. And may we always honor them with action.”

Wolf was inside the club at the time of the shooting and lost his two best friends, Juan Ramon Guerrero and Christopher Andrew (Drew) Leinonen, who were among the 49 murdered during the rampage. Wolf had managed to escape but the event has forever left him scarred.

Then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden hugging Brandon J. Wolf a survivor as Biden and President Obama meet with family members of the victims and other survivors in the June 12th mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida, June 16, 2016.
(Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)
Then U.S. President Barack Obama embracing Brandon J. Wolf a survivor as he and Joe Biden meet with family members of the victims and other survivors in the June 12th mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida, June 16, 2016.
(Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

Since that terrible night Wolf has been a force for advocacy in gun control and LGBTQ equality rights and is a nationally recognized leader in those endeavors to include by President Joe Biden.

“Pulse is hallowed ground and what happened on June 12, 2016 must never be forgotten. ” Wolf added.

“I echo our mayor to say to the survivors and family members of Pulse: it’s okay to not be okay. This was a tragedy. The nation may have watched and grieved with us, but the pain that you may be feeling is personal. I want you to know that we embrace you with love, not as symbols but as yourselves. If you are struggling, there is help available, and I encourage you to reach out,” said U.S. House Representative Val Demings (D-FL)

“It can be hard to find the words, because the truth is that no words can make this right for the survivors and families of those we lost. That’s why five years ago we promised to ‘honor them with action,’ not just with words. As we move forward from this anniversary, it is my prayer that all of us will recommit ourselves to that mission, to ensure that every Pulse survivor—and every American—can live in a nation where each person is safe to go out to a nightclub or any other place, where our LGBTQ community is protected, where the highest-quality mental health support is available to those who need it, and where we treat gun violence as the threat that it is to our loved ones. I know that we can do better, and as we commemorate this sorrowful anniversary, I believe that we must do better.”

In Washington, California U.S. Senator Alex Padilla, co-sponsor of legislation to make Pulse a National Memorial reflected,

“It is my hope that this memorial will serve as an enduring reminder of the pain and loss felt in Orlando five years ago and as a testament to the resilience and strength of the LGBTQ+ community. It is also an important reminder of the need recommit ourselves to end the senseless cycle of gun violence that has touched too many families across the country and taken too many of our loved ones,” Padilla told the Blade in an emailed statement.

“It’s an epidemic that has claimed far too many LGBTQ+ lives, particularly in Black and Latino communities. We will never let the memory of the victims of the Pulse Nightclub mass shooting fade away– and this memorial is an important part of their enduring legacy,” he added.

The White House on Saturday released a statement from President Biden who had traveled and met with survivors and the families of the victims 5 days after the massacre while he was the vice-president of the United States under President Barack Obama.

“Five years ago today in Orlando in the middle of Pride Month, our nation suffered the deadliest attack affecting the LGBTQ+ community in American history, and at the time, the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman.

Within minutes, the Pulse nightclub that had long been a place of acceptance and joy turned into a place of unspeakable pain and loss. Forty-nine people were there celebrating Latin night were murdered, even more injured, and countless others scarred forever – the victims were family members, partners and friends, veterans and students, young, Black, Asian and Latino – our fellow Americans.

A few days later, I traveled with President Obama to pay respects to them and their families, to thank the brave first responders and the community who found strength and compassion in each other, and to pledge that what happened would not be forgotten. 

Over the years, I have stayed in touch with families of the victims and with the survivors who have turned their pain into purpose, and who remind us that we must do more than remember victims of gun violence and all of the survivors, family members, and friends left behind; we must act.

In the coming days, I will sign a bill designating Pulse Nightclub as a national memorial, enshrining in law what has been true since that terrible day five years ago: Pulse Nightclub is hallowed ground.

But there is more we must do to address the public health epidemic of gun violence in all of its forms – mass shootings and daily acts of gun violence that don’t make national headlines.

It is long past time we close the loopholes that allow gun buyers to bypass background checks in this country, and the Senate should start by passing the three House-passed bills which would do exactly that. It is long past time we ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines, establish extreme risk protection orders, also known as “red flag” laws, and eliminate gun manufacturers’ immunity from liability.

We must also acknowledge gun violence’s particular impact on LGBTQ+ communities across our nation. We must drive out hate and inequities that contribute to the epidemic of violence and murder against transgender women – especially transgender women of color. We must create a world in which our LGBTQ+ young people are loved, accepted, and feel safe in living their truth. And the Senate must swiftly pass the Equality Act, legislation that will ensure LGBTQ+ Americans finally have equal protection under law.

In the memory of all of those lost at the Pulse nightclub five years ago, let us continue the work to be a nation at our best – one that recognizes and protects the dignity and safety of every American.”

Additional reporting by Michael K. Lavers

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Wal-Mart founder’s family sets up $1M fund for LGBTQ groups in Arkansas

“Our state is in a moment of reflection where each of us must send a message of acceptance to the LGBTQ community- ‘you belong here.’”

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Typical Wal-Mart storefront via Wal-Mart Twitter

BENTONVILLE, AR. – In an announcement made Thursday by the Alice L. Walton Foundation, named for the daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam and his wife Helen Walton, family members working through the foundation are launching a $1 million fund for groups assisting LGBTQ people in the retail giant’s home state of Arkansas.

“Organizations from across our state are leading the efforts needed to build a sense of community,” said Alice Walton. “Let’s support this important work that ensures everyone in Arkansas can live their lives with equity and dignity.”

The $1 million fund will distribute grants of $25,000 and above for Arkansas-based organizations that provide critical services to the LGBTQ community. National entities with a local presence, established in-state partnerships and strong community relationships will also qualify.

“Our state is in a moment of reflection where each of us must send a message of acceptance to the LGBTQ community that says – ‘you belong here,’” said Olivia and Tom Walton in a statement. “It is also a time for action by recognizing LGBTQ Arkansans face growing challenges that need community-driven solutions.”

“This fund will allow LGBTQ-serving nonprofits in our state to expand their impact on communities and help Arkansans pull together to build a more welcoming and supportive environment for us all,” said Heather Larkin, president of Arkansas Community Foundation.

The initiative was launched following a legislative session in Arkansas that was marked by new laws restricting the rights of transgender people. The state is being sued over one of those measures, which bans gender confirming treatments for transgender youth. Unless blocked by a federal judge, the ban will take effect July 28, The Associated Press reported.

Reacting to the announcement Adrienne Collins from Central Arkansas Pride said,

“There are many organizations eager to stand up for a more inclusive, accepting environment for all who live in and visit our state. We are committed to showing up every day to ensure Arkansas’ LGBTQ community has the support needed to thrive.”

The grant selection committee will include leadership and representation from the LGBTQ community. Organizations interested in learning more about the fund can visit arcf.org/lgbtq.

 

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