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26 April 2011, 4:00 pm 6 Comments

Civil Rights: Blaming the Victim

This post was submitted by Michael

I recently attended a town hall meeting hosted by a group that is working to reduce violent crime against DC’s LGBT community. According to statistics quoted by representatives of the group, DC has the highest rate of anti-queer hate crimes in the country. This group, Gays and Lesbians Opposing Violence (GLOV), was reformed in recent years after a notable increase in crimes against the community, many of which were reported on and otherwise covered on this site. While I applaud this group’s current initiatives to increase dialog with the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and work for better prosecution of crimes against the community, the meeting left me cold.

The most obvious misstep occurred during the first five minutes of the meeting. During the introductions, police officers walked around the room clumsily and noisily handing out pieces of paper. While distracting us from the speakers, these sheets were filled with tips on how we could avoid being victims and contact numbers for the MPD’s Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit. From the second I cast my eyes on the paper, I realized what would be the focus of the meeting: accepting the existence of crimes against the queer community, educating individual members of that community on how to avoid the inevitable and invariable violence attacking us, and how the district and federal courts are using bias enhancements to increase the penalties of the offenders.

I won’t go into too many details about the general flow of the meeting, but I do want to note that I was impressed to see so many police officers in attendance, including MPD Police Chief Cathy Lanier who addressed the audience at length about her role in increasing safety of the community.

Rather, I will address what I perceived the biggest flaw of the meeting, which is that it was only attended by past and “future” victims, those who enforce the laws and those who try the cases. What was missing? Any serious acknowledgment of the real sources of the problem and strategies to address those sources. Who was missing? For starters, the mayor. But perhaps more importantly, representatives from the Office of Planning, to discuss their efforts to ease the friction that comes with the redevelopment of neighborhoods. Representatives from the DC public school system, describing their strategies for not only protecting queer youth but also educating ALL students on the rights of all people to go about their lives in the District of Columbia. Representatives from the faith community, to reassure us that despite any anti-queer messages they may spew from their pulpits, they put God’s message of “love thy neighbor” ahead of Leviticus and thousands of years of selective misinterpretation and transliteration it might have received. How about representatives from any and every District agency that provides services directly to the residents of the District of Columbia, who can use those interactions as “teaching moments” in which even the most subtle queer-friendly messages could be conveyed while services are being provided, from receiving a flu shot to renewing a driver’s license. The safety of queer people or any minority group does not only rest in the hands of police, prosecutors, and that group itself. It rests in the hands of the entire city government and all the city’s religious and charitable organizations. Unfortunately, they haven’t really been informed of this, and apparently neither have the members of GLOV.

The attendees of this meeting felt like, to me, a group of lung cancer patients and their doctors and insurance companies all gathered around talking about surgical options for 90 minutes without anyone mentioning the benefits of quitting smoking.

The issues I raise above were not completely left out of the meeting, but instead were raised first by a young queer black man in the audience. Not likely over 17 years old and dressed in a white tank top and jeans, he stood up and asked what was being done to confront the elders of the District’s longer-term resident communities who teach their youth hatred and aggression towards queer persons. I nearly applauded, but a GLOV member’s response chimed in before the young man even finished talking. And his response was appalling:  Parents and clergy aren’t teaching their community’s youth to be homophobic, but instead only provide silent, tacit approval of these behaviors. How audacious is it to tell a young queer man who could have grown up in the same community that manufactures those currently preying on him and us that his assessment of the origins of the problem is incorrect? How could someone who has not had the experiences of a local DC youth have any idea of the things this young man witnessed and likely experienced first-hand while growing up queer in this city surrounded by parents and other authority figures who were likely actively teaching homophobia to him and the other children of the community?

The most effective solution to a problem is always found in the greater system surrounding it.  The best solution to terrorism is not better screening at airports, nor is the best solution to anti-gay violence better awareness, enforcement and prosecution. Police officers, prosecutors and DC’s queer population will likely continue to chase each other around the city locked in a cycle of bash, arrest, prosecute, rehabilitate, release and repeat: That’s the urban crime and justice system. And the solution to that problem won’t be found within it. Tips for being street smart, higher arrest rates and bias enhancements won’t stop queer folks from being mugged, bashed and killed.

I applaud the efforts of GLOV, the GLLU, MPD and the district and federal attorneys who are working to provide better services to victims of anti-queer violence. But I fear we won’t actually prevent the creation of additional victims until the problems that lie within the bigger system are addressed. It didn’t appear that anyone at the heart of this current movement is looking at the big picture.  Perhaps it’s due to a lack of resources, a lack of understanding, or something else.  However, until those bigger, tougher questions start getting asked, we are all the next victims.

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  • queer dude said:

    Is there an analogy to be drawn between violence against queer people and sexual violence against women? Is violence against women “inevitable” as long as there are men, a fraction of whom will eventually strike out? Are there wide-view solutions being pursued to help stem violence against women? Something more organized than “You Can’t Beat A Woman” t-shirts?

  • SR said:

    This article struck me as incredibly important with regard to current model for NGO and GO community education programs. More importantly, it implicitly carries a solution to the problems it presents: get involved. I hate to be the guy to suggest “work within the system” but at this point, unless you have a better idea for restructuring the system show up for any presented opportunity to educate and give your own two cents worth–at least maybe then that kid would be provided with some answers and follow-through.

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