It was a somber evening at DePaul University's Lincoln Park Quad Oct. 8. Hundreds of people turned out for a vigil against anti-gay bullying.
The event initially began as a response to the suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, who jumped off the George Washington Bridge Sept. 22, after two of his classmates posted a video of him having a sexual encounter with another man on the Internet. However, as the number of teens committing suicide has risen ( either because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation ) , organizers expanded the scope of the vigil to show support for all victims of bullying.
Before a sea of flickering candles and rainbow flags, one of the organizers, Matt Zaradich, read the names of nine of the latest victims: Raymond Chase, Tyler Clementi, Cody Barker, Harrison Chase Brown, Justin Aaberg, Billy Lucas, Caleb Nolt, Asher Brown and Seth Walsh.
"As we've heard the names of those we lost, I cannot help but think about the humanity that expired with them. I can't help but think of the loss of spirit, the loss of childhood; the childhood for these children who had yet to experience the world as an adult," Zaradich said. He added, "These children suffered the brutality of bullying, driven by a vicious homophobia, that, make no mistake, was learned."
The suicides are part of a string of recent incidences of bullying and violence against gays. On Oct. 3, a gay man and two teenage boys were attacked in the Bronx. According to police, their attackers ( nine other young men ) beat, whipped, burned and sodomized their victims with a small baseball bat and the handle of a plunger for hours on end.
On Oct. 5, another man, Ben Carver, was beaten in an alleged gay-bashing inside the Stonewall Inn, the historic gay bar in NYC's Greenwich Village. In 1969 police raided the bar, igniting the Stonewall Riots, which are believed to be the beginning of the gay rights movement.
Then there's Chris Armstrong, the University of Michigan's first openly gay student body president, who was targeted by Andrew Shirvell, a lawyer in the Michigan attorney general's office. Shirveil created a blog called "Chris Armstrong Watch," wherein he claims Armstrong has a "radical homosexual agenda." Shirveil went so far as to post a photo of Armstrong with a swastika and a gay pride flag pasted over his face.
Like the spike in teen suicides nationwide, violence against LGBTQ people is far from isolated. In fact, it's on the rise. As reported by Windy City Times, on Nov. 23, 2009, the FBI's latest data on anti-gay violence indicated an 11-percent increase in hate crime offenses based on sexual orientation in 2008. And, while half of all hate crimes were motivated by race, one out of every six was based on sexual orientation. And, recent studies, again, suggest that gay teens are four times more likely to commit suicide and engage in substance abuse.
Moreover, most states do not have hate-crime laws that include protections for gay people. Judy Shepard, a gay-rights activist, knows this all too well. Her son, Matthew, a student from the University of Wyoming, was beaten and murdered because he was gay in 1998. His murderers could not be charged with a hate crime because no such laws ( state or federal ) recognized protections for gay people.
"Matt once told me, 'Mom, if I could take a pill to be like everybody else, I would.' That was a long time ago. I suppose what remains so difficult about my work today is that I have to keep speaking out about it; that we're still at place in this country where we aren't providing gay people with the same protections as other people," Shepard told Windy City Times last month at the Center on Halsted. To date, Wyoming still does not recognize LGBTQ people under its hate crime laws, despite Mrs. Sheppard's campaign for LGBTQ equality.
At DePaul, the vigil included songs and testimonials from other students who had experienced bullying. Perhaps the message that resonated most, witnesses reported, was this from Zaradich's closing statement: "To all the children listening, here this: You are the most beautiful creatures God has ever created and when the fear is so great and the pain is too much, and the world is too heavy to bear; remember this crowd of people around you right now. Hold tight this image and know that they love you. The strength is within you. So, please survive."
The Oct. 8 vigil was sponsored by LGBT Change, Join The Impact Chicago, Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, Gay Liberation Network, All Saints' Episcopal Church, 50 Faggots, Affinity Community Services, Adler Pride, The Civil Rights Agenda and Genderqueer Chicago.