New York City is the heart of America's "melting pot" of cultures and ideas. Yet even here, violence against those seen as "other" occurs. This week we mourn the brutal death of Mark Carson, a 32-year-old, shot and allegedly taunted with homophobic slurs by the shooter. The killing happened in Greenwich Village, one of the city's most famous gay friendly neighborhoods.
In recent years, we at the New York City Anti-Violence Project have seen an increase in reports of anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer hate violence throughout the city and the country. From 2010 to 2011, we saw a 13% increase of reports of this violence in New York City, which followed an 11% increase from the year before. In 2011, our National Coalition (NCAVP) reported the highest number of LGBTQ bias-related homicides in its 15 year history.
Yet again after the homicide of Carson, we are left asking what we can do to prevent this violence from ever happening again?
Throughout New York City and the country, LGBTQ people suffer violence far too frequently. This is particularly true for transgender and gender non-conforming people, people of color and young people. When the factors combine the odds get worse. Young, transgender people of color experience violence at two or three times the rates that most people do. Why are reports of violence increasing?
There's no single answer to this question, but we must start by looking at the way which LGBTQ people are treated in this country. In 2013, it is still lawful to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In many states, LGBTQ people can lose their jobs and homes just because their identity. This legal discrimination sends a message that it's acceptable to treat LGBTQ people as less than human, and that message, in turn, creates a culture of hate that encourages anti-LGBTQ sentiment, laws and policies.
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Vitriolic hate speech reinforces this culture; public figures accuse LGBTQ people of being degenerates, freaks and pedophiles, and call for LGBTQ people to be "penned up", have their children taken away, and some even call for murder. It's no surprise, then, that this culture spawns acts of violence. And as we make progress across this country toward LGBTQ equality, we are seeing a reactionary backlash of hatred. This tells us that we will not achieve full equality until we change not just laws, but the attitudes that lead to violence.
So what can we do to prevent – or even end - this violence? Nationally, we need to change this culture of hate and foster a culture of respect. We need to make clear the connection between anti-LGBTQ laws, hate speech and violence. We need to make the ridicule, dismissal and derision of LGBTQ people socially unacceptable, and insist that LGBTQ people are recognized as equal members of our society. It's not enough to just hold the individuals that perpetrate violence accountable, we have to hold every person who contributes to this harmful culture accountable. Responding to violence is not enough – we should be teaching, encouraging and inspiring a culture of respect and safety for everyone.
Locally, we need to employ strategies that address the violence at its root and in each community and neighborhood throughout New York City. We have to recognize that anti-LGBTQ violence is not just about homophobia and transphobia, but also about racism, classism and anti-immigrant sentiment. This complexity requires specific strategies that address the needs of all LGBTQ communities, especially those most at risk. At AVP, our job is to use every strategy we have: organizing, policy change, engagement and prevention. But the most powerful strategy we have is not an organizational one: it's a societal one. We know that we can only change attitudes and create safety working together with all communities. We've got to do this together.
That's why on 24 May, AVP is launching our Community Safety Night initiative (pdf), which will continue each Friday through June. On Community Safety Nights, AVP will be on the streets and in the neighborhoods most affected by anti-LGBTQ hate violence in New York City. We'll talk to people about what their community needs and how we can work with them throughout the city to help meet those needs.
Our aims are to raise awareness, educate people about violence, and talk about tactics to prevent violence and increase safety. We'll also be talking about policy and education initiatives to reach the broader community. We encourage everyone in and around the city to join us, and everyone across the country to have the same conversations with their neighbors, friends and even those they don't get along with. Getting the conversation going is the first step to changing the culture. We need to teach respect and tolerance, and we need to accept and embrace our diversity – but first we need to start talking to each other.