Thinking Out Loud: Why Trayvon should matter to US

By : Mary Meeks
Comments: 1

MaryMeeksHeadshotYou may be sick and tired of the cacophony of raised voices arguing over the acquittal of George Zimmerman. Whatever your reaction was to the jury verdict, the indisputable prevalence of institutional racism, in society at large and in our legal system, goes well beyond this one case. To my fellow members in the LGBT community, I ask you to stay tuned, and to get engaged, because make no mistake, Trayvon Martin could have been you.

I watched virtually every minute of the trial. As a civil rights attorney and activist, I felt a growing sense of horror and dread; as a gay person, in particular, my heart ached for the family of the young boy whose life was taken, and whose intentional killing was excused, by institutional racism.  

Virtually everyone involved in the legal process, and many in the community, evaluated the case based on the alleged perceptions of the killer, and determined that it was reasonable, based on their experience, for the hefty Caucasian adult packing heat to criminally profile, and then fear, the skinny black child walking home with candy and iced tea.

It either never occurred to them to look at things from Trayvon’s perspective, or they were incapable of even comprehending an alternative perspective from the point of view of a young black boy.

I could not help but think about Ryan Skipper, the young gay man who was profiled and murdered in 2007 in Polk County because he was gay, and who was then profiled and defamed by law enforcement, the media, and the greater community, because he was gay. Ryan was a victim of institutional homophobia. Initially, Ryan, a sweet, bubbly, productive member of our community, was wrongly portrayed as some kind of reprobate engaged in criminal activity with his killers.

My wife and I made a documentary about the case with the help of Ryan’s wonderful family and friends. We were able to help get the truth out, to change the narrative, to erase the profile, and ultimately Ryan’s killers were convicted.

But during those excruciating days that we sat at the Polk County courthouse with Ryan’s parents, awaiting the verdicts, I feared the worst, and imagined how painful it would be if Ryan’s killers were acquitted, not only for Ryan’s family and friends, but for the LGBT community. Fortunately, we did not have to experience that pain. But, how would the gay community have reacted to such a verdict?

I ask that question, because I noted with some surprise, and disappointment, that members of the LGBT community did not seem to react strongly to Trayvon’s murder or to the acquittal of his killer, under circumstances that I feel sure would have engendered widespread outrage had it involved a gay child. The notorious “gay panic defense” has been trotted out by numerous murderers to excuse their vicious acts by claiming they were afraid of the oversexed gay (or transsexual) man, from Matthew Shepard to Brandon Teena to 14-year-old Larry King. We cannot ignore the common root, and resulting injustice, of these “panic” defenses, whether the fear claimed is of a gay “sexual deviant,” or of a black “thug” in a hoodie.

Matthew Shepard and Trayvon Martin were each profiled, targeted, stalked, confronted, allegedly feared, and ultimately killed, because of who they were.

When our young gay and black men are profiled and victimized just for trying to walk home from a trip to the store, and justice is denied, we are all victims. Any one of us, or someone we love, could be next. All of us should be united in fighting to erase the institutional influences that take too many of our children. It worries me that we are not.

After the Zimmerman verdict, my wife and I attended a vigil for Trayvon at the Orlando federal courthouse. Before the vigil began, a black woman approached us, and thanked us, two of the few white faces in the crowd, for coming to express our solidarity in seeking justice for her community. It made us uncomfortable, we should not have stood out in that crowd as exceptional because of our skin color. I was ashamed that we did. I was especially ashamed as a gay person, our community knows this pain, we know this injustice, why weren’t we there for this child?

Afterwards, I thought about my black friends, both gay and straight, who are hurting so terribly from this injustice, and felt helpless to ease their pain. I thought about amazing advocates for our community who are black, like Nadine Smith, the longtime Executive Director of Equality Florida. I spoke to Nadine the day after the verdict, and she was so heartbroken that she literally could not speak, I hung up the phone, feeling sick inside. I thought about black allies to our community, people like Val Demings, Daisy Lynum, Sam Ings, Geraldine Thompson, Tiffany Moore Russell-who have stood with us in our fight for justice and equality.

I thought about all of them, and I asked myself, will I honor their friendship and support for our community, and join them in the fight for their community? Aren’t we the same community? Don’t they deserve equal justice? Don’t I owe it to them to fight for it?

My answer is yes. What’s yours?

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