Lessons From a Lynching

In vigils and marches in cities around the country last night we mourned and protested the murder of gay Puerto Rican teenager Jorge Steven L?pez-Mercado on the evening of November 13th.

His murder was so gratuitous – Jorge was decapitated, dismembered and partially burned – that he may pass into popular memory as the Puerto Rican Matthew Shepard (aka the gay Wyoming college student whose 1998 lynching spawned a similar wave of protests and jump-started the gay-straight alliance movement on high school campuses).

Most in the vigils and marches last night acted out of grief and anger, and with good reason. But left at that alone, the growing awareness of what Jorge L?pez’s murder means for what the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) movement needs to do will be left unanswered, and a budding movement, stillborn.

Back in 1998 the myriad of Matthew Shepard vigils and marches focused almost exclusively on the simple messages that hate and violence are bad – messages that were frankly so basic that even the most reactionary conservatives could mouth agreement with them. Literally hundreds of protests in the U.S. and internationally occurred, but aside from a huge mushrooming of gay-straight alliances in the nation’s schools, little of permanent importance was achieved. This is why drawing correct conclusions about next steps from last night’s vigils for Jorge L?pez is so important.

To the extent that a political understanding seeped into last night’s events, it was largely a diversionary debate around the issue of hate crimes legislation, pro- or con-.

On the pro- side, liberals have framed demands of the vigils as focusing almost exclusively on enforcement in Jorge’s case of recently enacted federal hate crimes legislation which mandates, among other things, stiffer penalties for felonies motivated by anti-LGBT hate. But as with enhanced penalties legislation generally, and the death penalty specifically, there is no evidence that such legislation deters violence.

On the side of those opposing hate crimes legislation, some left-wing critics rightly point out that governments often use increased policing powers to further already discriminatory “law enforcement” against minorities. Unfortunately these same critics often speak as though hate crimes don’t exist, that there is little or no difference between the murder of an Emmett Till or a Matthew Shepard – lynchings designed to send messages of hate and intimidation to whole communities – versus other more “routine” murders.

Worse, such “left-wing” commentators typically are dismissive of, if not opposed to equal marriage rights land legislation mandating equal employment rights in the military. In justification of this attitude, they note that such institutions are quite reactionary (re: the military, I would agree; re: marriage, it’s changed more than just a little bit since the time when women were literally owned by men). But this misses the point. The American workplace, with its dictatorial organization and huge gaps in compensation is perhaps the most reactionary institution in U.S. society, but does this mean that we abstain from struggles for equality within it, whether based upon race, gender, sexual orientation or other categories?

Rather than focusing on the issue of hate crimes legislation, pro- or con-, as the key to preventing future lynchings like that of Jorge Steven L?pez, we need to take a much broader perspective. We need to take a look at the history of lynchings and the prevention of such.

Doing so will highlight one very important fact: It was the sweeping change in social attitudes brought about by the Civil Rights Movement and the legislative gains of at least de jure equality it created that finally put an end to routine lynchings of African Americans.

It is no accident that the height of lynching violence against African Americans coincided with the height of “legal” segregation and racist Jim Crow legislation. Government and religious sanction of discrimination explicitly endorsed violence against African Americans. Removal of American apartheid in the 1960s obviously did not end racism, but it did remove a powerful justification for lynchings – the government endorsement of racial inequality – and such lynchings diminished dramatically a few years after the movement finally won broad enforcement of equal rights legislation.

The LGBT community has yet to achieve formal legal equality, an initial step towards the far more ambitious goal of social equality. Today hatred of us is explicitly endorsed from pulpits and the podiums of politicians, and the dominant – read federal – legal framework within which we live. Thus it should come as no surprise that there are lynchings like that of Jorge L?pez, Matthew Shepard and many, many virtually anonymous scores more. Government- and religious-sanctioned discrimination are major bulwarks supporting anti-LGBT violence in the United States.

The struggle against Jim Crow segregation of lunch counters was never so much about the lunch counters as such, but about the dehumanizing message such petty segregation sent to the African American community as a whole. In warfare as in other kinds of violence, dehumanization is the first step towards making it “okay” to harm another human being.

Similarly, the struggle against anti-LGBT legal inequalities – whether on the issues of marriage, employment, housing, access to public accommodations, immigration law, etc – is not even mainly about the specific rights that come with such, as important as those are for the life choices they might make available to innumerable individuals. It’s about removing the dehumanizing impact that official discrimination has in fostering routine, everyday hatred and discrimination against LGBT people. (This is a major reason why domestic partnership legislation, rather than marriage rights, is not “good enough” for same sex couples).

Losing the anti-LGBT repressive social climate, rather than preventing Sally from marrying Sue, is the main reason why anti-gay leaders oppose equal rights legislation. They couldn’t give a damn about who any of us marry, any more than we care whom they marry. What they really value is officially-sanctioned bigotry and the bolster to their social power that it gives.

Jorge Steve L?pez-Mercado was a victim of social anti-LGBT hate, a hate powerfully endorsed by the United States’ legal inequality and the hate officially endorsed by most religious denominations. If we wish to make the most direct assault upon the conditions that fostered L?pez’s murder, we must directly confront the politicians of both political parties, including President Obama, who oppose our legal equality or who at best, give us pro-equality rhetoric instead of pro-equality policies.

Moreover, we must call out as bigots the powerful religious figures, leaders of the Catholic Church and various Protestant denominations, who use religion as a cover for their bigotry, not unlike those religious right figures like Jerry Falwell who used religion as a cover to justify Jim Crow a generation ago.

L?pez’s lynching demands not just grief and anger, but a political strategy that attacks the conditions which led to his lynching.

ANDY THAYER is a co-founder of the Chicago-based Gay Liberation Network, a direct action group formed in 1998 in response to three Chicago gay-bashings just weeks before Matthew Shepard’s murder. He can be contacted at LGBTliberation@aol.com


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Andy Thayer has written previously about the then-impending Supreme Court decisions here and here. He is a co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network in Chicago and can be reached at LGBTliberation@aol.com

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