Last Wednesday Illinois became the 15th state in the country to approve gay marriage, a cause for celebration in the Midwest, where there is still a strong "family values" contingent stuck on denying marriage equality.
That same day in San Francisco, the LGBT-friendly mecca of the country, a teenager lay in a hospital bed, legs covered in second- and third-degree burns. The teenager, Sasha Fleischman of Berkeley, had been asleep on a public transit bus traveling though Oakland when Fleischman, who was wearing a skirt, was set on fire by a 16-year-old boy on the bus whom the victim had never had contact with.
When questioned about his motive, the accused responded that he was motivated by homophobia. The victim identifies as "agender," neither male nor female, and is referred to as "they" or "them" rather than "he" or "she." Fleischman had worn a skirt for some time without any problems, but the skirt was apparently what provoked the attack. The teenager will be charged with "aggravated mayhem, assault and hate-crime enhancements."
Seeing this happen in the San Francisco Bay Area was a real wake-up call. It brought home the fact that none of us is immune to the ravages of hate and gave me considerable uneasiness after the work I've recently been doing.
For the past year and half I have worked on a documentary entitled Facing Fear, which tells the story of a gay teenager who was beaten by neo-Nazis and left for dead on the streets of Hollywood. Like Sasha, Matthew Boger was attacked because of his perceived sexual orientation by someone whom he didn't know.
The attack happened in 1980, when hate crimes weren't in the lexicon and gay bashing was still "tolerated" to an extent, even in the gay community of West Hollywood. Boger survived the attack but never reported it, out of fear of how the police would react to a gay street kid. Boger eventually escaped life on the streets and was able to start a career.
One of the neo-Nazis, Tim Zaal, had grown up in the whitewashed suburbs east of Los Angeles and fallen in with the Nazi punk skinhead movement, whose adherents took violence to an extreme against anyone they felt was "different." Zaal was 17 years old when the attack happened, and today you'd have no idea that he could have once been filled with so much hate. Tim readily admits that he learned much of his behavior from influential people in his life, even if he is culpable of taking things to an extreme.
Twenty-five years later, attacker and victim ended up meeting at the Museum of Tolerance, where Boger was now the manger. After the initial shock, they embarked on a difficult journey of reconciliation and forgiveness. They started doing presentations about their experience and eventually became friends and confidants. For Boger, Tim was like the family he never had.
We have been lucky enough to screen our film for several schools, and it has had a huge impact on the students, leading to lively discussions about hate and forgiveness. I like to
think that some of them took something away from the experience that they can apply in their own lives. We have even been asked to screen the film in Oakland, and it does give me pause to think that if a teenager like the accused saw something like this or met someone on the other side of the issue, he might at least give a second thought to his actions and their consequences.
Schools today are armed with anti-bullying campaigns and LGBT student groups, not to mention exposure to national campaigns like It Gets Better and NOH8. This is a huge step from a previous generation of closeted kids struggling to find a voice, but there is obviously work to be done.
Sasha Fleischman didn't choose to incite violence. When the accused gets his time to speak, maybe deep-rooted factors will come to the surface and help explain why he was prone to set a human being on fire, beyond the fact that he is a self-proclaimed homophobe. How many LGBT family, friends or educational resources did this young man have at his disposal?
As filmmakers, we do not advocate for forgiveness being the only way to approach hate crimes. I'm still not sure whether I could forgive someone for a heinous crime like the ones mentioned here. We are only hoping that we can look at how we arrived here, from the perspectives of both the victim and the perpetrator, and keep in mind all the societal influences that come into play.
Sasha Fleischman was not seeking the spotlight, but a bright light is now shining on the community that failed them. Sasha is a victim and, unfortunately, a painful reminder of these failings. Let's hope that this incident will serve as a teaching moment for both the community and the wider world.
For more information about Facing Fear, please visit facingfearmovie.com.
Follow Jason Cohen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/facingfearmovie