05/21/2013 07:44 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Is Mark Carson's Death an Opportunity for a New Matthew Shepard Moment?


As some may have heard, in the late hours of Friday night, a young man was shot in cold blood on the streets of New York City. Some people see such violence as a fact of life that comes with living in a large city, but this was not just any act of violence. What happened last weekend was yet the latest in a series of recent attacks on gay men in New York City. With one brutal shot from a pistol, Mark Carson, a gay man who recently moved to Brooklyn from Harlem, died not for his money or because of his race but because of his sexual orientation, at the hands of an individual who allegedly uttered anti-gay epithets before pulling the trigger. Amid the recent strides that LGBT issues have been making on a national level, Mark Carson's death is a glaring reminder that there's still much work to do on many levels, particularly in the realm of hate crimes.

There were many ironies in the death of Mark Carson. The first is that he lived in a city that has the largest population of LGBT people in the nation. (San Francisco comes in first place if ranked by percentage of the total city population.) The high number of LGBT people in New York City doesn't guarantee that no violence will be inflicted on them, but one would think that there would at least be more tolerance. The second irony is that Mr. Carson was killed in Greenwich Village, a neighborhood that is home to many gay-owned businesses and gay residents. It's not lost on anyone that he was only a short distance from the Stonewall Inn, a historic landmark where the famous Stonewall riots of 1969 occurred, sparking the modern LGBT rights movement. One would think that there, LGBT people would be free to safely express themselves more than they would in less tolerant neighborhoods. How can something so brazenly horrific happen in a city inundated with LGBT people, in a neighborhood that is so progressive when it comes to free expression? The third irony is that the incident happened on the same weekend that a large, diverse group of people of all sexual orientations comes out in full force every year to participate in the New York City AIDS Walk. I was one of the many people who came out for the walk this rainy Sunday. Perhaps the rain was a symbol of the sadness that the tragedy had wrought.

I have to quickly say that there actually is no comparison to the death of Matthew Shepard; no killing should be measured against another to determine who was killed in the most horrific way. Both were tragic deaths that shouldn't have happened. But Mr. Shepard's death placed a larger spotlight on the issue of hate crimes against LGBT people, because his untimely death happened at a time when we as a nation weren't yet having national conversations about LGBT equality. To an extent, Mr. Carson's death does the same, as it has forced us to confront the fact that that this attack was one of five anti-gay attacks that have happened in New York City in the past three weeks, and one of 22 bias attacks that have happened in the city so far in 2013, up from 13 by this point last year. But this time, the national conversation about LGBT equality has been in a different context. This conversation is less about intolerance and bias against LGBT people and more about the ability of gay people to marry.

The right to marry is a great achievement, and across the country, those who were opposed to equal marriage rights for same-sex couples are now seeing their own states pass marriage equality. So there's no question that hard work has paid off, but as a community, have we placed all our eggs in one basket? Have we placed other important issues too low on our to-do list? Perhaps we should reexamine that to-do list and refocus on one of the greatest harms affecting the LGBT community: hate (or bias) crimes. We can create a new countdown as we see states enact tougher hate crime laws and introduce anti-homophobia efforts into their schools' curricula. I'm sure that if we lined up all the issues that affect the LGBT community, many people would state that their issue is more important than the next, but we should see Mark Caron's death as reminder that all of us, gay and straight alike, are affected by hate crimes against LGBT people. The killer didn't just take the life of Mr. Carson; he took someone's child, someone's best friend, someone's family member. Those people's lives will never be the same.

In truth, violence against the LGBT community happens every day. The weapon of choice may not be a gun; it may be as simple as a derogatory comment meant to belittle us, or a discriminatory practice that treats us as a second-class citizens or denies us our full rights. These weapons are carried by many Americans and are freely used. In many cases, our justice system only perpetuates the second-class status of LGBT victims of discrimination and hate crimes; simply ask someone who is transgender. The transgender community is rife with horror stories about trying to seek help after being attacked and then being mocked by the very authorities whose job is it to be there for them. Sadly, many transgender victims of discrimination or hate crimes simply don't report the incidents at all, for fear that nothing will be done. This leaves many anti-LGBT hate crimes and acts of discrimination unreported, so we do not truly know the level of bias against the LGBT community.

So, yes, this should be a new Matthew Shepard moment. It should be an alarm that alerts us to the complacency that has enveloped us. It should generate a renewed dialogue about what is really going on and why a gay man can be shot dead in plain sight in the street simply because of who he is. This conversation should include not just LGBT people but those who love us, and neither sexual orientation nor gender identity should be a determining factor in who gets to sit at the table to take action against hate. This fight is for all. This wakeup call is for all. Mark Carson's death should spur all of us to make hate crimes against LGBT people something that we need to address now, not later. We can't let Mr. Carson's death be in vain.