Many Americans seem to only remember one of the two namesakes of the 2009 federal hate-crime bill signed into law by President Obama: Matthew Shepard. Similarly, many Americans also seem to only remember the bill as the Matthew Shepard Act. However, this abbreviated mention conveniently leaves out the other person for whom the act is named: James Byrd Jr.
Shepard was a white, gay college student who was brutally assaulted by two homophobes near Laramie, Wyoming, and died six days following the heartrending attack. His death now haunts our collective consciousness, reminding us that hate against LGBT people might surely mean death.
James Byrd Jr., on the other hand, was a Black man from Texas. Byrd was ruthlessly murdered by three men, two of whom identified as white supremacists. His ankles were chained to the back of a pickup truck, and he was dragged approximately three miles along an asphalt road in Jasper, Texas. In the process, his head and right arm were severed from his body. His torso was eventually left in front of a cemetery that mostly contained the bodies of other Black people. Whereas Shepard was murdered because of his perceived sexual identity, Byrd was killed because he was Black.
Why did we feel the need to write this open letter to mainstream LGBT organizations with a reference to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act? Why have we felt the need to point to the failure on the part of the American populace to rightly acknowledge the atrocities that ended the lives of both namesakes? Because it illuminates the dangers of focusing on one type of identity-based violence -- the violence that impacts LGBT people -- while willfully ignoring the police and vigilante violence that impacts Black queer- and trans-identified people, as well as all Black people: Mike Brown's bloodied and lifeless body was left on a hot Missouri street for 4.5 hours; the world bore witness to video clips of Eric Garner uttering his final words, "I can't breathe!", as a police officer choked him to death; Marlene Pinnock was brutally pounded by a white, male police officer on a highway in the middle of the day; and Black trans women like Erycka Morgan and Islan Nettles, and many whose names we do not lift up, continue to be viciously attacked and killed.
We can no longer sit idly by as you, mainstream LGBT organizations, center your movements and advocacy work on some within our varied communities but not others. We are no longer OK with the mainstream LGBT organizations among you who signal your complicity in anti-Black violence through your loud silence and deliberate ignoring of the types of systemic, institutionalized forms of anti-Black racism that negatively impact Black queer and trans people (and all Black people), disallow Black well-being, and deaden us.
And while there have been some awareness and recognition of the fact that anti-Black racism materializes in ways that stifle Black freedom and lives, it is insufficient for LGBT organizations to merely acknowledge these horrific events. The morally courageous thing to do is take action. And organizations like the Audre Lorde Project, the Anti-Violence Project, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and INCITE! cannot do the necessary intersectional work alone.
We are calling for a bigger commitment and a more radically inclusive vision from LGBT organizations. We are calling for an agenda and a commitment to combating racism as forcefully and unshakably as your commitment to standing against homophobia. We are calling for a new, multivariate LGBT agenda that acknowledges and advances recognition of the humanity and suffering of Black people. We are calling for an agenda that not only expresses awareness but demonstrates, through tangible actions, a value for Black life. And should you not, we can only conclude that Black lives do not matter to you.
Movements are not built on the backs of the most vulnerable in the service of the needs and whims of the most privileged. Movements are built and succeed when they begin at the most marginal of spaces -- always evaluating who's positioned in the center of power and always ensuring that asymmetrical power relations are corrected so that we might exist in a more equitable society.
Some of us within the LGBT spectrum are Black. Our lives matter too.