Kathy Flores had to take a second look when a story involving a friend of hers crossed her screen. Drew Nesbitt had been murdered in a hateful anti-gay incident.
At first, Kathy didn’t realize it was really news. Years ago, Drew had been physically assaulted for being gay. The assault had damaged him severely and his injuries required brain surgery.
After Drew recovered while living in the Fox Valley and gotten back on his feet, he had decided to move down to Madison, where the community is more welcoming and he could have a better life.
Drew was murdered on his 46th birthday in March 2017 after meeting a man who had targeted Drew for a hookup at a gas station. The man who committed the murder hated his own identity as a gay/bi man and had been abusive in relationships he’d had with other men and members of the LGBTQ community.
So when a friend sent Kathy a link to the news concerning Drew she figured it was just an old rehash of the story of his assault and recovery. But, tragically, it wasn’t. He had been murdered.
As she dealt with the grief of Drew’s death, Flores and others of a certain generation hearkened back to the murder of a young man named Matthew Shepherd in 1998. Shepherd had been brutally killed in Laramie, Wyoming by two men who both received double life sentences. At the time, Shepherd’s murder was major news and seemed like an outlier in terms of hate crimes.
Flores, who is now LGBTQ Anti-violence Program Manager at the Milwaukee-based organization Diverse and Resilient, remains horrified today to realize that twenty years later murders like Shepherd’s against the LGBTQ community are becoming common.
“Matthew Shepherd was something that rocked our country and was horrific,” Flores told Madison365. “But we see about one of those murders every week. There were 52 homicides against LGBT people last year and some were as brutal as what happened to Matthew Shepherd. We are seeing an increase in intimate partner violence, community-based violence and hate-based violence. We had to put out a crisis report on violence in August of 2017 because we’d already surpassed 2016 levels in violence. We saw an 86 percent increase in hate violence.”
There was another troubling statistic Flores noted. Out of the 52 victims of murder in the LGBT community, an overwhelming 71 percent of the victims were people of color, primarily gay or bisexual men of color.
In communities of color being gay or bi-sexual has long been a difficult issue. Gay black or Hispanic youth, in particular, don’t always find safe havens within their communities or support networks designed to help them develop their identity or feel a sense of self-esteem. Sometimes non-acceptance of self-partners with mental or emotional instability to create a situation where people lash out at others as a result of poor self-image and esteem.
Flores said that is a major causality with the rise of LGBTQ targeting.
“What we’re seeing is a 400 percent increase in murders of men who are gay and about half of those are hookup related, meaning they had met on an app for a hookup,” she said. “We see them being targeted for violence and robbery. Sometimes it’s by people who aren’t accepting of their own identity who do this violence. They can’t accept and love themselves so they turn around that hate on other members of the LGBT community. We saw that with Drew Nesbitt. The person who murdered him was sleeping with men, attracted to men, but hated that part of himself so he killed another person.”
Flores said this also lands at the feet of the Trump Administration. She said the national rhetoric encouraging hate violence and removing policies that protect LGBT people plays into the violence.
Since President Trump took office people have been displaying hate more proudly than they ever have been able to before on a national level. White Supremacists and homophobic bigots have seen that trend and have been encouraged in that line of thinking. That has upped the ante on the violence.
With the advent of gay hookup apps, the ability to target potential victims has skyrocketed. Flores says that on the Apps someone who is predatory has easy opportunities to seek out victims for a variety of things.
But those same apps have also provided a platform for people who in previous generations were forced into the closet to be able to come out, even discreetly, and meet others like themselves in ways they never were able to before.
An 18-year-old student who wished to remain anonymous told Madison365 that meeting supportive, healthy men on gay dating apps helped save his life as he was contemplating suicide because of the depression and hopelessness he felt during his high school years when his home environment was unsupportive of his being gay and he had reached the end of his rope. Being able to chat with and meet an entire community of people just like him saved his life, he said.
The contrast between his story and Drew Nesbitt’s shows how wide and intricate the issue is. And delicate.
Flores says the main thing is for people, especially LGBT youth, to know how to be safe online and using the apps.
“When it comes to hooking up or using dating Apps, let people know who you’re going to be with and where you’re going to be,” she said. “Use your technology to let people know where you are. Watch your drink. And trust your gut. A lot of victims end up telling us ‘I knew something was wrong about the guy but I didn’t listen to my instincts.’”
414-856-LGBT is a statewide hotline people can call if they are experiencing violence or just have concerns about issues and want help.
At roomtobesafe.org there is a list of safety tips and resources for anyone to look at and connect with.
“My main message is that no matter what you do it is never your fault if violence happens to you,” Flores said. “Whatever happens there is never a reason to blame a survivor for what happens to them. It is always the fault of the person causing the harm.”
Flores says as a community we need to support community based efforts that promote healing and local advocacy programs.
“We need to call out and remove these public accommodation and religious protection bills,” Forles said, referring to legislation that allows businesses to discriminate against LGBT people. “They are hateful and cause more violence against LGBT individuals. We have to actively create a culture that nurtures LGBT Youth by uplifting, loving and accepting diverse experiences of communities. Because seeing this increase of violence could cause someone to lose hope and faith. So when I think of the person who killed Drew, I thought what would have happened if this individual could have learned to love himself at age 10, at age 12, that could have made a difference in his life.”
To that end, Milwaukee-based artist Lex Allen helped Diverse and Resilient create a campaign to help youth realize they are beautiful.
Lex Allen wrote a song called “Colors in Bloom” and a music video to coincide with it to help youth know that the complexities of their identity are perfect the way they are. The goal is that LGBTQ youth would see it and see people who are like them and look like them surviving.
Colors in Bloom is also a statewide awareness campaign. Lex Allen Productions has utilized a graphic artist to make billboards that will be going up around Wisconsin later this Spring imploring LGBTQ youth to recognize that they are loved and beautiful.
Flores said at least one of these billboards will be placed adjacent to a Conversion Therapy school so the youth there can see it.
“We have billboards going up in the Fox Valley and Milwaukee and one to go up by a Conversion Therapy school,” she said. “We are trying to bring up some funds to put up billboards in all these Conversion Therapy places. We want youth to see this and see hope and be able to hold on because it will get better, but it will only get better if we can work with youth and people supporting youth. In Milwaukee, the City Council is trying to ban these conversion therapy practices. We’re losing lives because of this damaging therapy. Some of the people who have survived these places have been able to find loving places and churches. But the fact that so many youth are exposed to this is so heartbreaking and dangerous.”
One of the billboards goes up in two weeks. The others will most likely go up around the end of May and into June during Pridefest. One of the locations will be along Highway 151.
“This has been a good campaign to work on,” Flores said. “It has given me hope. Just reminding people that they’re beautiful, worthy and acceptable the way they are.”