The Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was a Constitutional right in 2015. This year, a record number of LGBT people are running for Congress, and there are a record number of seven openly LGBT Congress members. It’s possible to take these signs of political and social progress for LGBT people as an indication that homophobia is no longer a relevant issue in America. But the advancements of the LGBT rights movement are underscored by continuing homophobic and transphobic violence, often affecting the LGBT community’s most vulnerable members.
Since the beginning of 2017, homicides of LGBT people have been rising. Homicides of LGBT people rose 86 percent between 2016 and 2017, according to Advocate.com. Last year, the Human Rights Campaign identified about 30 cases of homicide where the victim was transgender, a significant increase from 23 victims in 2016. While these statistics are from 2017, the increase in these types of hate crimes shows no sign of stopping.
A common and problematic idea about anti-LGBT violence is that it only happens to people who are marginalized beyond their LGBT status, such as people of color or people living in poverty. This idea contributes to racist and classist ideas that homophobia only exists in marginalized communities, implying that wealthier, whiter communities are less vulnerable to homophobic violence because they are more tolerant. This could not be further from the truth. Marginalized people are disproportionately affected by hate crimes because the perpetrators of those crimes have singled them out as vulnerable, knowing that their marginalized victim will have less access to justice. That being said, no LGBT person is completely safe from hatred and violence.
The vulnerability of all LGBT Americans to hate crimes is exemplified by a murder that occured last year in my hometown. Blaze Bernstein, a kind, competent college student who displayed his LGBT status with pride was murdered by Sam Woodward, his long-time friend. The murder occurred after Woodward, who was not openly LGBT, secretly hit on Bernstein. Bernstein and Woodward drove together to a local park, where Woodward stabbed Bernstein at least 20 times, and hid his body in a shallow grave in the park. Woodard, unbeknownst to Bernstein, was a member of the Neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division, a hate group that has been tied to five murders since 2017.
Bernstein and Woodward were both white, middle class men who were not raised in particularly homophobic environments. They attended the Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA) together, the same high school that I attended from the eighth through 12th grades. OCSA is known for its vibrant LGBT community. When I attended, OCSA held a biannual Pride Day, when students would come to school in drag and rainbow attire, and same-sex couples would dance and kiss while students cheered. Woodward’s homophobia existed despite this tolerant environment.
I never met Bernstein, but I did know Woodward, who even in high school had a reputation for right-wing beliefs that did not mesh with the tolerant culture of the school. However, no one who knew Woodward had any idea that he would become a card-carrying member of a Neo-Nazi group, much less a murderer. Woodward’s homophobia existed in direct opposition to the environment at OCSA, yet still persisted and grew to the extent that he was willing to murder someone whom he considered his friend.
Homophobic violence is everywhere. It exists in marginalized communities and privileged ones. It has not waned due to the legalization of same-sex marriage or the election of LGBT legislators. It is important that Americans do not allow the progress of the LGBT rights movement to make them complacent about the ongoing issue of homophobic violence.