Straights Get Gay-Bashed, Too

by Scott Stiffler
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Mar 31, 2009

The horrific case of an Ecuadoran immigrant who was killed in Brooklyn, N.Y., has highlighted a little-known facet of the ongoing problem of gay hate crimes: Heterosexuals get gay-bashed, too.

When, however, they do chance to get mistaken as gay and become victims of anti-gay hate crimes, the media often gives them greater significance than gay victims.

It's certainly frustrating for advocates and the rest of us when these mistaken victims garner more press attention and community outrage--especially considering acts of prejudice and violence perpetrated against gays are all too common. But, like it or not, they serve as teaching moments. They also can be a catalyst for divergent interest groups to find common ground in the fight against hate-based violence, as happened with the case in Brooklyn.

"Empathy for a victim whose innocence becomes all the more pronounced considering they were chosen on a false premise is part of the reason why cases where perception--and not actual sexual orientation that get - the most attention." says Sharon Staple, executive director of the Gay & Lesbian Anti Violence Project.

The shock value of such an incident often compels heterosexuals and media pundits to "stop and say this could happen to any of us," Staples adds, "because it's not about who we are. It's about who the perpetrator thinks we are." That's the moment, she notes, when "we can come together as a community and to say this isn't right. This sort of violence shouldn't happen to anybody."

It's a moment that gay activists and their social justice allies can use. They "raise people's consciousness by showing that it impacts us all, and we have to be vigilant and work together to stop this sort of violence," according to Staple.

That's exactly what happened when two Ecuadorean immigrant brothers, Jose and Romel Sucuzhanay, were confronted by a group of three men in the early hours of Sunday, December 7, 2008. Walking home from a night capped off by a meal and drinks at the bar La Vega, the men--both heterosexual--were only a few blocks away from home when they were verbally, then physically, assaulted at Bushwick Avenue and Kossuth Place (in Bushwick, Brooklyn).

According to news reports, they had been huddling close to one another to keep warm and because they had been drinking. They also had their arms around each other. Such a cultural marker is a common form of expression in other cultures, but here, it signifies lovers. It's exactly this kind of misunderstanding that forces the issue of straight men being caught up in a gay bashing for being misidentified.

Here, the men in a van passing by apparently misinterpreted their actions as signs of homosexual affection. The three alleged assailants exited their car and began to shout anti-gay and anti-Hispanic epitaphs. After one broke a beer bottle over Jose's head and proceeded towards Romel, Romel managed to escape--but not before seeing his brother Jose beaten with a baseball bat. The attack was of such ferocity that Jose would ultimately die from his injuries.

In the days following the attack, the Bushwick Ecuadorean community and others came together to condemn the attack and march in the streets. It was especially horrific because not long before, a gang in Patchogue, a town on the eastern end of Long Island in the New York City exurbs, set upon Hispanic immigrants and killed one.

Staple sees the incident in Bushwick, Brooklyn, as particularly important "because the community came together in all of its various identities." The Anti-Violence Project worked closely with Make the Road, a community-based immigrant's rights organization in Bushwick.

The two groups worked in tandem to support the Sucuzhanay family and to call attention to prejudiced-based violence. The case demonstrated, Staple says, how hate crimes "cut across all of our individual identities and speaks to the intersection of our identities."

Mistaking Behavior As 'Gay'-And Paying the Ultimate Price
As Dr. Todd Burke, a criminal justice professor at Radford University, point out, the Sucuzhanay brothers incident brings up cultural differences that are often overlooked, which nonetheless lead some to perceive others as gay.

"People coming in from Europe and walking the streets of America might be perceived as gay because their culture allows the holding of hands or kissing on the cheeks as a greeting. If that is done on the streets in certain parts of America, that might label people as gay even though they are not." He probably could have added that in the Middle East, much of Asia and South America, such open displays of affection between men are common. (Ironically, in these same cultures, such open displays between the two sexes are frowned upon.)

’The law doesn’t care one way or another; violence is violence.’

Close physical contact by two males was a reason the Sucuzhanay brothers were targeted. That all of their attackers were male, says Burke, was neither unusual nor unexpected.

Those who perpetrate violence against LGBTs are almost always, without exception, men. "It seems to an issue with public displays of affection." says Burke. "Our society seems to be more threatened by gays than lesbians. It doesn't mean that lesbians haven't been attacked, but more documented cases seem to be of males suffering the consequences."

New York City Police Detective Thomas Verni acts as the citywide liaison to the LGBT community. He has confirmed for EDGE that the police have concluded that the Sucuzhanay Brothers were attacked because of their ethnicity as well as their perceived sexuality.

"This was a dual bias incident." says Verni. "They were attacked because they were assumed to be Hispanic, which they were, and assumed to be gay which they were not."

It's important to emphasize that whether or not the attackers knew they were gay is irrelevant, says Verni--just as the actual sexuality of the brothers is ultimately irrelevant. "If they attacked somebody because they assume or know they are gay, then it's still an anti gay bias incident and will be treated as such."

The crime committed by the assailants was "assault with a weapon," a felony. They were also charged under New York state's hate crimes law, which could double their sentences. The hate crime legislation was developed, Verni says, as "a way to show people that hate crimes are not going to be tolerated, especially in New York City, where we have such a diverse population."

How Military Policy Has Caused Misidentified Gay Bashings
But violence that stems from homophobia isn't just the province of young men cruising the mean streets of Bushwick at 3:30 a.m. Burke, a former Maryland police officer, points to the military and police institutions as macho professions whose insular "brotherhood" and code of silence casts suspicion upon--and poses risks to--those who do not openly declare their heterosexuality.

The military's current policy--a confused and confusing compromise that mandates that gay men are allowed to serve as long as they don't tell anyone about their sexuality or aren't found out-- is known as "Don't Ask, Don't' Tell"

"Don't Ask, Don't' Tell has certainly raised some issues within this area," says Burke. There have been incidents of gay bashing, he adds, "when in fact some of the parties were not gay. It happened just because of their mannerisms or religious beliefs (not having sexual contact prior to marriage). Some of their military mates might label them as being gay because they're not participating in similar activities, whether it be going out skirt chasing or sports."

Although he never served in the military, Burke draws his opinion from time spent as a police officer--"also," he notes, "a very macho profession in which there exists that attitude. Gay males often experience harassment in the field. Since policework is a paramilitary organization, that machismo combat culture has been passed down."

Burke's time in law enforcement also helped him understand the universality of hate crimes. "From a police officers standpoint, law enforcement needs to treat all victims the same," he says. "When you look at a hate crime, it's a crime regardless of the victim - what it is based on is what the offender is thinking."

In School and on a Bus
Heterosexual victims can also be found within the membership of high school or college gay and lesbian alliances. "A lot of times these groups are formed by straights, and because they want to be a part and want to make the LGBT community more inclusive," Burke says. "They are then often targeted.'

Sometimes, the perception appears to be completely random. In Seattle, on March 21, a man slapped another man on the back of the head. Using a slur, he asked if the man were gay. The man, who has said he is not, got off the bus but the other man followed him and told him homosexuality violated his religion. Abiazzizi I. Idris, 18, has been charged with malicious harassment under Washington State's hate-crimes law.

The gay community Burke says, "needs to embrace its allies. Sometimes the gay community will have to out someone as being straight for that person's own protection. That's unfortunate. But the law doesn't care one way or another; violence is violence."

Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy’s at The Palace. . .at Don’t Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli’s 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.


  • , 2009-03-31 06:59:54

    Every time in my life that I’ve come into contact with a nasty homophobe, they are pointing one finger at me, while three of their other fingers are pointing right back at themselves. "You Spot It, You Got It" is a very common term in the LGBT community, and when men are gay bashing men, more than likely there is a reason for it, and that reason could very well be their own hidden bi or homosexuality. The people who totally accept their sexual orientations could care less what anyone else is...Just what I’ve seen. Tracey Co-author: "How To Be A Happy Lesbian: A Coming Out Guide"

  • , 2009-03-31 09:04:26

    There is ultimately no understanding liberal thinking, because it is not based on thought. Liberals constantly sit on juries and give lesser sentences to murderes cuz they get all teary eyed over what a tough life they led or because their mommies abused them. But then these same dewey-eyed fools want "hate crimes" legislation to give extra punishment to those with dark thoughts in their hearts. The only damned reason you need "hate crimes" legislation is to stop juries from feeling sorry for people who commit vicious crimes. Stop coddling criminals, support the death penalty for heinous murders regardless of reason, quit worrying about what is in somebody’s heart when the beat the shit out of some poor queen or destroy them utterly, and you don’t need mealy-mouthed whining legislation like "hate crimes" which is de facto unconstitutional to begin with. Toughen up and we’ll put an end to gay bashing by putting gay bashers out of business entirely. Assault is assault; murder is murder.

  • , 2009-03-31 10:07:31

    Totally get what you are saying about murder being murder, and being more tough on people who are violent, and I am one of those liberal thinkers. I mean what are you going to do with someone like Ted Bundy? I may be liberal, but I’m not stupid, and in my opinion someone that is constantly killing and maiming, no matter what his or her background is, needs to be put down like a rabid dog.

    I always thought that the hate crimes legislation was instituted because too many people were getting away with assaults using the excuse that they hate fags, dykes or whoever they are prejudiced against. While I do totally agree with you that everyone should be prosecuted the same no matter who they attack, over and over again perpetrators have gotten lesser sentences because for many people it’s OK to beat the hell out of, rape, or even kill a LGBT person. The hate crimes legislation is supposed to make sure that people don’t get away with a lesser sentence because they are prejudiced.

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