By Connor Toups
Editor’s note: The following article contains graphic descriptions of violence and offensive language towards queer folx and people of color that may be troubling to some readers.
Matthew Shepard remained tied to a fence for 18 hours after his attack; his attackers had beaten him so badly that, when he was discovered, blood covered his entire face except where his tears had partially washed it away. They had called him a faggot, beaten him and left him to die. Shepard remained comatose, in the hospital, for five days before his heart stopped. He was 21 when he died.
You might know his story; you’ve probably heard his name.
A year later, in New York City, police discovered a tupperware container. In it: a skull and human remains doused in acid. Written on the skull in black sharpie: “gay *n-word* number one.” That skull belonged to Steen Fenrich. His stepfather had brutally murdered him for being gay and Black. He was 19 when he died.
You probably don’t know his story; you’ve probably never heard his name.
In the aftermath of Shepard’s horrific murder, President Clinton condemned the murder; Congress took up hate crime legislation that took 11 years to pass; candlelight vigils were held across the nation and flags were lowered to half-mast; Vanity Fair called Shepard’s murder a crucifixion; Time labeled Shepard a martyr for gay rights; a play and a film were made about his murder; a foundation was created bearing his name.
In the aftermath of Steen Fenrich’s equally horrific murder, there was nothing.
According to recent polling, the number of Americans who think queer people in America face “a lot of discrimination” has plummeted. A 2018 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute found that only 55 percent of Americans think that queer people face significant discrimination. In 2013, 68 percent of Americans did. The decrease in perceptions of anti-queer discrimination has occurred most precipitously among young adults ages 18 to 29 — a demographic that encompasses the vast majority of Stanford students.
Part of me cannot believe that I have to actually assert this, but in light of these statistics, I feel compelled to make something unequivocally clear: Queer folx in this country still face significant discrimination. We still live in a country where a majority of queer people have been at the receiving end of a slur in the past year, where nearly a quarter of the 200,000+ reported hate crimes in the country target queer people, where a majority of queer people personally know another queer person who has been assaulted for being queer, where queer, and especially transgender, people avoid seeking healthcare because of a healthcare system that consistently judges and discriminates against them.
To be queer in America is to live with an unmistakable fear of discrimination. We modulate our tone so the content of our words isn’t immediately dismissed because of the pitch of our voice; we refer to significant others with vague pronouns because we don’t know how others might react; we avoid certain social situations for fear of the bigotry we might face. We are told that we can be ourselves but then told to tone it down, to hide those aspects that might betray our queerness.
Some have attributed the decline in perceptions of discrimination towards queer people to the recent high-profile victories of the gay rights movement. Indeed, the past decade has seen significant advancements for the rights and status of queer people in America: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed, a sitting U.S. president voiced support for marriage equality for the first time, Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay politician elected to the U.S. Senate, the Supreme Court struck down gay marriage bans as unconstitutional, Danica Roem became the first openly transgender candidate elected to a United States legislature, Pete Buttigieg became a serious presidential candidate in the eyes of the media.
While it’s true that there have been advancements for queer rights in America, the benefits of these high-profile victories have not accrued evenly across the queer community. They have accrued to those in the community most privileged: those who are white, who are wealthy, who are cisgender and those who present sufficiently “masculine” or “feminine” for our heteronormative society.
Those who are people of color, those who are not born wealthy, those who are transgender or gender fluid face the brunt of today’s anti-queer discrimination. This is a reality borne out in both scholarly research and anecdotal word of mouth.
It is a reality borne out in the story of Faith Cheltenham, who was fired from her university research job — a job she found out about through a white gay friend of hers who loved his “tolerant” workplace — for being bisexual. Her supervisor thought that, “Black people aren’t like that,” so Faith shouldn’t be either. Faith’s story, a story of discrimination brought on not simply by Faith’s sexuality but by Faith’s sexuality and race, parallels the broader story of workplace discrimination in the queer community of color, a community that faces rates of discrimination in the workplace twice as high as white queer people, a community that today reports the same level of discrimination as they did 14 years ago.
It is a reality borne out in the story of Tonya Harvey, a Black transgender woman murdered in a possible hate crime last year whose killer still remains free, and the 24 other known transgender people who were murdered in 2018 — 22 of whom were transgender people of color. It is a reality borne out in the countless victims whose names remain unknown, whose stories are never told, whose attackers are never brought to justice because of a veil of mistrust and fear between queer people of color and police. Roughly a third of queer of people and roughly two-thirds of black transgender people — compared to five percent of queer white people — reported that they would be uncomfortable calling the police in the aftermath of a crime. This is an unsurprising fact given that a quarter of queer people of color and 70 percent of black transgender people personally report facing discrimination and harassment from police. Advancements for queer people have centered around high-profile legal victories on the federal level, but for queer people of color, the criminal justice system tasked with protecting them daily cannot be trusted, and those legal advancements haven’t translated into safer lives.
Moreover, queer people of color face marginalization with the queer community itself. They are shut out of positions of power at some of the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy organizations: A visit to the Human Rights Council’s staff page reveals an overwhelmingly white team, and a 2015 report on diversity at HRC likened the work environment to a “White Men’s Club” for “good old (gay) boys.” In queer spaces, queer people of color, and especially Asian and Black queer people, report feeling stigmatized because of an idealization of whiteness and heterosexuality in (white-dominated) queer spaces. Even online, queer people of color feel discrimination; numerous studies have confirmed what most any queer person of color who has been on a gay dating app could tell you from experience: Bodies of color are consistently labeled as undesirable and otherized by the queer community, further contributing to feelings of stigma and rejection within queer POC communities.
All of this brings me back to Steen Fenrich, whose name has been forgotten, whose death did not make the front page of every national newspaper and whose situation encapsulates so much about the reality for queer people of color in America. When we talk about the victories of the queer rights movement, who are we actually talking about? We aren’t talking about the Steen Fenrichs of the world, those among us who endure the worst of the bigotry we decry publicly. We talk in breathless awe about how Pete Buttigieg, a white gay man who presents as masculine, signals a new era of gay acceptance in America, while we continue to ignore the plight of the hundreds of thousands of queer people of color in this country. We aren’t talking about the 37 queer people of color who were murdered 2017 at the hands of a hate crime. None of them became Matthew Shepards, none of them had their names spoken aloud by the president, none of them have foundations and none of them were labeled martyrs for an entire movement.
As Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality” and whose writings and ideas I have heavily relied upon in writing this opinion, explains, “Without frames that allow us to see how social problems impact all the members of a targeted group, many will fall through the cracks of our movements, left to suffer in virtual isolation.” When we fail to talk about queer people of color, about people like Steen Fenrich, we cannot create a truly inclusive frame that allows us to see all members of a targeted group.We allow queer people of color — those among us who face the most discrimination — to “fall through the cracks of our movements.”
It is time to reaffirm, first, that queer people face discrimination in this country. However, perhaps more importantly, it is time to stop thinking about queer rights in a narrow lens that views victories for white queer people as victories of all queer people. We must instead commit ourselves to supporting frames that recognize the intersectionality in the queer community. Stanford students have an opportunity to do that here on campus, not simply by reaffirming to themselves that discrimination exists and that it’s worse of queer people of color, but by centering queer voices of color in our queer (and non-queer) spaces.
Contact Connor Toups at ctoups22 ‘at’ stanford.edu.