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Hate Crime Bill – Far Too Long Overdue

I just received this email from HRC:

Tue, Apr 21, 2009 at 12:08 PM

Tell Congress: honor Matthew Shepard

Dear Louise,

Judy Shepard has waited more than 10 years for this moment. Congress could vote as soon as NEXT WEEK on the hate crimes bill that would give LGBT people the protections they need and deserve, and honor the memory of Judy’s son.

And tomorrow, during House Judiciary Committee action, right-wing lawmakers are planning an attempt to derail the bill with “poison pill” amendments. So your action is more urgent than ever.

Watch this powerful new video of Judy’s personal story, and take action on the hate crimes bill now!

The radical right is desperate. Whether the issue is marriage or hate crimes, they feel the debate slipping away. Their answer: to resort to deceit and distortion.

Our opponents want Congress to believe that the Matthew Shepard Act will brand pastors as criminals for giving a Sunday sermon. It’s nonsense, and they know it. The bill has specific free speech protections and targets only violent acts.

Judy Shepard doesn’t want to deny anyone their right to free speech. But after ten years of calling for the federal government to take action, ten years of waiting and tens of thousands more victims, she knows it’s time for Congress to act.

Hear Judy in her own words. Then demand immediate action from Congress.

And please tell your friends and family everything that’s at stake and ask them to contact their representatives too.

A setback on hate crimes will have far-reaching implications. It will set the tone and the political climate for our entire agenda. This is so important. I hope you can help.

Warmly,

Joe Solmonese

President

This hate crime legislation is so important. And terribly overdue – decades overdue.

Another example of a life cut tragically short below…This July marks the 25th anniversary of Charlie Howard’s death:

Charles O. Howard (January 31, 1961 – July 7, 1984) was an American hate-crime victim in Bangor, Maine in 1984. As Howard and a male companion, Roy Ogden, were walking down the street, three teen-aged men, Shawn Mabry, Daniel Ness, and Jim Baines, aged 15-17, harassed Howard for being gay. The youths chased the pair, yelling homophobic epithets, until they caught Howard and threw him over the State Street Bridge into the Kenduskeag Stream, despite his pleas that he could not swim. He drowned, but his friend escaped and pulled a fire alarm. Charlie Howard’s body was found by rescue workers several hours later.

This event galvanized the Bangor community in ways similar to the killing of Matthew Shepard, although the case never attained the same level of national notoriety. Baines later spoke to various groups in Maine about his involvement in the case and the damage that intolerance can do to people and their community. His story, Penitence: A True Story by Edward Armstrong, was published, although Baines received no royalties from the book.

The Bangor City Council and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community have been working on a monument to be installed along the Kenduskeag Stream honoring the memory of Charlie Howard as the victim of a hate crime.

On November 14, 2007, the Bangor City Council approved the monument, and the Charles O. Howard Memorial Foundation is raising money to install the monument. On July 7, 2004, a twentieth anniversary walk was held in memory of Howard. The Maine Speakout Project maintains the Charlie Howard Memorial Library in Portland, Maine. The library is open to the public.

This incident inspired a similar scene in the beginning of Stephen King’s novel It, where three homophobic teenagers throw an openly gay man, Adrian Mellon, over a bridge and into the Kenduskeag, there to be set upon and murdered by the monster Pennywise.

Mark Doty wrote a poem about the tragedy called Charlie Howard’s Descent. The murder is also the inspiration for a novel by Bette Greene titled The Drowning of Stephan Jones

This account of Charlie’s life is heartbreaking:

1984 Bangor, Maine

A Rose For Charlie:

By the time Charlie Howard reached high school in the late 1970’s, he was accustomed to his classmates’ taunts and sneers. Charlie was fair-haired and small boned. He has a learning disability. His severe asthma would have made it difficult for him to participate in sports, even if he had wanted to. The way he walked and talked set him apart from most of the other boys in Portsmouth, N. H. As a little kid, he got laughed at and called a “sissy”.

In later years, he got shoved around and got called a “fag”. Charlie had to have a tough shell just to get through most days without crying or running away. Undearneath, he has accumulated a lot of scars and bruises. He wondered if people would ever leave him alone – or if, because he was gay, he would be the butt of their jokes forever. Charlie couldn’t wait to get out of high school, but he skipped his graduation ceremony becasue he didn’t want his family to witness how the other students treated him.

Many new graduates see the future as an open door. Charlie saw doors closing. Since his grades were low, he wasn’t considered as “college material” Jobs were scarce in Portsmouth, especially for someone who made no secret of being homosexual. He didn’t get alone well with his stepfather, so he knew he couldn’t continue to live at home. As long as he remained in Portsmouth, Charlie felt, he would be an embarrassment to his family. Leaving town seemed to be his only option.

He drifted away around for a few years, into his early 20’s, and the familiar hassles and put-downs wherever he went. He eventually moved in with a man in the small coastal town of Ellsworth, Maine.

When the realationship broke up in early January, 1984, Charlie decided that nearby Bangor, with a population of 30,000, offered better opportunities for work and a social life. A mutual friend introduced Charlie to Scott Hamilton and Paul Noddinm who lived in a big Victorian house they had restored on Highland Avenue in Bangor. Charlie had no money, no job, and no plans. Scott and Paul offered him a place to stay while he looked for work.

As the weeks passed, Charlie’s prospects remained bleak as the Bangor winter, The local job market what he had hoped for, and after a month Scott and Paul suggested that Charlie might be better off returning to Portsmouth, where he had more connections. Charlie’s mother let him move back home. The new arrangement didn’t last a week. He moved in with another man, but this situation didn’t work out either. He called Scott and Paul. They could hear the pain in Charlie’s voice, so they decided to help him give Bangor another try.

Something was different this time. Charlie was more upbeat and determined, and his high spirits seemed to open more doors.

A neighbor helped him get a part-time job through a city emplyment program. He found a warm community of friends at the Unitarian Church, which had a number of openly gay memebers. The church also sponsored Interweave, a gay and lesbian support group. As a token of thanks for their generosity, Charlie suprised Scott and Paul by decorating their house for Easter and cooking an elaborate meal. A few weeks later, he took a palce of his own on the third floor of an old roominghouse on First Street, behind the church.The building was run down, but Charlie livened his surroundings with posters and plants, and eventually, a kitten.

Church had never been a big part of Charlie’s life, but the acceptance he felt among the Unitarians was a new experience. Here he found a new place to express his own openness and sense of humor, his love for life. He started attending services regularly and soon decided to undertake the preparations required for membership. The Unitarian Church and Interweave were the only two organizations in Bangor that welcomed homosexuals.

Many of the other churches, in fact, were openly hostile. Fundamentalist preachers used their pulpits to blame gays and lesbains for many of society’s ills.

There were no gay bars in town, and the local clubs routinely kicked out couples of the same sex who tried to dance together. Most of Charlie’s friends experienced verbal harrassment, and several had been physically attacked. Incidents of gay bashing often went unreported because victims expected little support from the police.

As a newcomer in town, Charlie Howard ignored some of the unwritten rules observed by lmore long-term residents. He wore whatever he felt like, for instance, even if earrings and a shoulder bag and, occasionally eye make-up weren’t “acceptable” adornments for bangor males. He liked to call people “dearie.”

In moments of joy, mischief, or defiance, he could burst out into song (usually “I Am What I Am” from the musical La Cage Aux Folles). Refusing to camouflage himself in the crowd, Charlie drew the crowd’s attention-and its anger.

High school kids baited him with obscenities on the street. He got ejected from the West Market Disco for dancing with a man.

One day in a grocery store, a middle aged women suddenly strated shouting at him, “You pervert! You Queer!” Everyone stared. Charlie dropped his basket and walked slowly toward the door, terrified. Just before exiting, he choked back his fear, turned, and blew a kiss at the cluster of hateful faces. This confrontation seemed to mark a turning point for Charlie.

The stares of strangers began to spook him a little more after that. Sometimes he was afraid to leave his apartment. He stepped outside one morning and found his pet kitten lying dead on the the doorstep. It had been strangled.

Charlie’s friends wished they could shield him from such cruelties, but they knew he would have to come to his own terms with this perilous world. He wasn’t the only one for whom church and Interweave meetings sometimes felt like shelters in a storm.

Interweave sponsored a potluck supper on the night of Saturday, July 7th, 1984. When the party broke up around 10 o’clock, Charlie talked his friend Roy Ogden into walking downtown with him to check his post office box.

They headed up State Street. Midway across the bridge spanning Kenduskeag Stream, in the heart of Bangor, Charlie noticed a car slowing down just behind them. He thought it was one belonging to some high school boys who had harassed him a few days earlier.

When they stopped the car and got out, he knew that he was right. The three young men had just left a party to look for some more beer when they spotted Charlie.

Shawn Mabry, the driver, was a sixteen year old high school dropout who had recently been in trouble for using a nunchuk. Mabry was making a name for himself in the city hockey league. Daniel Ness, a year older than Shawn, lived with his family on the west side, the upper-class side of Bangor. His favorite subject was art.

Jim Baines, almost 16, managed to keep up his grades while playing football and basketball. He planned to go to college someday.

Two girls stayed behind in the car. One of them had a fake ID that she intended to use to buy the beer.

“Hey Fag!” one boy yelled. Then the three started running. Roy and Charlie took off, but Charlie tripped on the curb and fell hard onto the walkway. He couldn’t get his breath: the excitement was making his asthma kick in. He felt his legs jamming.

Charlie scrambled to stand, but the boys grabbed him. They threw him back down and laid into him with kicks and punches.

“Over the bridge!” shouted Jim Baines. Daniel grabbed Charlie under the arms and lifted. Jim got him by the legs. Charlie was gasping now. He snatched enough air to yell, “I can’t swim!” From the far end of the bridge, Roy heard his plea.

Jim and Daniel heaved Charlie up onto the guardrail. They had to pry his hand loose. Shawn gave the shove that sent him over. They looked down at the black water 20 feet below and congratulated themselves.

The girls in the car were grinding the ignition. They yelled for Jim and Daniel and Shawn to come on. The boys spotted Roy Ogden watching from the end of the bridge and promised him he’d be sorry if he ever told anyone. When they got back in the car, they were laughing.

Roy waited for the car to disappear. He could still hear the boys whooping and hollering. Then he ran along State Street till he found a fire alarm.

In a few minutes, fire engines and police cars were screaming toward the bridge. Through downtown Bangor, Kenduskeag Stream flows between smooth concreet walls. In the depth below the bridge that night was estimated at around ten feet. The searchlights trained into the current and along the banks revealed no sign of Charlie Howard.

Shawn, Daniel, Jim, and their two friends went back to the party. Everyone could see they had a story to tell. “We jumped a fag,” they said, “and threw him in the stream.” The other kids laughed and pumped them for details, then resumed dancing and drinking.

Around 1 a.m., rescue pulled out the body of Charlie Howard, 23, out of the Kenduskeag, a few hundred feet downstream from the bridge.

Daniel Ness turned himself in the next morning as soon as he heard the news. He couldn’t believe Charlie was dead. They never intended to kill anybody- they just meant to “show” him. Shawn Mabry and Jim Baines decided to hop a frieght train out of town, but had second thoughts when they got to the railroad tracks. They each went home, where they were arrested.

All three spent Sunday night in the Hancock County Jail. Local and state authorities agreed on Monday morning that that youths posed no further threat to the community. Shawn, Daniel, and Jim were released into their parents’ custody.

The state filed formal charges of murder the following week. The boys were later tried as juveniles rather than adults. All three were convicted and sentanced to detention at the Maine Youth Center.

On Monday night after Charlie Howard’s murder, more than 200 people crowded into a memorial service at the Unitarian Church.

Afterward, a candlelight procession crossed the bridge. Charlie’s mother had requested that someone drop a rose into the water. The marchers moved on to the police station, where they stood silently in the street.

Hecklers from the crowd of onlookers shouted obscene names.

A week later, at the spot where Charlie Howard was tossed over, someone spray painted the words “faggots jump here”…

There have been far too many deaths over far too many years- only a handful known. Goodness knows how many incidences of violence, discrimination, hate or bigotry as well- how high is up?

But maybe this can be a START.

I hope so…

***

Here’s HRC’s Fight Hate Crimes page, featuring Judy Shepard.

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