My freshman year of college was not the most academically glittering time of my life (a 1.17 GPA would attest to that), but one of the few assignments I did turn in touched me personally. For a freshman English comp class, I chose to do my research paper on hate crimes against LGBT people. I spent hours in the library, nauseated by the dizzying whirl of microfiche, as I culled articles and FBI reports about the prevalence of violent crimes against my sisters and brothers.
Even then, numbers were hazy, but one thing became crystal clear – the violence itself was notably grim. Many of the hate crimes exhibited signs of “overkill,” an almost redundant use of force, seemingly caused by the depth of hatred for the victims. Late at night, in the library’s dark basement, I read of people beaten to death with a hammer; shot and then stabbed; thrown through a plate glass window; even slashed to ribbons with broken bottles.
The statistics haven’t abated in the past 20 years. In fact, they’ve risen, partially due to a better reporting system, but that system is still seriously flawed, especially when it comes to towns outside the reach of major metropolitan areas. According to recent F.B.I. numbers, LGBT people are more likely to be a victim of a hate crime than any other minority group in the country.
Orlando was not an anomaly. It was striking for its scope, but it’s nothing new, and in the midst of all the sympathetic handwringing by politicos and community leaders, the names of thousands victimized by anti-queer bias have gone unspoken. There are no candlelit vigils or worldwide outpourings of grief for the relentless grind of beatings, disfigurings and murders that take place against queer people every day.
After the Pulse massacre, LGBTQ organizations sat up from their marriage beds and decided that gun control should be our next cause celebre, but we can’t lobby our legislators now (and late, I might add) and think that a Congress who didn’t vote for gun restrictions after the slaughter of over 20 children at an elementary school are going to protect a group of people that many can’t even name in their pallid prayers.
If we are to be protected from violence and other forms of discrimination, we must come up with something new and radical.
Enter the Check It.
Washington, D.C., a town that, compared to rural backwaters, seems to have its queer (or, more accurately, its white gay male affluent) self together, boasts one of the highest rates of anti-LGBTQ violence in the nation. In response, a group of African-American teens from the Trinidad neighborhood formed a queer gang somewhere around 2010. These kids suffered terrible violence and disenfranchisement for being gay and/or trans. They’d been stabbed, shot and beaten senseless by peers or people in the neighborhood. They were kicked out of their homes by drug-addled relatives and suspended from schools for striking out against homophobes.
So they decided to fight back with the Check It, a gang that served, as so many gangs have done over the course of history, as a protective family unit forged in the fires of debilitating poverty, violence and degradation. However, in an inimitably queer sense where radicalism so often dovetails with art, the group developed an entire fashion aesthetic for their gang identity. They stomped down the street, purse first, wearing clothes one could only describe as fabulous, and summer fashion camps became a regular seasonal happening for group members. Their sartorial past times eventually developed into Check It Enterprises, which hopes to shift the focus away from rap sheets to fabric swatches. (Click here to visit the group’s website where you can support their endeavors by buying a t-shirt.)
In a documentary about the gang that played the Tribeca Film Festival in April and also made an appearance at the AFI SilverDocs festival this past weekend in Washington, one of the gang’s members says, “No one was gonna stand up for us. We stood up for ourselves.”
It’s very popular in current politics and so-called activism in the LGBT community to pray at the altars of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi, rightfully holding them up as paragons of social change against crushing forces of bigotry. We look down on those who would resort to violence and try to convince them that living by the sword means they’ll most certainly die by it.
Yet LGBTQ Americans (and their allies) can not call for peaceful responses to homo- and transphobic discrimination without a willingness to be as radical as those great leaders of civil disobedience. Lobbying and fundraising dinners aren’t going to cut it. Neither are the tired protest chants grown toothless since they were first heard in the streets. (“Hey! Hey! Ho! Ho! blahblahblahblah’s Got to Go!”) We can’t just tear a faded page from the civil rights, suffragette or anti-war playbooks. The actions from those eras are now nothing but tropes that nobody listens to anymore, and the danger of reviving them is that the opposition knows how to deftly (if disingenuously) counter them (all due respect to John Lewis).
Why did the Check It manage to grab the attention of filmmakers, media and even New York Fashion Week? Because they did something unheard of.
It’s time we all check ourselves, stop singing “We Shall Overcome” and write a new song, one that can be heard by a world gone deaf to spirituals.
A sidebar: Some regular readers may have noticed the Scourge has gone off its founding ideas of reporting on religious foolishness in the world. The blog is expanding its scope. The idea of heretics definitely remains the same, but being heretical is not just limited to a religious context. A heretic is someone who goes against the grain, who stands up for justice and clear thought in the face of people and institutions who demonize us for being different. Each week’s posting will relate to something in the news where the perspective of a heretic would do us all some good.