Vigils bring people together

In Philadelphia to attend a science-fiction convention, I received an email telling me that a young gay teen, Jorge Lopez Mercado had been dismembered, partially burned and decapitated in Puerto Rico.

It was also only three weeks after American President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard Act, the new Hate Crimes Legislation. The man charged with the slaying admitted he “panicked”, saying, “I thought he was a woman.”

The email said there would be a vigil in New York and in Philadelphia that Friday night. And there I was, in Philadelphia.

It was only a week after GLBT people in Whitehorse had found a great place to gather and talk to each other.

I was reminded of how unsafe it is in other places. I decided to go.

That day I had been touring the Liberty Bell, the Constitution Center and Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed, where freedoms were debated. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

It isn’t always that easy, is it?

In the Visitors Center, there was a display called “Seizing Freedom” that was about the Underground Railroad and those who had to take freedom for themselves, because, as it is implied in the display, freedom was not given to them by the lofty words of the Declaration.

“The exhibit reminds us that Independence Hall was not only where the Declaration of Independence was signed, but also the location of fugitive slave trials to free or deny liberty to African Americans.”

At the Constitution Center, I watched a speech by Lyndon B. Johnson, the sudden president after the assassination of Kennedy, on his signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, where he talked about this generation’s call to an “unending search for justice within our own borders”.

I left there and walked alone that night to the Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany where the vigil would be held.

Two large blocks of rainbow cloth stood in front of the altar. Mercado’s picture rested on a metal easel. Forty or so people gathered.

Black, white, disabled, gay, straight, couples, singles, transgendered – the community of Philadelphia came.

The Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus sang in unison, “Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome.”

Cynthia Vasquez, a young Puerto Rican activist (from Gay and Lesbian Latino AIDS Education Initiative) gave alarming statistics: there were 29 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) hate-crime murders in the United States in 2008. “Our youth are still being murdered and isolated for simply being who they are.

“It’s tragic that this man’s life has to be taken away before people realize that they have failed in their promise to protect our youth.”

Malcolm Lazin, president of Equality Forum, called for the crime to be investigated. “The decapitation and dismemberment of Jorge Lopez Mercado reminds America that we need to eliminate homophobia in our schools, communities and culture.”

He cited 16,000 hate crimes since Matthew Shepard.

He gave an interesting sermon about the Children of Israel standing at the edge of the Red Sea trying to get away from the Egyptians, who were chasing them. The Red Sea didn’t part in front of them – not right away. They had to walk in first, up to their waists, their chests, their chins, even up to their mouths, before the sea parted. They had to be fully committed.

“Unless you are fully committed to social change, it will never happen. To defeat evil, you need full commitment.”

He started listing dates and talking about pioneering LGBT activists: Barbara Giddings, here in Philadelphia; about Harvey Milk, assassinated in 1978; about Matthew Shepard. He said that Stonewall activists stood on the shoulders of Giddings, and Milk on the shoulders of Stonewall activists, and Matthew on the shoulders of Milk, and Jorge Lopez Mercado stood on the shoulders of Matthew Shepard.

“Would you stand on the shoulders of Jorge Lopez Mercado?” he asked. Each person that stands is taller because of the work of the last person to stand.

Then the Gay Men’s Chorus came and sang “Amazing Grace” while the eyes of Mercado looked on from the photograph. Everyone joined in. It’s a song we all know. It talks about offering nothing to God and yet being saved by Him; about being at your weakest and crying out to be helped; about being blind, but seeing for the first time.

I looked around me and I knew this was another reason to gather together. For strength, for comfort in difficult times. We sang together. We vowed to stand on someone’s shoulders.

But we didn’t get out of the church before someone said that another gay teen, Jason Mattison, Jr., this time in Baltimore, had been raped, gagged, stabbed and stuffed in his aunt’s closet by a family friend and former convict.

We stood on the steps of the church looking out over Philadelphia, “City of Brotherly Love”, home of the birth of freedom … It had gotten colder.

These aren’t feelings and things that happen only in the States. Whitehorse is not immune to the threat of homophobia. Though laws may give us marriage rights, misinformation and prejudice, inside, people take a long time to overcome.

In his prayer, Malcolm Lazin said something I’m sure God already knew, sure that we already knew: “Homophobia is a social disease. Help those who have it to ask for forgiveness, redemption and expiation.”

He was hoping God would meet up with them before we did.

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