Divinity school professor prompted by threats to begin project chronicling hate crimes against LGBTs
FORT WORTH — For Stephen Sprinkle, it was the threat of a hate crime that got him interested in the subject.
One night in the late 1990s, Sprinkle went to a City Council meeting to speak in favor of a controversial effort to add sexual orientation to Fort Worth’s anti-discrimination ordinances.
When he returned home, Sprinkle found an ominous message on his answering machine.
"We know you walk to work," the caller said on the machine. "One day you’re not going to make it back. You’re the faggotiest faggot I’ve ever seen in my life. You make me want to vomit."
Sprinkle contacted police, and he stopped walking to work.
Although the caller never made good on the threat, the incident made a lasting impression on Sprinkle.
"It got very real to me very fast," he said.
A short time later, Sprinkle saw a documentary film about anti-gay murders across the country, including one in Dallas.
Sprinkle, an associate professor at Texas Christian University’s Brite Divinity School, began trying to research the story of Thanh Nguyen, a 29-year-old Vietnamese immigrant who was shot to death in Reverchon Park in 1991.
But Sprinkle soon found that there was little information available.
"It’s almost as if the Earth has swallowed up that guy," he said of Nguyen. "It’s almost as if any trace of him has just vanished. Something strikes me as fundamentally wrong about that, because I believe the way that civilizations treat the dead has a great deal to say about how they act, responsibly or irresponsibly, toward the living."
Sprinkle wondered whether there were other gay murder victims like Nguyen who’d been largely forgotten, and he quickly discovered that it was par for the course.
That’s when Sprinkle, who became the first openly gay member of the faculty at Brite Divinity School in 1994, set out to tell their stories.
Since then, with the help of a grant from the school, Sprinkle has traveled to California, Wyoming and Colorado to visit towns where gay murder victims lived.
He’s currently seeking funding for more trips — to the Midwest, Southeast and Northeast — so he can finish the book he plans to publish chronicling the stories of about a dozen LGBT murder victims.
Sprinkle said he’s unsure how to stop anti-gay violence, which has jumped in the last few years, but he argued that projects like his are a good place to start.
"My job is to give life to the stories of these unfinished lives," Sprinkle said. "Until we have that, we have nothing else to build on. … I don’t have a big, overarching strategy, but I do believe in the power of these stories."
When Sprinkle spoke recently at a service in Dallas for Lawrence King — the 15-year-old who was shot to death for being gay by a classmate in California last month — he referred to what he calls "a slow, rolling holocaust" of anti-gay murders.
According to Sprinkle, the average American doesn’t think there’s been such a murder since the case of Matthew Shepard, the University of Wyoming student who was pistol-whipped and tied to a split-rail fence in 1998.
In fact, though, there have been three anti-gay murders involving teenage victims, including King’s, in 2008 alone.
Anti-gay hate crimes are notoriously underreported to law enforcement. And the FBI, which compiles national statistics, isn’t required to track crimes against transgender people. Even so, the latest statistics available from the FBI show an 18 percent increase in anti-gay hate crimes from 2005 to 2006.
"I can tell you anecdotally that the 2007 statistics are going to be higher," Sprinkle said. "We’re seeing a significant uptick in violent crimes against gay and lesbian people."
But Sprinkle said there is a tendency in the mainstream media, among residents in the locales where they occur, and even in the LGBT community to ignore anti-gay murders.
"Those characteristics that have kept us marginalized in life rob us of our identity in death," he said, adding that this is especially true for minority and transgender victims. "We were required to be silent in life. Therefore, the memories of our deaths are swept away fairly quickly."
Sprinkle said anti-gay hate crimes tend to be particularly violent and frequently occur in clusters. Waves of anti-gay violence in an area, such as the one in South Florida recently, have the effect of terrorizing entire gay populations, he said.
When anti-gay murders are reported in the media, Sprinkle said, victims are frequently portrayed as having engaged in risky behavior.
"These incidents didn’t occur to people because they went out looking for them; they were in the wrong place at the wrong time," he said. "It’s just another way of reducing us to second-class status. Singling out gay and lesbian people as somehow asking for the trouble they find is terribly biased."
Sprinkle said he believes the LGBT community often chooses not to think about the crimes because they serve as an unwanted reminder that gays and lesbians are more at risk of becoming the victims of violence.
Also, he said, the community is relatively young and lacks a sense of identity, or a center from which it can focus attention on the issue.
But Sprinkle said that 10 years after Shepard’s death, he hopes King’s case will serve as an exception.
More than 100 services have been held across the country for King, including the one at the Cathedral of Hope last week that attracted about 200 people.
King’s was the latest in a series of murders involving non-gender conforming youth who boldly assert themselves without realizing they’re putting themselves in great danger, Sprinkle said. King was "a throwaway kid" from the foster care system who was killed by a troubled, macho 14-year-old classmate who feared the loss of his masculinity after King hit on him.
"I think it has legs," Sprinkle said. "I think there’s something that’s particularly heinous and heartrending about this story. It’s a uniquely American homophobic tragedy."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 21, 2008