Op-ed: Violence Against Lesbians on the Rise, but Prosecutions Aren’t
The recent wave of marriage equality laws across the U.S. as well as support for several high-profile celebrities like actress Ellen Page, NBA player Jason Collins and NFL prospect Michael Sam coming out may have lulled many into thinking homophobia and hate crimes are over.
Lesbians are at risk. Violence against lesbians and bisexual women is on the rise. According to several studies, including one conducted by the Centers for Disease Control(CDC) and another by the EU, lesbians and bisexual women report a higher incidence of violence than heterosexual women. And considering the breadth of violence against women overall–one in three will be a victim in her lifetime–those statistics are alarming.
Yet although report after news item after academic study affirms that an insidious pandemic of violence against lesbians has been sweeping the globe, mainstream media has met that violence with a dismissive and deafening silence. The range of violence lesbians experience is as broad as it is horrifying. Corrective rape and murder in South Africa. State-sponsored femicide in Uganda and Nigeria. Sexual assault in the military in the U.S. and on college campuses. Sexual assault while in immigration holding centers worldwide–including in the U.S. and U.K. Honor killings throughout the Middle East. Hate crimes in the U.S.–harassment, stalking, assaults, gang rapes, even murder.
Today is the 50th anniversary of the murder of Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old lesbian bartender from Queens, New York. Genovese is one of America’s most famous murder victims because 37 of her neighbors allegedly listened to her screams for help as she was being raped and stabbed to death by Winston Moseley and did nothing.
Her murder was deemed emblematic of urban apathy and the New York Times headlined the story with, "37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call Police."
Less well-known than her actual killing is the fact Genovese was a lesbian and that her partner, Mary Ann Zielonko, lay sleeping and unaware as Genovese was murdered several stories below.
Genovese’s lesbianism was not mentioned in the newspapers, nor was her relationship with Zielonko. Like many young lesbians, the women had moved away from their families to get away from anti-gay attitudes. But several lesbian academics have posited that it was knowing Genovese was a lesbian that kept her neighbors from responding to her assault.
In the intervening five decades since Genovese’s killing, attitudes have slowly shifted with regard to lesbianism, but not entirely. A June 2013 Gallup poll found 60 percent of Americans saying homosexuality should be accepted. That number was up from 49 percent in 2007. But that still leaves nearly half of Americans not accepting of homosexuality.
One of them is James Cosby.
Cosby, 46, was arrested March 13 in connection with the grisly murders of a Galveston lesbian couple, Britney Cosby 24, and Crystal Jackson, 24. Britney is James Cosby’s daughter.
The two young African-American women lived with James Cosby, his 90-year-old grandmother and Jackson’s 5-year-old daughter and had been together for two years.
According to Britney’s mother, Loranda Remer, James Cosby was upset by his daughter’s lesbianism. Remer told reporters that Cosby would "throw it in her face" and told Britney repeatedly "Don’t throw that gay shit around in this house."
The murder was allegedly committed in that house, in the women’s bedroom. Jackson was shot once in the head, then Britney Cosby was bludgeoned to death, sustaining head wounds and a broken neck, according to autopsy reports.
The bodies of both women were found the morning of March 7 behind a dumpster, behind an isolated convenience store in Port Bolivar, Texas off Highway 87. The dumpster lies below the staircase of an abandoned and boarded up motel. A long, wide swathe of a bloodstain was still clearly visible after the women’s bodies were removed.
On March 12, Crosby spoke at a Houston vigil about his daughter, saying he would miss her smile and bubbly demeanor. On March 13 he was arrested after video surveillance footage showed he’d been near the bodies but had not called police.
A search of the house was described by police sources as "a bloodbath."
Hate crimes are well-known for their "overkill" of victims. Matthew Shephard’s murder is an extreme example. But so is Britney Cosby’s beating death. How much hate does it take to beat your own daughter to death?
The rise in such violent crimes against lesbians has barely been reported in the LGBT media, let alone the mainstream press. Just as Genovese’s lesbianism was never mentioned in reports of her murder, the majority of news reports on the Cosby/Jackson murders described the women as "friends" or "acquaintances."
A recent spate of deportations of lesbians in the U.K. has been accompanied by questions about how lesbians "prove" their lesbianism to officials when seeking asylum from nations like Uganda or Nigeria where being a lesbian is illegal and being openly lesbian will result in life-sentence.
On International Women’s Day 2013, Jackie Nanyonjo died in Entebbe, Uganda from injuries she sustained at the hands of Ugandan authorities after she was forcibly deported from the UK on Jan. 12, 2013.
Nanyonjo was a lesbian activist. It is illegal to be a lesbian or gay man in Uganda. Nanyonjo sought asylum in the UK, but the Home Office’s UK Border Agency insists on lesbians and gay men "proving" their sexual orientation via sworn statements from their home country.
Where just talking about being lesbian or gay can get you killed.
On February 24, Ugandan President Yoweri Musevini signed one of the world’s most repressive laws against lesbians and gay men. The Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014 was passed in Parliament on Dec. 20, 2013. It was originally called the "Kill the Gays" law because it made homosexuality punishable by death. The law was amended to life in prison.
Musevini had waited to sign the bill while a study was conducted to see if homosexuality was innate. "No study has shown you can be homosexual by nature. That’s why I have agreed to sign the bill," Museveni said in a speech at his Kampala palace.
In addition to sentencing "offenders" to prison for life, the bill also prohibits any and all
"promotion" of homosexuality. In addition the legislation includes extradition to Uganda for lesbians and gay men who leave the country to engage in "homosexual acts." The law also includes penalties for individuals, businesses, media or NGOs that support lesbians and gay men in any way.
Because of the penalties imposed on people who support anyone lesbian or gay, people are being encouraged to turn in people they know who are lesbians or gay men. Anyone who knows someone is lesbian or gay must turn them in within 24 hours or be subject to both a fine and a three-year-prison sentence.
The new law has ratcheted up already-existing hatred toward and discrimination against lesbians and gay men. Nanyonjo’s killing pre-dates the current law, but the law was first proposed in 2009 when Ugandan politicians agreed that the "worldwide homosexual agenda" as the bill’s sponsor, David Bahrati terms it, was damaging the Ugandan family structure.
Nanyonjo is just one of many victims: her lesbian activism outside Uganda made her a target, as did her open lesbian relationship. Under the current law she wouldn’t have had to be deported–she could have been extradited.
Corrective or curative rape is another layer of this violence against lesbians. On June 30, 2013 the dead and partially naked body of Duduzile Zozo, 26, an out lesbian, was found by her mother, not 40 feet from her home. A toilet brush had been shoved into her vagina, rupturing it. Zozo’s murder was the first corrective rape/murder to be labeled a hate crime.
Corrective rape of lesbians is practiced in several nations, including Thailand, Ecuador, Jamaica and Zimbabwe, but nowhere is it as prevalent as in South Africa where the term originated.
According to the World Health Organization, South Africa leads the world in rapes. It is also the capital of "HIV cure" rapes–rapes of toddlers and babies as an alleged cure for HIV, which is pandemic in South Africa. South African officials assert that there are at least 10 "corrective" rapes each week in the Cape Town area alone.
Corrective rape is supposed to cure or "correct" the sexual orientation of lesbians–to turn them heterosexual and make them stop "acting" lesbian and start acting "straight"–behaving more like the gender stereotype for women. Like honor killings, corrective rape is frequently perpetrated or supervised by members of the lesbian’s family.
Corrective rape is extremely violent, often including stabbing, mutilation, beating and stoning. It is usually perpetrated by more than one man. It is a leading cause of HIV infection among lesbians. Corrective rape is so brutal and causes such physical and emotional trauma, it leaves the victim scarred for life–or dead.
South Africa’s most infamous case of corrective rape/murder was that of Eudy Simelane, a lesbian rights advocate and former captain of the national women’s soccer team who was training to be the first female World Cup referee for 2010 when she was murdered.
On April 28, 2008, Simelane was left facedown and naked in a drainage ditch in a stream in a park near Johannesburg. Simelane had been beaten savagely. She had been stabbed 25 times, including on the upper inside of her thighs and the soles of her feet. She had also been raped.
Simelane’s killers were brought to trial, but only two of the five men initially charged were convicted. No mention of a hate-crime was made at the trial. Judge Ratha Mokgoathleng did not want to use the word lesbian at all, asking the prosecutor, "Is there another word that you can use instead of that one?"
Simelane’s was the first corrective rape to result in a conviction, but at their sentencing, her killers actually laughed in the courtroom.
Jennifer Hopper was able to get a semblance of justice when the man who raped and murdered her partner, Teresa Butz, and raped and nearly killed her in 2008, was sentenced to life in prison on August 12, 2011.
Mary Kristene Chapa, 18, was not so lucky. She and her partner, Molly Olgin, 19, were shot in the head on June 25, 2012 outside a Portland, Texas park. Olgin died at the scene, Chapa survived. No one was every arrested in the case, which remains open.
On Dec. 18, 2013, the ringleader in the kidnap and gang rape of a Richmond, CA lesbian by four men was finally convicted almost five years to the day of the assault. The case was deemed a hate crime because the men called the woman homophobic slurs throughout the attack.
The list of violent crimes against lesbians is long and gruesome. The number of cases where justice has been served for the victims is regrettably short.
The double and sometimes triple oppression of victims plays an obvious role. Women are less likely to get justice in the courts for crimes against them. Factor in sexual orientation and sometimes race or ethnicity and the criminal justice system turns its back on victims with less cachet than a man.
Yet if violence against lesbians continues to rise–FBI stats show hate crimes against lesbians at an all-time high–what can be done to stop the violence?
The FBI asserts that reporting hate crimes is essential. But so is prosecuting hate crimes as hate crimes. The federal statute–the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act has been on the books since 2009, but how often is it applied?
James Cosby is under arrest, held on $500,000 bail. Britney Cosby and Crystal Jackson will likely get justice. But hundreds of other lesbian victims will not. And until justice bends in our direction, clearly none of us will be safe.
Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and a contributing editor for Curve magazine, Curve digital and Lambda Literary Review. She is the author and editor of nearly 30 books including Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Restricted Access: Lesbians on Disability. Her collection, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for Cultural/Historical Fiction. Her Y/A novel, Cutting will be published in fall 2014. @VABVOX