What Forgetting James Byrd Jr., the Other Half of the Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Act, Says About the Way We Approach Hate and Identity

Barack Obama delivers remarks on the enactment of the Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
Barack Obama delivers remarks on the enactment of the Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act in the East Room of the White House on Oct. 28, 2009 in Washington.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

Nine years ago, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 into law. This legislation was a watershed moment for the LGBTQ community, officially expanding federal law to make it a federal crime to assault an individual because of her actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity. The legislation commemorated the vicious 1998 murders of Byrd and Shepard—one based on race and the other on sexual orientation. But chances are you’ve only heard of the latter.

During the summer of ’98, Byrd was leaving his parents’ house and accepted a ride from three white men: Shawn Allen Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer, and John William King. He never made it home. Instead, these three white supremacists drove 49-year-old Byrd to a deserted area and repeatedly beat him. They then wrapped Byrd around his ankles and dragged him down an asphalt road for over 3 miles. By all accounts, Byrd managed to stay conscious while being dragged until his head and right arm were severed by a culvert. Byrd’s headless torso was dumped off alongside a road in Jasper, Texas.

The murders of Byrd and Shepard rightfully brought national and international attention to the lack of hate crime legislation at local, state, and federal levels. Civil rights organizations and community responses helped create a necessary call to action about the marginalization and violence against LGBTQ people or black people. But that call rarely, if ever, considered the intersectional nature of identity, the fact that some of us are black and queer. And that oversight has profound consequences for people like me.

Twenty years out from these murders, as society continuously centers the horrid death of a white gay man and rarely offers anything about Byrd, a black man killed by white supremacists, I’m forced me to wonder, “If I am killed, what part of me (if any) will be centered?”

Contrary to mainstream depictions of black LGBTQ people (if we’re ever depicted at all), our identities are not distinct. Our full lives have value and must always be celebrated. We don’t have to strip ourselves of our black identities or our queer identities to be remembered. Yet society attempts to reduce us to one or the other in how we live and in how we die.

At many points in my life, I can count the number of times a person has asked me if I was more discriminated against because of my being black or queer. I always hesitate to answer because I don’t have a running tally of how many times someone has overtly or covertly referred to me as a “nigger” or “faggot.” What I do know, however, is those questions attempt to limit my body and how society views me—a black queer man who has experienced double discrimination, and whom society always attacks because of both. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, of the total number of homicides against LGBTQ people in 2017, 60 percent were black while 23 percent of victims were white. Considering multiple identities such as race, sexual orientation, and gender identity, it should come as no surprise that black LGBTQ people experience higher rates of violence than their white counterparts.

The murders of Byrd and Shepard are what happen in a country with pervasive anti-blackness and homophobia. While it’s true that neither death should have occurred, we only forget one—Byrd becomes invisible in present conversations around hate crimes or violent acts against black people in the face of a white death (LGBTQ or not). This is true despite rates of violence holding steady for black LGBTQ people, in particular black transgender women. Additionally, according to a recent study by the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University–San Bernardino, hate crimes in the nation’s 10 largest cities increased by 12 percent last year, reaching the highest level in more than a decade.

The study highlights much of what we know: Identity-based violence is a major problem in this country. But like the Shepard-Byrd Act, the study doesn’t consider how a person experiences violence based on intersectional identities. In its methodology, it instead forces a choice between why an individual may have been harmed by assuming a person can only experience a hate crime based on race or sexuality, not both.

Despite legal protections offered through the Shepard-Byrd Act, hate crimes are nearly impossible to prosecute and LGBTQ people—particularly black transgender women and black gender-nonconforming gay men—are victimized, persecuted, and murdered at alarming rates.

Giovanni Melton, 14, was murdered by his father last year for being gay. “I’d rather have a dead son than a gay son” were reportedly the parting words offered by Melton’s father. Melton lived at the intersection of blackness and queerness, and his young body paid the ultimate price. And black gay boys aren’t the only ones experiencing violence either. Vontashia Bell, 18, was found on the street early one morning in August and pronounced dead at a local hospital. Many organizations, including Louisiana Trans Advocates, have called her death a hate crime. These are only a few examples of disturbing national trends.

The U.S. Department of Justice recently announced a new hate crimes website that is designed to be a central resource for victims, law enforcement officials, advocacy groups, and others. That’s a valuable move considering what has occurred in the past several weeks—the Kroger shooting, bombs being mailed to progressive leaders, Morgan Kendall (the white law student at North Carolina Central University School of Law, an HBCU, saying “Niggers” and “Wish I could take credit” for bombs being mailed), and the deadly shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh—but more has to be done to stem the tide of crimes perpetrated against black LGBTQ people specifically.

Many of us have more than enough lived experience to see how violently we’re treated while living. Though the passage of the Shepard-Byrd Act was indeed monumental for some of the LGBTQ community, it hasn’t been a saving grace for us all. The Shepard-Byrd Act brought more attention to violence against LGBTQ individuals and created federal protections for the transgender community. But, in a country hellbent on emboldening white supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny, black queer bodies like mine remain unsafe.