More than 30 years ago, I was followed by a store detective and falsely accused of shoplifting. Visually impaired and spending the day in Atlantic City, N.J., I’d picked up a T-shirt in a gift shop to see what was on it. Though scared and angry, I was lucky. After what seemed to be a never-ending minute, the security guard saw my white cane, realized that I wasn’t trying to steal anything and apologized for wrongly detaining me. I’ve thought a great deal about this encounter in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin. What, I wonder, would have happened to me more than three decades ago in the Jersey shore if I’d been black and blind?
During World War II, the Firestone and Goodyear tire companies in Akron, Ohio were converted to defense plants. Deaf people came from across the country to inspect the planes that the plants produced. Deaf teens socialized there, using American Sign Language. The police, knowing nothing about signing, thought the young men were loitering and made them leave the streets. The misunderstanding was cleared up and a club for deaf youth was created. But, thinking of Trayvon Martin, I can’t help but wonder: what would their fate have been if these deaf youth had been men of color?
Historically, gay men and lesbians doing nothing more than taking a walk could be arrested for just looking too effeminate or butch. Today, LGBT youth still are unjustly treated by people in law enforcement. As the Rev. Meredith Moise told the Blade, “Trayvon could have been any gay or lesbian kid of color.”
I don’t want to engage in a false equivalency. The experiences of myself, the deaf youth in mid-century Ohio or of queer youth today, though, based on prejudice, were and aren’t the same as the unjust killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager of color. Neither disability based prejudice (ableism) nor homophobia is the equivalent of racism.
Since Barack Obama has been president, too many of us, particularly among we who think of ourselves as progressive, have come to think that we’re living in a post-racial time. But the February 2012 shooting of Martin and the recent acquittal of Zimmerman, the man who shot him, of second-degree murder and manslaughter, is an up close and personal reminder that racism is all too alive and well. It may be hard to legally prove that racism was a factor in the case. Yet, like many I know, I can’t help but think that the verdict would have been different if Trayvon Martin had been white or Zimmerman black.
The reaction to the outcome of the trial has differed between white and black Americans, according to recent polls. Eighty-six percent of African Americans disagreed with the verdict, while 51 percent of whites agreed with the verdict, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Even though we who are LGBT know the hateful impact of prejudice, racism exists in our community. How many of us, myself included, initially, as a knee-jerk reaction, wrongly, blamed Prop 8 on homophobia in the African-American community? How frequently have we tried to listen to the concerns of LGBT youth of color? I know, in my case, not often enough.
As a journalist, sadly, I can tell you, like other new stories, the story of Zimmerman’s acquittal for taking Trayvon Martin’s life, will begin to fade away. Unfortunately, racism in the larger society and in the LGBT community will live on. Unless we do as much as we can to try to eradicate it.
Racism is the elephant in the room that no one likes to talk about, and it would be naive to think that a conversation alone could solve this problem. Yet our only hope is that we begin to have this conversation.
Kathi Wolfe is a writer and a poet. She is a regular contributor to the Blade.