About 300 turned out Thursday night for a vigil protesting anti-LGBT violence. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
Several high-level aides to Mayor Muriel Bowser and at least one member of the City Council joined close to 300 people Thursday night at Stead Park near Dupont Circle for a candlelight vigil in support of two gay men attacked and beaten last Sunday in what police have listed as a hate crime.
Several speakers at the vigil, including lead organizer Jerry Blackmon, who heads an LGBT supportive kickball league, said they were prompted to take action after seeing a video of the attack taken by a bystander with a cell phone who posted it on Twitter. The graphic video shows one of the victims being knocked unconscious and the other punched and kicked in the head.
D.C. police have released parts of the video on YouTube with an appeal to the public for help in identifying three male suspects shown on the video assaulting the two men. Police said witnesses heard one or more of the attackers yell anti-gay slurs during the incident.
Police said the attack took place about 12:30 a.m. Sunday, April 15, at the corner of Vermont Avenue and U Street, N.W. in the heart of the U Street entertainment district where four gay bars are located.
“When I heard this happened to members of my kickball family I was livid and realized it is time to take a stand,” Blackmon told the gathering. “This event will be the first of a series asking what do we do now,” he said, adding that he and others who know the two victims have heard of other anti-LGBT assaults that have taken place in and around the U Street area in recent weeks.
Jay Penuel, a D.C. sign language interpreter who is friends with the two victims, said both are also sign language interpreters. He said that as a sign of solidarity and support for the two men, about 20 other sign language interpreters turned out for the vigil.
Friends of the two men have identified them in social media as Michael Creason, who spoke at the vigil, and Zach Link. Both are D.C. residents.
“Zach and Michael are unapologetically themselves and they were attacked for it as many of us could have so easily,” Penuel said. “How many of you saw the video that was released?” Penuel continued. “I saw the whole thing and it was extremely difficult to watch because what I saw was someone that my husband and I consider our child attacked and drove into the street face down, unconscious, disregarded.”
Penuel said that while Creason’s parents, who live in Texas, have been highly supportive of their son following the attack, he and his husband have acted as surrogate parents to Creason.
LGBT rights advocate Ashley Smith, who serves as president of the board of the Capital Pride Alliance, which organizes D.C.’s annual Pride parade and festival, called on city residents, both LGBT and straight, to unite in support of stepped up efforts to curtail hatred that he said prompted the attackers to target Creason and Link.
“Hatred has brought us down in far too many ways,” he said. “This is our time to say enough is enough. It’s our time to love one another.”
Like others who spoke at the vigil, Smith said he was troubled that the person who took the video didn’t step forward to try to stop the attack.
“Someone took the time out to take those photos and those pictures and run a video of our friends, and many of you know them, but didn’t take the time to say stop, let’s go and help them,” he said.
D.C. Police Lt. Brett Parson, who oversees the department’s LGBT Liaison Unit, told the gathering that Police Chief Peter Newsham and the entire police force were dedicated to thoroughly investigating hate crimes targeting all communities.
“I cannot stand here and promise you this is the last time something like this will happen,” Parson said. “But what I can say to you from our Chief of Police on down to our nearly 3,800 police officers, our partners, federal and local, we will not rest until crimes like this stop.”
Added Parson: “We’ve been working since this came in very hard to identify the individuals who were responsible for this. But we need your help. Somebody out there knows more. Someone out there saw something or spoke to someone who saw something…So we ask you…please let us know who we need to speak to so we can bring these individuals to justice.”
Creason, who was the last to speak at the vigil, received loud applause and cheers. He thanked the organizers of the event for what he said was an outpouring of support for him and Link from the community.
“This is not just for us,” he said. “This is for all of us because this is far too frequent and far too unreported,” he said of anti-LGBT violence in the city. “So thank you for the support and thank you for coming out tonight.”
Others who spoke at the vigil were Ben de Guzman, deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs; Rev. Stephen Scott; Freddie Ball, one of the kickball league officials who helped organize the vigil; and transgender rights advocate Ruby Corado, who serves as executive director of the LGBT community services center Casa Ruby.
“To the survivors, Michael and Zack, you will get through this,” Corado said. “You will join many of us that are survivors of hate crime in this city,” she said. “Time will help you heal, but also knowing that you are not alone and we are here for you.”
Corado noted that D.C.’s extensive laws protecting LGBT people make it one of the nation’s most LGBT supportive cities based on its laws. But she said that despite these laws LGBT people continue to face hostility, fear, and violence because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
“It is time to change hearts and minds,” she said. “It’s time to talk to our neighbors.
Among the city officials who attended the vigil were Monica Palacios, director of the D.C. Office of Human Rights; and D.C. Council member Anita Bonds (D-At-Large).
Michael Creason speaks at the vigil at Stead Park on April 19. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)