NO SAFE SPACE
For LGBT individuals, hate can lurk anywhere.
While strangers in voting booths enact “bathroom bills” and family members at home preach “hate the sin, not the sinner,” many in this community have no respite from hate, no safe space to retreat.
Georgia is one of five states that have failed to enact a law that would differentiate between those crimes committed due to hatred or bias toward a group (such as LGBT) and those with other motives.
The issue divides. For some, like Shelley Rose, Interim Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League, it’s important to enact hate crime laws because hate-motivated crimes affect not only the victim, but the entire community to which the victim belongs. To others, like Lawrenceville defense attorney Christine Koehler, hate crime laws are unfair because they value some victims over others. To many survivors, hate crime legislation is vital in that it can help them move forward in a world where they have been violated simply because of who they are.
This year in Georgia, it is known that people have been violently attacked in their homes, in friends’ homes and in public places, allegedly because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. What is not known is how many people have endured these injustices.
Because Georgia does not currently have a hate crime law in place, data collection on crimes against LGBT victims here is limited, but many have chosen to come forward publicly with their stories.
By Jennifer Jacob Brown, October 11, 2016
On February 12, 2016, Marquez Tolbert and Anthony Gooden were snoozing in Gooden’s mother’s home when they were awoken by searing pain.
Gooden’s mother’s boyfriend, Martin Blackwell, had poured a pot of scalding water on them because he didn’t like that they were gay.
The two men, who were a couple at the time, ran outside for help, but it was hard to find.
“All I can remember is screaming, and I can’t think straight because I’m trying to figure out why I’m in so much pain and why I’m so wet,” said Tolbert. “We went to the neighbor’s house and asked for help, but the first house we went to, she turned us away. She didn’t want anything to do with it.”
A friend helped them to the hospital, where both were admitted with third degree burns. Gooden’s face took most of the damage, and his injuries were so severe that doctors placed him in a medically-induced coma. Tolbert underwent extensive surgery to apply skin grafts from his legs onto his back. The surgery and the healing process, 21-year-old Tolbert said, were the most painful experiences of his life.
“Your nerve endings are completely exposed because your skin is burned off,” Tolbert said. “Every morning they would change (the dressing), and those mornings… those 30, 45 minute or so would be so painful that I would scream every single morning.”
His skin was so tender that a simple bump to the leg felt like “somebody ripping my skin off with their bare hands.”
“You would be so tired. The pain (was) so severe; it wouldn’t let you sleep. But you would be so tired and it hurt so much, you’re just sitting in a daze because you can’t do anything about it. You’re just sitting in pain,” he said.
Tolbert has recovered enough to go about his daily life physically, albeit wearing tight compression bandages and not being allowed into direct sunlight.
But healing was not required solely for his skin.
“That whole helpless feeling was very hard. I think it was harder for my family to go through because they couldn’t do nothing but sit and watch. They couldn’t do nothing but sit there,” he said, discussing the deep depression that accompanied his injuries.
Tolbert and his family struggled to afford his medicines and medical supplies because the injuries put him out of work.
“I (couldn’t) work anymore. I (couldn’t) help in any way. I just (had) to sit there in pain the whole time. That was a very difficult thing to get through,” he said.
Tolbert said he contemplated suicide during his hospital stay just to escape the physical pain. It was a decision not to allow Blackwell’s actions to break him, he said, that kept him going long enough to get home. Once there, he found other, more positive, ways to hold on.
“It was the darkest situation I ever had to go through, and situations like that typically change the person’s mindset and the way they feel towards people in general,” Tolbert said. “What I thought was the most important thing for me to do was, in a dark situation like this, you have to find the light. Any thing, any little thing, you find it and you hold on to it.”
He credits support from others with guiding him through the pain, both physical and emotional.
“All the random people that just out of nowhere just like sending you kind thoughts and wondering if you’re okay and sending you love-- those were the main things that got me though,” he said. “It was like a weight that was lifted off of me.”
Blackwell was ultimately sentenced to 40 years in prison for the attack, with ten counts of aggravated assault and aggravated battery. Tolbert said he is glad Blackwell is behind bars, and that while it was initially frustrating that Blackwell could not be charged with a hate crime, he is satisfied with the sentence that was handed down.
“With everything happening and the way that it ended, I’m content with everything,” Tolbert said. “He’s old enough that the time he got, he’s not going to make it out, so that made me feel good.”
Now, Tolbert said the experience has given him new determination when it comes to achieving his dreams, and he is planning to go to college to study architecture and computer science.
By Jennifer Jacob Brown, November 22, 2016
It took a while for Richard Marshall to feel safe at Georgia Southwestern State University. The little town of Americus was a far cry from the heavily populated Atlanta suburb where he grew up and, as a young, out, gay man, Richard had apprehensions about moving there.
“It was a small, southern town,” Richard said. “I sort of walked on eggshells the first couple days that I lived there.”
But eventually, he felt not only safe but welcome at the small university, thanks in part to his fraternity brothers.
“Over time, I got very comfortable with my group of friends being out in the community,” he said. “My fraternity, which was Pi Kappa Phi, was an amazing group of guys. I think a lot of my preconceived notions about the deeper south were kind of alleviated.”
The worrying stopped, and Richard felt at home in Americus – comfortable with his classmates and safe in the fraternity house where he lived.
It took weeks to build that sense of peace, but only minutes to tear it down. On the night of May 5, 2002, three drunken men snuck into the frat house, where Richard believes they laid in wait for him. When he arrived home in the wee hours of the morning, he went to his room to go to bed.
“A lot of my fraternity brothers were going crawfishing and everyone else was out of the house … We never had the doors to the front of the house locked,” he said. “As soon as I got in the room and turned off the lights to go to bed, there was a knock at my door.”
Richard opened the door and found the three men leering at him.
“You’re that fraternity faggot,” one of them said.
“There was no place for me to go … I remember trying to be very calm,” Richard said. “The largest of the three headbutted me in the nose and mouth.”
The beating continued out into the hallway, where Richard was pinned against a wall and headbutted and taunted some more. One of the men threw a t-shirt at Richard – a cloth for him to cry into.
“Are you going to cry like a faggot?” the man asked him. “Are you going to fucking cry?”
It was the arrival of a witness, Richard said, that finally ended the beating – but not before the men had chipped Richard’s front teeth and left a gash on the back of his head. The men left, but their night of violence was not done. They went on to attack another man, Todd Reagan, who they found in his truck nearby.
“I consider myself very thankful,” Richard said. “It could have been a whole lot worse, just because after they left the fraternity house, they went one house down to another fraternity house and pulled one of the other guys out of his truck and beat him quite a bit … It was quite bloody.”
The three men were easily identified – Richard knew them. Two were members of a rival fraternity, and the other was a friend of theirs. They even called the next day to apologize, Richard said.
“I understood what they were trying to do,” he said, “but (it) basically (was) trying to brush off the fact that they broke into my house, my room, and attacked me, like it wasn’t a big deal.
The men were charged under the short-lived hate crime law that Georgia had at the time. That law, passed in 2000, was struck down by the state’s Supreme Court in 2004 for being “unconstitutionally vague.”
Georgia’s law was less specific than other hate crime legislation, such as the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act, in that it increased penalties for crimes motivated by any type of bias or prejudice rather than bias against specific groups.
Richard faced anonymous threats on campus after the attack was made public and eventually transferred to Georgia State University in Atlanta as a result.
He said he wanted his attackers and others who might commit similar crimes to know that they couldn’t get away with it, but ultimately the hate crime status was dropped in favor of lesser charges.
Two of the men, Jason Peacock and Kevin Jones, were convicted of making terroristic threats, burglary, and battery for their attack on Richard, and an additional count of battery for their attack on Reagan, according to court documents. As first offenders, both were sentenced to two years probation.
Richard said he supports the idea of Georgia taking up an enforceable hate crime statute, not because he would feel vindicated by the harsher punishments, but because he would feel safer.
“I think it would just make me feel validated as a person,” he said. “It would make me feel like I’m an actual person and can’t have these things brushed off. It would make me feel a lot safer.”
On July 2nd, 2010, Joshua M. Noblitt and his boyfriend were attacked by a group of teanagers while picnicing in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. Story will be available on December 30th, 2016.
Georgia is one of only five states without a hate crime law on the books. NSS will review the background and efforts to introduce legislation in Georgia on January 30, 2017.
No Safe Space was awarded a Magnifying Glass grant by the Atlanta Film Society and Artless Media.
About the project’s producers
Jennifer Jacob Brown is a freelance writer in the Metro Atlanta area. Previously, she worked as a staff writer for newspapers in Mississippi and Georgia, where she won awards including the Mississippi Press Association’s Freedom of Information Award and the Georgia Press Association’s Public Service Newswriting Award. Her primary interest is in arts and culture writing and research in the American South.
Karen Wink is a multimedia journalist specializing in documentary photography and filmmaking in the Atlanta Metro area. Prior to beginning her freelance career in Atlanta, Karen worked as a staff photojournalist for newspapers in Louisiana and Mississippi. During her most recent staff role at the American Press in Lake Charles, LA, she won more than 35 photography, videography, and feature writing awards from the Louisiana Press Association and the LA/MS Associated Press Managing Editors. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazine across the U.S.