Opinion by Clay Cane
(CNN) — O’Shae Sibley’s tragic death is triggering. He was a 28-year-old Black gay man from Philadelphia who was fatally stabbed at a Brooklyn gas station on July 29. His death is being investigated as a possible hate crime.
Sibley, a professional dancer, was living his life. After stopping at a gas station with some friends to fill up their car, he exited the vehicle and began dancing to the Beyoncé song playing on the car stereo. He was minding his business, but his companions told police he was confronted by a group of men who shouted anti-gay slurs. One of them stabbed Sibley in the torso and he later died at the hospital.
In allegedly liberal New York City, where queer people are told their city is a safe space, Sibley’s life was cut short in a matter of seconds. It’s the brutal reality of being Black and queer in America. Nowhere is safe.
When I heard the story of Sibley’s killing, I instantly thought of DeAndre Matthews. In February of this year, the body of the 19-year old was found on train tracks in Brooklyn. He was badly burned and had a gunshot wound to his head. One person has been arrested, and his family suspects it was a hate crime. His mother said about her son, who was gay, “Who would kill a beautiful soul like that?”
I was also reminded of the underreported murder of Mark Carson. In May 2013, he was killed in New York City’s West Village by a man named Elliot Morales. “Faggot” was reportedly one of the last words he heard before he was shot in the face. Morales would eventually be convicted of a hate crime.
That same year, a Black trans woman named Islan Nettles, 21, was beaten to death in public on the streets of Harlem. The man who committed the crime claimed he went into a “blind fury” over her gender identity and was later sentenced to 12 years in prison.
In 2006, 29-year-old Michael Sandy was lured to a secluded beach and assaulted by four men in Brooklyn. Running for his life, Sandy escaped onto the Belt Parkway but was struck by a car and spent five days in a coma before dying one day after his 29th birthday. Sandy’s father said at the sentencing of his son’s attackers, “These hate crimes become a cancer; it’s a disease. I don’t know why we have to go butcher one another because we don’t like what they are, who they are.”
These are heartbreaking stories, but countless others do not receive news coverage and never go viral. And sometimes people survive an attack and are left to wade through the trauma.
As a Black gay man from Philadelphia who moved to New York City when I was 21, Sibley’s killing serves as a reminder that while progress is celebrated and some people cloak themselves in rainbows, the people in my community know we cannot allow ourselves to be too comfortable. We have been harassed, attacked and hunted in liberal cities on the coasts and in rural hamlets of the Deep South.
I remember hanging out years ago in New York City’s Greenwich Village when passersby would hurl slurs and throw bottles from their cars. Friends of mine have been robbed, assaulted and harassed on subways — and it was a commonplace occurrence. There was very little sympathy from our political leaders or the police. People in my community felt that we were on our own. Our only refuge was each other.
On the surface, there appears to be more acceptance today — every generation believes they are better than the one before. But are we? It has not proven to be better for Sibley, his friends and his family — and it won’t be for the next victim who tragically follows.
While covering Sibley’s death on my SiriusXM radio show, some callers expressed concern about the safety of Black, queer children. Many Black parents know about the importance of having the “talk” with Black boys regarding potential interactions with the police.
But what does the “talk” sound like when the young person is Black and queer, and their connecting identities are considered a threat? One concerned woman asked me on air, “What can my nephew do to protect himself?”
Here is my answer: There is nothing a queer person has to change or should adjust. Live your best life. As Sibley’s neighbor Beckenbaur Hamilton, who is gay, said, “I may die doing it, but I’m going to be myself.” It is the people on the other side, who are living their worst life that need to change. Sadly, our current cultural and political climate emboldens their hate.
A morbid reality persists: There is targeted violence against marginalized communities, including Black queer people. The tragic cases of Mark Carson, Islan Nettles, Michael Sandy, O’Shae Sibley, and many others are stark reminders of the urgent need to create a safer world for everyone.
That said, keeping safe is not easy when LGBTQ people are not only targets of violence but mocked with slogans like the “gay agenda,” told they are being “too sensitive,” and transgender women are labeled“groomers.” Increasingly, this hateful rhetoric has even been turned into legislation. Some of our politicians are running for president by attacking an LGBTQ community that has no impact on them, and their supporters fall for it.
As I wrote for CNN seven years ago in the aftermath of the Pulse Nightclub mass shooting, as a Black gay man, my eyes are always open to the next threat.
I am constantly alert and hyper-aware of my surroundings. I am terrified to hold a man’s hand on the street. I am afraid of the possible repercussions of giving a simple, loving peck on the cheek, and, despite the public encouragement to be “out and proud,” I empathize with people who are petrified to live an open life.
When you are LGBTQ, you live your best life and there is no tragedy in your identity, but you can never let down your guard.
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