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November 2005
God’s Wicked City
By Kymberlie Adams Matthews

 

Once again, the blame lies with me—with my kind. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on a day that was reserved to observe “Southern Decadence.” Over 100,000 queers were about to gather at this ‘Gay Mardi Gras’ and commit unspeakable acts in the French Quarter. That’s right, a myriad of scandalous events including an annual parade, dance parties and a very creative costume contest. But, at long last—after 35 years of immoral tradition—God “punished” this wicked city. He sent Katrina.

Wherever tragedy strikes, zealots of some order or breed are sure to pop up. Whether they claim to represent God, Gaia or the ghost of Elvis, they all thrive on the pain and misfortune of others. With Katrina, the ever-present pastor Fred Phelps—who runs the websites godhatesfags.com and godhatesamerica.com—led the charge. According to the good preacher, “God is exacting his revenge on the U.S. because of its tolerance of homosexuality. New Orleans, symbol of America, is seen for what it is: a putrid, toxic, stinking cesspool of fag fecal matter.” That Judgment Day verdict was echoed by the pastor of New Covenant Fellowship, Rev. Bill Shanks, “New Orleans now is abortion free. New Orleans now is Mardi Gras free. New Orleans now is free of Southern Decadence and the sodomites, the witchcraft workers, false religion—it’s free of all of those things now… God simply, I believe, in His mercy purged all of that stuff out of there.”

Oh, Holy Water
Several days after Katrina hit, 20 year-old transgendered Arpollo Vicks swam to safety as floodwaters engulfed her New Orleans home. She and her two teenage nieces camped out on a highway overpass for two days before being bussed to a shelter in Bryan, Texas, about 100 miles north of Houston. That’s when Vicks endured yet another life-altering ordeal—she took a shower.

At the over-crowded Texas A&M University evacuee shelter, Arpollo informed a volunteer that she was afraid to shower with men—she had begun post-operative procedures—and was told to shower in the women’s room. Despite the fact that it was the middle of the night, Vicks was alone and the stall was curtained, another woman complained to authorities that it made her feel “uncomfortable.”

At a time when hell was literally at their doorstep, as thousands of evacuees languished in uncertainty, fear and hunger, authorities found time to apprehend Vicks as she stepped out of the shower. She was arrested and formally charged with criminal trespassing, a class B misdemeanor. She was administered a bail of $6,000 and transferred to the Brazos County Jail, where she was held for six days in solitary confinement and told her case might not come before a magistrate for six months to a year.

It was only by sheer luck that a reporter stumbled across her arrest record and contacted the Montrose Counseling Center [see interview with Sally Huffer in this issue]. Along with the Human Rights Campaign, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and other human rights activists, they lobbied the Texas emergency shelter until the charges were dropped and Vicks was reunited with her family.

Jail was certainly not the safest place for Vicks but neither was the shelter. Vicks is not the only LGBT person to claim harassment. In fact, reports of physical abuse, property destruction, and gay bashing increased daily.

I Now Pronounce You… Inappropriate
It’s noble indeed that the red state of Louisiana holds true to their own—but might I add dated—opinions. They do not have a state law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. Basically, this allows employers, landlords, medical personnel, adoption institutes, even grocery stores to legally (and drastically) discriminate against the queer community.

If that surprises you, let me mention that only nine states: California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin have laws specifically prohibiting discrimination against gays or lesbians; Connecticut, Minnesota and Rhode Island also protect transgendered people. While only a handful of cities—Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Miami, New York, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Seattle—have passed laws making this type of discrimination illegal.

Furthermore, defying the national trend to overturn laws that criminalize private consensual sexual acts between adults, the Louisiana Supreme Court continues to uphold the state’s “crime against nature” statute, which carries penalties of up to five years in prison. And just this past year, the Louisiana legislature overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage which prevents the state from recognizing any legal status for common-law relationships, domestic partnerships or civil unions.

In the case of Katrina, the law directly impacts gay and lesbian families where one partner has died. Should the family home be in the name of the deceased partner, the survivor would have no rights. Any insurance payouts could go to the estate of the deceased, and if there is no will, payouts would go to the closest blood relative, not the partner. Even in cases where one partner is hospitalized, the other partner would not be guaranteed visitation rights or any say in medical care. If the deceased partner were the birth or adoptive parent of the couple’s children, those children could be removed from the care of the other parent and placed in foster care. Partners could even be denied a say in funeral or burial decisions. Even couples who have legal documents—such as living wills, powers of attorney or other agreements that are valid in the states in which they were prepared and notarized—those can be denied. Both Mississippi and Alabama, also hit hard by Katrina, have defense of marriage acts. On top of that, the 1996 Federal Defense of Marriage Act actually prevents FEMA from providing relief in the form of family benefits to same-sex couples and their families.

But as the 700 Club reminds us, “When you see the rise of blatant open homosexuality and lesbianism, when you see them fighting for the right to marriage, what you also know is God has given a society up...and we’re at the mercy of the elements, the mercy of war, the mercy of economic disaster.” Three cheers for Christian charity.

And Eve Bit the Apple
‘Save the semen’ fanatics are storming around with disdain and, frankly, they give me a headache. In apparent contempt of the self-professed devout, Planned Parenthood has offered female Katrina survivors one free cycle of birth control or one free emergency contraception kit, while the National Abortion Federation is providing free or reduced-cost abortions to women in need. And all this just as soon as New Orleans has become abortion free…

In protest, a group calling itself Columbia Christians for Life has revealed to the world a satellite image of Hurricane Katrina as it hit the Gulf Coast. They claim the image has a striking resemblance to an eight week-old fetus. “Louisiana has 10 child-murder-by-abortion centers,” the groups says, and “five are in New Orleans. God sent this hurricane.” Call me crazy, I thought the reasons for the disaster were clear: a hurricane hit, the levee broke, there was no preparation by local and state officials, and the Bush administration were busy on vacation…fighting a war.

What is wrong with people? What part of this picture are they not seeing? When we talk about contraception, when we talk about abortion, we are really talking about women—women whose lives were not only disrupted by Katrina, but are now left facing gender-specific vulnerabilities in her wake. When it comes to natural disaster, women are more likely to lack mobility and resources, as well as dealing with the burden of care-taking responsibilities, all making it more difficult for them to flee. Almost 54 percent of the New Orleans population is female—25 percent are single mothers. When the dead are finally all accounted for, I’ll wager that more women and children have died than men.

And let’s not forget the considerably increased chance of sexual assault, particularly for those who relocated to shelters to escape the storm. Rape and violence against women in the aftermath of disasters is no new problem. We know that economic uncertainty, increased stress, powerlessness and the lack of basic provisions contribute to the risks confronting women.

But we also need to address the issue of who in our social order is at most risk. Those who could afford to get away or those left behind? INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence have portrayed the situation succinctly, “These people have the fewest resources, were unable to evacuate New Orleans because of poverty, who were…trapped without food, water, and medical attention. Because of racism and classism, these people are also overwhelming folks of color, and because of sexism, they are overwhelmingly women of color.”

Rev. Toby Nelson of First Presbyterian Church of Hayward in Castro Valley, California, told his local newspaper, The Union, that rapes did occur, “There were so many rape victims, and we had to turn (most) of them away because they had life-damaging, but not life-threatening, wounds.”

Rape victim Charmaine Neville, daughter of Charles Neville of the famous Neville Brothers rock and soul band, describes her ordeal while seeking shelter in an abandoned school: “I found some police officers. I told them that a lot of us women had been raped…by guys who had come into…the neighborhood where we were. They…started raping women…and killing them. I don’t know who these people were. But what I want people to understand is that if we had not been left down there like the animals that they were treating us like, all of those things wouldn’t have happened.”

Would the invisible man in the sky really deny these woman emergency contraception? The right to a low cost abortion? Would he deny anyone the right to protect their body from unwanted pregnancy or disease?

Women have the right to protect themselves, whatever the reason, plain and simple.

The media is running in circles over the number of accountable rapes, even the most diligent among us are left shaking our heads in confusion. The collapse of law enforcement and service agencies like rape crisis centers intensify the problem. Only at the end of September did major evacuation sites like the Houston Astrodome start accepting reports of rape in New Orleans.

While motivated by legitimate concerns about media racism, such questions may leave women of color even more vulnerable to rape and less likely to receive support when they report rape. As Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault (LFASA) director Judy Benitez is quoted in Women’s e-News, “we know that post-hurricane rapes have been perpetrated in shelters and around New Orleans because the survivors have reported them. But only now are police in major evacuation sites accepting reports of rape…after weeks of simply taking the accounts for safekeeping until authorities in the proper jurisdictions are prepared to deal with them. We are really trying to stress to police that just because a rape hasn’t been reported, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Meanwhile, the sexual assault crisis centers that make up LFASA struggle to provide basic rape relief services to the deluge of survivors who have come forward since the storm.”

Even so, what does the term accountable rape mean? Rape is already underreported. Add to the mix a chaotic evacuation for a second hurricane, I doubt we will ever really know how many women were raped. But even without an exact number of documented police reports, we know it happened, and that alone is bad enough.

The Days of Noah
The story of Genesis leads people to believe that nature (in all its lush and tempting diversity) is profane and dangerous while only the father in the sky is sacred. Remember Noah? He alone was awake while the rest were asleep. Only Noah and his family were spared when God judged the earth and let the waters come. These are the same vengeful, anti-nature attitudes and practices that led to Katrina and its aftermath. And they are the same attitudes that lead to the hatred of the natural diversity that underlies homophobia, racism, sexual repression, etc. Until we fix that, we’re lost.

Being the crime against nature that I am, I know an abomination when I see one. More frequent and severe hurricanes are Mother Nature’s way of telling us that pollution-caused climate change wasn’t such a good idea after all. Floods are the wetlands’ revenge for the hate crimes committed against them.

Genesis told George Bush to approach nature with fear and loathing and to do everything in his power to control and dominate it. Appointed by God to husband the resources of our great nation, Bush smites the Clean Air Act with one hand while passing out faith-based reconstruction grants with the other.

But the cowboy President and his religious rodeo can’t break nature. Ducks and dolphins and 300 other kinds of animals, ranging from insects to the bats who eat them, will continue to turn to same-sex partners for non-reproductive sexual fun. Women will keep on controlling their own bodies. Trees will breathe and, one day, the waters will recede.

But Arpollo Vicks will still need a safe place to take a shower.

 

 


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