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On Oct. 7, Ford’s Theatre patrons gathered in the Center for Education and Leadership for a panel titled, With Charity for All: Lives Changed by Hate. The panel, moderated by The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart, featured former Laramie, Wyoming, sheriff, Dave O’Malley; Billy Rowles, former Jasper, Texas, sheriff; and KhushDC board member Puesh Kumar. The focus of the panel was to discuss how three lives have been forever changed by hate crimes. Each panelist brought a different sense of emotion to the discussion.
Billy Rowles explained his self-reflective season of change when handling the James Byrd Jr. murder; Dave O’Malley expressed his angst and sadness as he recalled being the lead investigator on Matthew Shepard’s murder; and Puesh Kumar discussed how organizations should strive to educate the community in order to bring awareness to the LGBT issues here in Washington, D.C.
Billy Rowles and Dave O’Malley were both small-town sheriffs thrust into the spotlight because of heinous crimes. At the Center, both talked about their prior ignorance to issues of hate within their own communities and the stereotypes that were associated with the groups targeted by hate.
“I lost my ignorance when Matthew died. The stereotypes that I’d known my whole life were now false,” O’Malley explained to the audience. “I was homophobic and [the word] fag came as easy to me as saying I love you to my children.”
Matthew’s death essentially gave O’Malley an ultimatum: face the truth about hate within yourself and in your own community or deal with consequences. O’Malley made sure that Matthew’s case was handled with integrity and that each suspect received his day in court. In 1998, small towns were not privy to hate-crime awareness, so bringing the suspects to justice was especially hard in Laramie.
“Being a police officer in Laramie is personal,” O’Malley explained. “I went to high school with Dennis [Shepard]; Aaron McKinney was my next-door neighbor for most of his life. In Laramie, we’re so close that everything becomes personal.” Billy Rowles gave the audience the sense that everything in rural, east Texas was peachy keen before James Bryd, Jr. was attacked. “We got along quite well as a community in Jasper; we never saw this coming.” Rowles said.
On June 7, 1998, the daily operations in Jasper changed forever when 49-year-old James Byrd, Jr. was severely beaten, chained to a pickup truck and dragged for three miles on a country road, ultimately killing him. Sherriff Billy Rowles was tasked with solving this crime and restoring peace in Jasper.
“Back then, I didn’t know about hate crimes. When I heard that a black man was killed by some white men I automatically thought of civil rights. Racial issues were always under civil rights, not hate crimes,” Rowles explained.
As word of James Byrd, Jr’s death spread across the country, the media frenzy began to descend on Jasper. “When the media came to Jasper, they assaulted us. We, as a community, had to change our ways of thinking and interacting with others,” said Rowles.
As time progressed, Rowles realized that change was necessary not only for the Jasper community, but for him as well. One of the most humbling moments of the panel came when Rowles described his cathartic moment of change. He explains, “I can’t tell you the hours I spent crying. I had to reevaluate my life. I didn’t like what I knew I was. James Byrd, Jr.’s death was one of the most life-changing experiences of my life.”
Monday’s third panelist, Puesh Kumar, serves on the board of KhushDC—a social, support and political group for the D.C.-area South Asian LGBTQ community. Kumar’s activism is commendable, as he has organized numerous events in the D.C.-area to help educate the region about the gay rights movement. His work was definitely instrumental in helping members of the gay community cope with the 2011 death of Gaurav Gopalan—a 35-year old aeronautical engineer and member of D.C.’s theater community who was found dead dressed in women’s clothing in D.C.’s Columbia Heights area.
“It’s great to acknowledge the strides that have been made in the gay rights movement, but the struggles continue nationwide,” Kumar stated. Unlike the small towns of Laramie and Jasper, the size and scope of Washington, D.C.’s police jurisdiction may have contributed to the difficulty in assigning a special task force to investigate Gopalan’s death. Kumar acknowledged that the Metropolitan Police Department was as “helpful as they could be regarding hate crimes against transgendered individuals, but educating the entire force instead of a special group could potentially lead to more hate crimes being reported and hopefully less acts of hate on a particular group.”
This country has made tremendous strides in the gay rights movement and the fight against hate. Communities have to band together as a unit to effectively initiate change, it will not be an easy feat, but if everyone works to erase hate from their hearts then I think we’ll at least be headed in the right direction.
Marjon Wolfe has a BFA in Theatre Arts Administration from Howard University. She is a former Marketing and Communications Intern and an assistant house manager at Ford’s Theatre.