Jun 16, 2009 Nancy Keefe Rhodes Uncategorized
(Mary Alice Smothers, Mark Cannon and Roxanne Green hold the banner they’ll carry in this year’s Gay Pride Parade on June 20th. Photo by Ellen Leahy.)
On the evening of last November 14th, Lateisha Green sat in a car outside a Westside house party at 411 Seymour St. with her brother Mark Cannon and a third person. Another young man walked up to the car and shot Green, 22, and Cannon, then 18, with a .22-calibre rifle. Mark Cannon managed to drive the 13 blocks home to 404 Arthur St., where an ambulance took both to Upstate Medical Center. Green died and police arrested Dwight DeLee, 20, initially charging him with second-degree murder.
But Green — legally Moses Cannon — was transgender and living as a woman. County grand jury testimony that this was a motive for DeLee led to the additional indictment on April 4th for murder as a hate crime. Arraigned on June 1, DeLee remains in custody pending $250, 000 bail. Last Thursday Judge William Walsh upheld the hate crime charge — Onondaga County’s first application of that statute in a murder case — and ruled the trial will go forward in mid-July.
A parade banner and a “safe space”
Also last Thursday, Mary Alice Smothers was getting ready for a noon meeting of the Westside Arts Council at the Wyoming St. P.E.A.C.E. office, where she works. The new council recently held its first event — the successful lowrider bike showcase at the Shonnard St. Boys & Girls Club — and meets monthly at P.E.A.C.E. Smothers, a Westsider for 36 years, recently recovered from eye surgery and put together a new program to provide lunch, cards and bingo, and talks on health insurance for neighborhood seniors.
Before the meeting, Smothers unfolded a banner she’d been working on with Green’s mother in memory of Lateisha Green, with cut-out rainbow fabric letters appliqu (c)d on a black background. Quilt-like, it echoes those long-ago quilt codes that once signaled safe passage to others escaping murderous pursuers along the Underground Railroad. If Syracuse has its Matthew Shepard now, our gay youth of color may have a pair of Harriet Tubmans.
Explaining that Green was her nephew and looking round the table, Smothers said, “We are marching with this in the Gay Pride Parade, and we would like your young people to join us.”
That wasn’t all. The night before, the Wyoming St. P.E.A.C.E. had hosted its first monthly free dinner and discussion for LGBTQ young people and put up a “Safe Space” rainbow sticker on its front door over the posted hours of operation. Smothers had flyers ready that invite LGBTQ youth back for future dinners on the second Wednesday of the month.
Last Friday, after lunch was underway for the seniors in the next room, Smothers sat down with Lateisha Green’s mother and brother, Roxanne Green and Mark Cannon.
“I said, we can’t let this pass,” said Smothers. “One of the family’s wishes was to honor Teish and let people know who she was. Her mother said she’d like to march. We were at a panel at Syracuse Stage and I mentioned it to George Kilpatrick. I said, it happens in California. People came right out of the audience that night and contacted us. Now we have a committee on safe spaces. We’ll give the flyers out at Juneteenth this weekend. It’s time somebody stepped out for the well-being and safety of these kids.”
“It’s bad enough to live with families that don’t approve,” said Roxanne Green. “I never expected a gay son and I have two. It needs to stop. They hurt and I hurt. I have a boy living with me now because he can’t go home. For these kids to fear school! Teish had to go to school late and leave school early. That was the school’s idea of helping! It made Teish angry. She wanted to go when everyone else did.”
Green acknowledged that the spotlight has been hard for her at times.
“I relive a lot of things,” she said. “He really took something precious. I lost a mother when I was nine and that hurt. Losing a child is a whole different hurt.”
But Smothers doesn’t see this as different from other fights over the years.
“It’s always about the youth,” she said. “It’s always about empowering them to be able to speak and have their voice. We let adultism get in the way. They know where they want to go. As parents, we know we raised them on the right track and we have to let them.”
One mother to another
Later on Friday, Safe Spaces committee member and long-time rights advocate Akosua said the idea of safe spaces goes beyond young people.
“A safe space is really for anyone for whatever reason,” she said. “But if it’s in your own neighborhood you’ll feel more comfortable. Certainly the catalyst for this was Tiesh’s murder, but it’s also similar to what’s happening in the state and in the country. People are stopping to look around and realizing, this is my brother, my sister, my cousin — my whatever. Also there’s this real sense of pride in who people are and the whole idea of what ‘family’ really is — who’s raising who, who’s looking out for who. I said to Roxanne how proud I was of her and her family. They were right there on TV that same night, saying this was a hate crime. As one Black mother to another, that made me supremely proud. And I am humbled by her courage. This isn’t Los Angeles or New York City. It’s harder to stand up here.”
Luz Encarnacion is La Liga’s board president, served on the City’s Commission for Women and presently works at Planned Parenthood.
“I was honored to be asked to be on the Safe Spaces project,” she said. “Being the mother of three girls who are gay — 21, 18 and 16 — I know the troubles they go through. We have kids on all sides of the city. We need to engage all agencies to be safe spaces, no matter what services they offer. We have to educate the parents — some of these kids are homeless. Henninger High School is one of the best because they have a gay-straight alliance, and Nottingham works with AIDS Community Resources, but the city school district has no over-all program to train staff and faculty. You have gay teachers who are struggling themselves, so we have to erase the stigma that professionals have to hide, because that teaches our children to be ashamed too. And all this leads to dropping out of school and not getting hired. Shame on us for allowing this to happen for so long.”
Stigma has educational outcomes
Amit Teneja is a graduate student at Syracuse University and associate director of the LGBT Resource Center on that campus. He also runs two supports groups for LGBT youth of color, one on campus called Fusion. The other, for high school age teens, happens at the Q Youth Center, which uses AIDS Community Resources at 627 W. Genesee St. for its mailing address but must — like Vera House, the shelter for abused women — keep its actual location private for safety reasons.
“Right now there’s nothing that compels schools to do anything,” he said on Sunday afternoon. “The Dignity of All Students Act is in the state Assembly right now and it would make schools responsible to protect students who are targeted. These students are three to eight times more likely to miss school and not graduate. The Q Center really is focused on helping kids get through high school and go on to college. My own research is on gay kids of color and it’s always a search for where do they find home, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds. These stories need to be told and nobody else is talking about what these kids go through. I have such respect for Mary Alice Smothers! If you have waited till the battle was safe, you’ve waited too long.”
Elizabeth Payne founded the Q Youth Center in 2006 and directs that now as well as teaching in SU’s School of Education. Increasingly she has focused on transgender issues, for example last year initiating the only program in the country for “trans-leaning” kids ages 8 -12 and their parents. On Sunday she returned from a national transgender health conference in time for the Q Center’s guest appearance on Teen Talk, the weekly HOT 107.9 radio show.
“We are entirely research-based,” she said right before air time. “And all the research shows that it’s not being gay that causes problems for these kids — the drop-out rate, the alienation, the lower GPAs and all the rest — it’s the social stigma surrounding being gay. So besides programming to address stigma for young people, we also do educator-to-educator training. We work with schools in a 30-mile radius — we have kids from Mexico, Tully, Auburn — and I know of no school in that area that really has a formal program. Some have gay-straight alliances, some have really engaged staff and teachers, but there’s nothing system-wide.”
The perspective of elders
Roslyn Rasberry is a board member of SAGE/Upstate, an organization for older members of the LGBT community. She also co-chairs Uzuri (a Swahili word for “beauty”), a SAGE social group for people of color.
“Willard Doswell and I sat down to brainstorm with Mary Alice,” she recalled on Monday. “We talked about whether it [the murder] could’ve been prevented, if there were safe spaces for Teish. Mary Alice had watched her struggle, as she was picked on and harassed. The idea for the Safe Spaces initiative came out of this. We’ve had about three meetings and there are many possibilities. For LGBT people of color this would be really important, to have some sanctuary in your own neighborhood, and hopefully others would come too from elsewhere in the city — the campus and the Q Center and so on — so there would be some cross-pollination. It’s so needed! I feel really strongly about this. And for parents of color to march — to march visibly in the Gay Pride Parade next Saturday, in support of their children? Well. This is very powerful.”
In 1990 the Syracuse Common Council passed the Fair Practices ordinance banning discrimination in Syracuse on the basis of sexual orientation, sponsored by 4th District Councilor Charles Anderson. Anderson, who is now Director at Large of 100 Black Men of Syracuse, served six terms on the Common Council (1986-97) while he worked for the city school district as a truancy officer. Later Anderson took on the issue of police accountability, sponsoring 1993’s Citizen Review Board legislation. Fair Practices passed the Council the first year it was introduced and was signed into law by Mayor Tom Young after public hearings.
At last Thursday night’s Juneteenth dinner, Anderson shook his head about Lateisha Green and said, in his quiet way, “We still have a lot of work to do.”
On Monday he sent this note along:
“As I think back to the struggle we had to get the Fair Practices Ordinance passed by the Syracuse Common Council, I realize that the struggle continues as witnessed by events that have happened this last year, especially the murder of Tiesh Green and Dr. George Tiller. But in spite of it all:
Today is ours; Let’s live it.
And Love is strong; Let’s give it.
A song can help; Let’s sing it.
And peace is dear; Let’s bring it
The past is gone; Don’t rue it.
Our work is here; Let’s do it.
The world is wrong; Let’s right it.
The battle hard; Let’s fight it.
The road is rough; Let’s clear it.
The future vast; Don’t fear it.
Is Faith asleep? Let’s wake it.
Today is ours; Let’s take it!”
“The author of those words is unknown,” added Anderson, “but the truth echoes in our heart.”
This article appears on page 1 of the June 18, 2009 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly.
The 2009 Gay Pride Parade & Festival kicks off at 11:00 AM on Saturday, June 20th with a flag-raising at City Hall downtown. At 11:30 the parade proceeds to the Everson Museum Plaza. Parade line-up on the Water St. side of the Erie Canal Museum at 10:30 AM. March with the Lateisha Green banner (the space in line is reserved as “Lateisha’s Flowers”) and get buttons and further info at Everson Museum Plaza for an event to celebrate Latiesha Green’s life on July 11th in Upper Onondaga Park.
The Westside P.E.A.C.E., Inc. Family Resource Center at 200 Wyoming St. has declared itself a Safe Space for LGBTQ youth and now hosts a free dinner and discussion every second Wednesday of the month from 5-7 PM. The next one is July 8th. Questions, call Mary Alice Smothers at 470.3352. Reach Nancy at email@example.com.