by Shaun Knittel -
Special to the SGN
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Three months ago, at the end of September, Seattle Gay News staff writer and associate editor Shaun Knittel and his husband Yee-Shin Huang pulled up stakes here in Seattle and have relocated to Shaun's hometown of Las Vegas, where they are settling into a new groove. Following are Shaun's farewell remarks and reflections on his eight years of community activism in Seattle's LGBTQ community. SGN wishes Shaun and Yee-Shin the best in their new life in Las Vegas and thank him profoundly for his community service here in Seattle and at the SGN.]
It has been a great honor and privilege to write about the modern LGBTQ equality movement, as it happened, for the pages of the Seattle Gay News. For almost a decade now, I've had the opportunity to see our community during unforgettable highs and gut-wrenching lows.
It has been said that history only makes sense when looking back. After bearing witness to this movement I would agree. Although I considered myself a cognoscenti at the time of reporting, I willingly admit that I had no true way of knowing the tremendous impact many of these events would collectively have on the community, myself, and our readers. Simply put: I am forever indebted to the fact that I got the chance to write our history as it happened. This fact is something that I take great pride in and probably will for the rest of my life.
In an effort to make sense of it all or to, at the very least, put it into perspective, the publisher of Seattle Gay News has graciously allowed me a two-part editorial of which I am happy to oblige. I will do my best to stick to a timeline that begins in April 2009, although I might jump around a bit. I can't think of a better way to say goodbye to my readers than this. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I have had writing it.
[Last week the SGN ran Part 1 of Shaun's farewell editorial which reviewed the Washington state and national push for marriage equality, including a spotlight on Washington state's R-71 and R-74, and the repeal of the U.S. military's 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy, including profiles of Margarethe 'Grethe' Cammermeyer and Margaret Witt. This week we continue with the second half of Shaun's farewell editorial.]
A DANGEROUS WORLD
One of the first stories I worked on as a staff writer and photographer at Seattle Gay News when I arrived was an alarming one. Someone, either acting alone or in a group, mailed letters to 11 Capitol Hill bars warning patrons they would be poisoned. The attacker(s) said they had approximately 67 grams of ricin and would indiscriminately target at least five clients and 'expect them to die painfully while in the hospital.'
Ricin is a poison that comes in white powder or liquid in crystalline form. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) gives a possible minimum figure of 500 micrograms, equal to half a grain of sand, for a lethal dose of ricin in humans if exposure is from injection or inhalation.
The FBI and federal postal inspectors were called in. The mayor issued a statement. Locals organized a Gay Pub Crawl in which they packed the targeted bars full of people in a show of solidarity. Bar owners posted signs warning patrons not to leave their drinks unattended, and the party raged on in spite of the danger.
Luckily, nothing happened and no one was hurt. There's just one problem: no one ever got caught. To this day, eight years later, the case remains unsolved.
Another unsolved case that really gets to me sometimes was the beating death of openly Gay hairdresser Danny Vega. On November 15, 2011, around 7:45pm, three men beat and robbed Vega near Martin Luther King Jr. Way S. and S. Othello St., stealing Vega's cell phone, wallet, and jacket. Following the attack, Vega was able to make it home and was taken to Harborview Medical Center, where he died from injuries sustained in the attack.
Not long after Vega's death, detectives identified a group of three men captured on surveillance tape not far from where Vega was beaten as 'persons of interest in the case,' who had previously been involved in several other robberies in the South End. In one incident in 2011, officers arrested two of the men for robbing a woman at a bus stop outside a rave just one block from where Vega was later mugged. According to police records, one of the men under investigation met with homicide detectives four days before Christmas, and admitted to using Vega's cell phone, which was taken in the robbery. He also admitted being involved in other robberies in Seattle, but 'does not remember' robbing Vega.
Police have not arrested the three men for robbing Vega, but served a search warrant at a South Seattle home in December 2011, where they seized several pieces of clothing. Police are still investigating the case as a homicide and still ask anyone that might have knowledge of what happened and who did it to contact them.
Vega's family and friends accused SPD of dragging their feet on the investigation and criticized the department for not updating them about what was going on. Vega's roommate told me at a community meeting between the police and the general public that they were being made to feel like they just had to accept his death and that nobody would ever be brought to justice. Sadly, more than six years have passed; making his roommate's suspicions correct.
There were three solved crimes that impacted me greatly over my time at Seattle Gay News.
The first crime was the horrific rape and stabbing of Teresa Butz and Jennifer Hopper, in their South Park home in the summer of 2009. Isaiah Kalebu, a homeless man in his 20's, attacked the two women in their sleep. Butz and Hopper were raped, sexually brutalized and stabbed, and Butz died. A Lesbian couple planning their commitment ceremony, Butz and Hopper were chosen by their attacker because they'd left a window open for relief from the summer heat and Kalebu wandered by and saw his way in. According to reports of his history with mental illness, the young man was in the grip of worsening mental illness, which was variously diagnosed as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other possible personality disorders, including a hyper inflated sense of self and narcissism. In periods of delusion, he believed himself to be a king or emperor who was being treated unjustly by the world. Hopper says that the man took turns raping each of them for more than 2 hours. He made them, at knifepoint, perform oral sex on him and each other. Towards the end of the attack he began to cut the women and then eventually starting stabbing them. Butz is credited with saving her partner's life when she - just 5-foot-2 - kicked Kalebu off their bed and used a small table to break a window, through which she left. Kalebu ran out of the house, and Hopper left too, naked and covered in so much blood that she had trouble opening the front door of the home, authorities said. Before Butz died from a stab wound to her heart, she reportedly told a neighbor: 'He told us if we did what he asked us to do, he wouldn't hurt us. He lied, he lied.'
Kalebu was arrested after he was identified using DNA evidence and surveillance video from an earlier unsolved burglary at the City Hall in the suburb of Auburn. Kalebu's arrest happened six days after he attacked the women and murdered Butz because a bus driver recognized him from news reports describing him and the pit bull that accompanied him, and alerted authorities of where he was.
The second solved crime that impacted me took place June 1, 2014 when Ali Muhammad Brown, who allegedly told detectives he was 'just doing (his) small part' to exact revenge on the United States for its foreign policies in the Middle East, shot and killed Ahmed Said and Dwone Anderson-Young in Seattle's Leschi neighborhood because they were Gay. Less than a block away from Anderson-Young's house, his mother was awakened by the gunshots that killed her son.
According to homicide investigators, Brown used a Gay hookup app to lure the two men into a trap. Said and Anderson-Young picked Brown up and when they parked at the patch of grass near Anderson-Young's house he pulled out a Smith & Wesson 9mm M&P semi-automatic pistol and executed both of the young men. He fled town, wanted for another murder in Seattle in addition to the two he had just committed, ending up in New Jersey where he killed again until good police work from both SPD and Newark, New Jersey PD, brought him into custody.
Investigative records filed in King County Superior Court said that Brown told King County and Seattle detectives that he was following his Muslim faith by killing people in retaliation for the United States' policies regarding Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.
'(If a) man sees evil then he must take action against that evil,' Brown said, according to court records.
Brown told an Essex County, New Jersey detective that the men he killed were 'just kill' targets - not a woman, child or elderly person nor anyone accompanied by women, children or elderly people.
In response to the murders, Social Outreach Seattle (SOSea) worked with SPD and Mayor Ed Murray's office to organize a candlelight vigil, attended by both families of the two Gay men who were murdered, held at the spot of the tragedy. The vigil is the first time in Seattle's history that the East African, Muslim, Black and LGBTQ communities came together in such a way. It was a profoundly sad afternoon but there was some solace in the fact that justice would be served, the men have certainly not been forgotten, and groups of people that don't normally come together to work on an issue were doing just that.
The third crime that impacted me the most out of the three listed here actually involved me in a way. About 15 minutes after midnight, on New Year's Day, January 1, 2014, Musab Masmari poured gasoline on a stairway to the Neighbours Nightclub's balcony and lit the fuel on fire. The fire was quickly doused with a fire extinguisher; and all 750 people in the club at the time had been evacuated without any injury. My husband and I had been serving champagne during the celebration when I smelled the fire and told him to get everyone out. As my husband and the club's staff evacuated the nightclub full of people in the most skillful and organized way you could imagine, the video camera that I had was turned on and I documented the fire, its extinguishing, and the finding of the gasoline container he had left behind. Helping the general manager pinpoint who we thought started the blaze took hours but we did it. SPD did not want to name the man or put his photo out for fear he would run. But my logic was that this person is dangerous and he didn't just start a fire - he attempted to murder 750 people. He needed to be ID'd and brought in as fast as possible. I gave SPD 24 hours to catch him or I would release the footage to media, which I ended up doing, and within hours he was ID'd and named as a person of interest. Masmari was arrested days later on his way to Sea-Tac Airport after buying a one-way ticket to Turkey.
It was announced that Masmari admitted to jumping the security gate at Neighbours, slipping through the lounge in front of the building with a container of gasoline hidden under a jacket tucked under his arm and then setting the blaze. He claimed that he was blackout drunk but had no problem with Gay people. It was also announced that he had struck a deal with the court and would only receive five years prison sentence. I was not having it. This was a hate crime and informants had even told the FBI and SPD investigators that Masmari had actually bragged about what he had done, that he had said he wanted to exterminate homosexuals, and had said that he should get a gun and go finish the job. I contacted the prosecutor's office and they agreed that I would be the only witness to address the court. I made my case before U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez and told him about the significance of Gay bars in our community, the importance of who we could have potentially lost that night, and that the LGBTQ community was disgusted that Masmari was only going to be sentenced to five years. Martinez didn't say much and thanked me for my testimony.
Then something amazing happened. Martinez, when sentencing Masmari, brushed aside his 'I did it because I was drunk' assertions, concluded Masmari had set the fire because the club's patrons were Gay, and said he would invoke his discretion to impose an exceptional sentence. He sentenced Masmari to mandatory drug and alcohol counseling while in federal prison for no less than 10 years and that he would be monitored by the feds for 5 years after his release as well. Masmari appealed the decision, but his appeal was not successful. He will not be a free man until 2025.
When Omar Mateen killed all of those people in Orlando, and injured scores more, I couldn't help but think about the devastation that could've been us while I was grieving for the Orlando victims. It was overwhelming. I gave interview after interview to all forms of media because of the many similarities between Pulse Nightclub and Neighbours, as well as the fact that Masmari had targeted us because we were Gay. I wouldn't recommend it if you have a weak stomach, but type NIGHTCLUB FIRE into a Google search and you will quickly see that in several instances all over the world a fire inside of a nightclub is more dangerous than a man with a gun inside of a nightclub. Now, that is not to say anything about how the victims were killed and how the wounded suffered in Orlando. It is a comparison to show how absurd it was that all the police and lawyers working on the Neighbours/Masmari case thought it was appropriate for him to settle for and receive five years as a sentence. I am proud that I had the strength and resolve to speak out, leak the video footage leading to his being identified so detectives knew who to arrest, and then speak out in court inspiring the judge to double his agreed upon sentence. The smell of the fire and the bright flash of the flames is something that will always be with me.
Pride weekend in Seattle is amazing. There are so many events leading up to the actual celebration that if you don't plan it right, you might just miss the parade and party Sunday night! During my time at SGN we covered some of the most successful years in the modern LGBTQ movement. So, naturally, when Pride would roll around everyone wanted to celebrate. But there were small controversies here and there that we covered as well that threatened to sometimes put a damper on the whole thing. Never happened though - anyway you look at it, Pride is a great time in Seattle.
When I first arrived in Seattle I quickly learned two things about Pride: The first was that a few years before, in 2007, the community was split over whether or not Pride should stay on Capitol Hill with the parade's festival happening at Volunteer Park or if it had outgrown the neighborhood and was better suited for downtown and Seattle Center. The second thing I learned about Seattle and its Pride was that the organization that moved the event from Capitol Hill to downtown and Seattle Center ran into money problems and owed the Seattle Center over $100,000 (which the organization has since repaid) and that the parade organizing committee was constantly plagued with issues. And it was. Working with some of the volunteers over the years to get simple things such as ad copy for space they paid for in the newspaper was like pulling teeth. Then there would be this weird corporate attitude that developed time and time again and the group would set out to produce the most sanitized version of Pride that anyone could think of while making sure to never ever say or do anything that might be political. Had they forgotten that Pride is more than a parade, that it is a political statement? It is about the LGBTQ community and our right to protest for civil rights that is on display, so making a statement, politically charged or not, is what it is all about.
The one saving grace, and I believe the real reason why the organization is never taken to task for its shortcomings, is because our community loves Pride as much as we do and we make the most of the weekend - ultimately having a good time, allowing our friends and allies to have a good time, and all is forgotten or forgiven until the next year.
When I think of Seattle Pride few things come to mind more than the community's request that the Space Needle fly the rainbow Pride flag above the needle on Pride weekend. The difficulty started when, in 2010, the Space Needle made history by raising the Pride flag on top of the needle for the first time ever. The Space Needle is a private company so they can turn down anyone they want in terms of what flag they fly atop the needle. But many Seattleites proudly recognize the needle as a symbol of their beautiful city and thought that if they had done it once then they shouldn't refuse to do it again. In other words, people looked forward to seeing the flag above the needle annually.
LGBTQ activist Josh Castle said in a petition he created on Change.org in 2011, 'Seattle has the country's 2nd largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. When the Space Needle raised the Pride flag they made the LGBT community feel truly welcome in their home city. Not only did residents celebrate the Pride flag on the needle, but people rejoiced from around the world as news broke about the Space Needle's strong support for LGBT people. The message was clear: Seattle is a welcoming city for all.'
When the Space Needle failed to announce plans to raise the Pride flag for Seattle 2011 Pride, Castle made the petition. He urged people to sign the petition and join him in thanking the Space Needle for raising the flag in 2010, and ask them to raise the Pride flag again in 2011.
It worked. The Space Needle flew the flag again in 2011, noting that they had turned down eight other communities or people and their requests for a certain flag but chose not to turn down Seattle's LGBTQ community because of the support we showed for the flag to be raised. In addition, the Space Needle pledged to raise $50,000 for LGBTQ community causes.
But then they turned right back around in 2012 and said they would no longer fly the flag during Pride. The whole thing once again infuriated people and appeared as though the owners were making a statement about the upcoming vote to Approve Referendum 74 and bring marriage equality to Washington state. It got pretty ugly. People were really upset. It actually surprised me how much vitriol people seemed to have for the owners and board of directors at Space Needle. Needless to say the Space Needle did not fly the flag in 2012.
When 2013 Pride came up we had just won marriage equality and people thought the Space Needle would fly the flag for sure. But as the weekend approached they said they would, again, opt out of raising the flag. It didn't help that some members of the community tied the raising of the flag to an ongoing dispute about labor at the Needle with the flag raising. Space Needle officials felt that the community was over-asking by saying 'raise the flag' and telling them how to do business.
CEO Ron Sevart told SGN the Space Needle receives a range of requests from organizations and interest groups seeking to celebrate special occasions and causes, and that each is considered individually. But, 'other than the American flag, we rarely fly other flags more than once & the Seahawks' 12th Man flag and LGBTQ's Pride flag being historical exceptions to that,' he said.
But, in a surprise move, on Pride Sunday morning Seattle Gay News and other community leaders who fought for marriage equality gathered on the roof of the Space Needle where a different flag, featuring a marriage equality symbol over a map of the state of Washington, was hoisted on the tower of the Seattle landmark.
Since then, the Space Needle has flown the rainbow Pride flag annually during Pride weekend.
CALL OUT CULTURE AND THE MORAL HIGH GROUND
Language and the terms we use have always played an important role within our community. How we address each other and the way we express, in words, how we feel, what we need, or how we demand things of ourselves and others, can have long lasting consequences - both good and bad. When you get it right you win. Conversely, when you get it wrong a wedge is driven between 'us' and 'them.' During my time at Seattle Gay News I witnessed and reported on so many stories that have had language at their core as not only the subject of the debate or discourse, but in some cases which meant longer jail time for people accused of committing hate crimes because of the passage of the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009. I also worked to educate about the importance of properly gendering someone whether writing a story or speaking about them in a broadcast, and worked to educate the greater public about the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity.
From early 2009 until present day, examples of significant changes in the way we verbally communicate include the ever-growing acronym (LGBTQIA) that identifies our community; the spirited and open debate over the usage of the (now considered inappropriate) word 'Tranny' when talking about a member of the Transgender community; the resurgence of 'Queer' which young LGBTQ folks have embraced; 'Gay for Pay' and its popularity in the porn industry; the debate over the use of the word 'faggot' by some Gay men or members of the LGBTQ community likened to the old argument of whether it is permissible for a black person to say the N-word while white people should not; the usage of the word 'Hate Speech' and so much more.
Most of the changes in how we speak, what words we use to describe ourselves and others and the bid to move in a direction where we say more kind things or accurate things in place of things that lead to misunderstandings, division, and in extreme examples, violence, have been good ones. However, some of the changes that have taken place aren't all good either.
Some people argue that the policing of language by members of the Religious Right and the unofficial PC (Politically Correct) Leftwing Ultra-Liberals have become such powder-keg issues that freedom of speech is under attack in our country. Others argue that the language used by young activists' ranges from too academic to too fluid, changing on a daily basis so nobody can keep up.
I tend to agree with all of those arguments. Disagreeing with someone should not automatically mean you are bigoted, freedom of speech means you will hear people say things that you don't like but they have the right to say them just like you have the right to express your opinion, treating folks as if they are trying to oppress you because they accidentally misgendered you is in and of itself intolerant, talking down to someone or treating them like they are stupid because they are ignorant to the latest social justice buzz word is wrong, arrogant and shows a basic lack of understanding. The double standard that exists on both sides of the political and social spectrum in regards to who can say what and when they can say it, is just plain shameful.
The art of disagreeing is over as you can easily find videos on Youtube, read about it in news articles or personally witness unreasonable people saying outrageous things to each all because they disagree on a topic of discussion everywhere you turn. It pains me to see us go from a community that once rejected labels to labeling each other and everyone else. Being vocally opposed to segregation of any kind to self-segregating and demanding that people respect that even though the space we have occupied is in a public building, public square, or public school. We've moved from building coalitions from within our community to engaging in the shaming of others, horizontal oppression and even though we talked a good game about non-bullying we bully each other and get away with it by calling it 'shade.'
People lie. I am a journalist, which means I will never agree to censorship of any kind. It is my job to question people. We question people who are accused, sometimes, of murder, assault, theft or rape. Why? Because journalistic integrity dictates you do not write or publish something that is an accusation, falsehood, or lie as though it is the truth. I cannot tell you the trouble that folks now give journalists when we are trying to get to the bottom of a story and they feel that nobody has the right to question anyone about anything - so long as they agree with or 'like' the person you are questioning. It's incredible. No, journalists - just like police officers, lawyers, etc. - can just believe (without questioning and investigating) someone who makes the accusation of rape, alleges they were attacked, says that they were not the murderer, etc., just because it might be upsetting to those who have been victimized before. While not everyone lies (by any stretch of the imagination) some do and so it is important to qualify any and all allegations with facts because absent of them, or witnesses, or definitive evidence suggesting they are telling the truth, we cannot report it as truth.
It kind of feels surreal to leave the newspaper. I have absolutely loved my time at Seattle Gay News. Like any writing job you want to pull your hair out some days, scream at the walls other days, and quit on the really bad days. You get hate mail. You get told you don't know what you are talking about by perfect strangers who didn't bother to read past the headline. You get shamed by people who invited you to an event that you could not make it to because you had to cover a different event because they didn't think their event was worth missing out on which they wanted you to see and write about. But you don't quit because for journalists there exists something inside of us that allows us to grow thick skin, take the bad and the ugly with a grain of salt, and the times we get to hear from people that we admire who say, 'Good job' or 'You are a really good writer; thank you for covering us' - it makes it all worth doing for a little while longer.
Since April of 2009 I can't tell you how many thousands of hours I was privileged to spend at community events, interviewing important people doing amazing things, highlighting parts of our community that are forgotten or sometimes ignored, telling the LGBTQ story from the LGBTQ perspective and getting to know many of my readers by meeting them in person somewhere around town. It has been thrilling, rewarding and challenging all in one.
I received several community leadership awards for my role as founder and president of Social Outreach Seattle and I spoke at colleges and universities around the state and throughout the country on LGBTQ issues (anti-LGBTQ hate crimes in particular and police reform), made lifelong friendships with people I probably wouldn't have met if I wasn't reporting on something they are doing. I got invited to the White House by the Obama administration for work I had done to raise awareness about LGBTQ youth suicide. I covered Pride events from Vancouver, B.C. to Portland, Oregon. The first assignment I got at SGN was to go on a seven day Gay cruise from L.A. to Mexico and back (tough work, I tell ya, for sure!). I have interviewed everyone from Lady Gaga to Barney Frank, Cleve Jones to Joe Biden, and Dina Martina to RuPaul. I served on several task forces, committees, and boards of directors to better our community, keep us safe, and empower others to do the best they can.
I am not everyone's cup of tea and I understand that. There are some people who just aren't ever going to like you or understand why you do certain things or have made certain decisions or said certain things. I find the older I get and the more experience I gain mixed with wisdom bestowed on me by mentors and elders I can only say that it really is a waste of time to get mixed up in thoughts about what others think about you or what you are doing and what you stand for. I am not passive aggressive, I am frank and straight to the point, and I don't turn the other cheek. I defend myself when I think it is necessary and ignore the bullshit when it is not. In one memorable such situation two years ago I was being raked over the coals for something I had put in a news article and called all kinds of asshole-this and unprofessional-that, while being invited the next day by the Obama administration's U.S. Justice Department to meet with then-U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to represent the LGBTQ community in Seattle on community-based safety because of the work I had done as community advisor to SPD and the programs SOSea had implemented to address self-defense classes and the creation of our safety shuttle. In those moments I am always reminded that perspective can be something of importance, nobody (including me) is an angel (nor should you claim to be) and while it is important to apologize when you are wrong, it is equally as important to not apologize when you aren't wrong.
While our community is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, it is, when all is said and done, ours to take care of, inspire, help grow, and make sure it remains in place for us when we get older and to act as a good example for the youth that are coming up after us.
Seattle has changed so much in the past few years it is, at times, literally unrecognizable to me as the city I first came to know nearly a decade ago. Capitol Hill is different. Downtown is different. Everywhere you look there are more and more people, higher rents, more crime, and a general anger in the air. That has bothered me, if I am being frank. The bubble that was protecting and shading the Gay community in the Gayborhood of Capitol Hill burst a long time ago and still people can't seem to get it together and come to terms with the fact that change has happened and we should be defining what our community is or is not, where we call home and where we do not and so on. Being so reactionary to everything and having a straight-hating meltdown every five minutes is just sad. We are better than that.
Support LGBTQ businesses organizations and the people who support us. Really, it is important.
Be kind to each other. Work to better yourself and in so doing you will ultimately better our community.
Keep reading Seattle Gay News.
And lastly, THANK YOU for reading my byline week after week, supporting the work I did in the community, supporting the newspaper, cheering me on when I needed it, bursting my bubble when I needed it, and for being your authentic LGBTQ selves. It has been an honor.
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