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‘We Can’t Live Our Lives in Fear’: California LGBTQ Center Responds to Death Threats

The Sacramento LGBTQ Community Center has been threatened before, but this month’s attacks were different.

On March 14, the center received two letters threatening to “destroy” every member of the California capital city’s queer and trans population. Riddled with grammatical errors, the expletive-laden message claimed LGBTQ people “plague society with twisted ideas,” arguing that same-sex unions have turned “God’s plan” for heterosexual marriage “into a freakshow.”

Aside from the severity of the threats, Executive Director David Heitstuman says what made the letters unique is that they were hand-written and signed. Usually the hate mail is “typed, anonymous, and vague,” he claims.

“We got another piece of mail yesterday, but that one was much less specific,” Heitstuman tells INTO in a Thursday phone call.

The death threatsare only the most recent attacks against LGBTQ centers in the past few yearsas community spaces across the United States have found themselves routinely targeted with violent hate.

Following Donald Trump’s 2016 election to the presidency, queer resource centers in Arizona, Florida, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, and Wisconsin have been vandalized, graffitied, or had their windows shattered by bullets. In the case of Washington, D.C.’s Casa Ruby, a staff member was assaulted by a man who threatened to kill her.

The wave of anti-LGBTQ hate has even hit home in California, largely viewed as a liberal safe haven for members of the queer and trans community. In February 2017, the Los Angeles LGBTQ Center was tagged with a transphobic slur scrawled on the building in white spray paint.

Sacramentowhich voted heavily for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential electionhasn’t been immune to attacks against the LGBTQ community.

Julio E. Villarman, 22, was at Highwatera pub located near the city’s downtown areawhen a stranger began pummeling him for mentioning his boyfriend in conversation. Villarman’s lip was split and his jaw bruised in the attack. But a friend, Ismael Aranda, was more severely injured: The 24-year-old may lose his eye, as the Sacramento Bee reports.

“We have seen more of these sorts of calls and incidents,” Heitstuman says, noting that the attack took place in one of the city’s most gay-friendly areas.

“When you’re going about your day and feel like you’re surrounded by your community as you’re crossing a rainbow crosswalk, you feel pretty safe until someone walks up behind you and throws a beer bottle or screams out of their car window,” he adds. “Or the local LGBTQ center, a beacon of hope and safety in your community, receives letters saying someone is going to destroy and kill every LGBTQ person in Sacramento.”

“We certainly are seeing that happen,” he continues, “and people in the community are feeling anxious, uneasy, and unsafe.”

Heitstuman declined to speculate to whether Trump’s election had any influence on the uptick in anti-LGBTQ hate crimes across the U.S. since 2016. An LAPD fact sheet released last week showed that bias incidents targeting members of Los Angeles’ trans community skyrocketed last year, increasing by more than 280 percent over 2016. Most of these, as the department reports, were property-related crimes.

But Heitstuman says the reality is that LGBTQ people have always faced attacks on their community.

In 1999, a gay couple in Sacramento-adjacent Happy ValleyGary Matson and Winfield Mowderwere gunned down by a pair of white supremacists as they slept peacefully in their beds. The two had been together for 14 years. Just months later, a gay minister in one of Sacramento’s most impoverished districts was stabbed to death during a robbery.

The city updated its nondiscrimination ordinance in 2013 to strengthen protections for the LGBTQ communityspecifically around gender identitybut Heitstuman says more work needs to be done.

“Hate still exists in the world. So much of that continues to be directed at LGBTQ people,” he claims. “It really enforces the need for continued education, outreach, and visibility to demonstrate that LGBTQ folks are just like everyone else. We have the same needs for safety and love. The fight did not end with marriage equality.”

The Sacramento Police Department is reportedly investigating this month’s attacks as a possible hate crime, and no suspects have been identified. But while those responsible are brought to justice, the community will keep fighting for equality.

Heitstuman says the center will remain open amid the investigation.

“We can’t live our lives in fear,” he says. “We’re not going back into the closet. We are here and proud and valued for who we areand we plan to remain so.”

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