Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Silence of the Lambda:
Gays, Troy Davis & the Death Penalty

Capital punishment, for me, is a gay issue both abroad and here at home, and it's one reason why I helped organize street protests in San Francisco over Uganda's "kill the gays" bill and to urge the United Nations to oppose the executions of gays. At both actions, I deplored the death penalty in all cases around the planet.

The execution by the state of Georgia last week of Troy Davis (pictured), despite evidence of his innocence, questionable witnesses and prosecution, and global opposition brought forward many individual and organizational voices in an effort to keep him alive. In vain, I looked for statements and actions by Gay Inc groups, showing solidarity with the justice movement working to end executions.

After Davis was put to death, National Center for Lesbian Rights executive director Kate Kendell posted this statement to their site:

This is a sad and shameful day for justice and democracy. With scant and tainted evidence the State of Georgia proceeded with its scheduled execution of Troy Davis. Every barrier to protect a possibly innocent man from death fell away and now we all bear some measure of responsibility for Davis’s death. As a nation, we have lost a bit of our decency and humanity with Davis’s execution. It is long past time for our nation and everyone committed to a just and fair system to renounce the death penalty. It is no deterrent, and as the body count rises of men and women who may well have been innocent, our democratic ideals and faith in justice are tarnished.

From New York, longtime gay social justice advocate Bill Dobbs weighed in on these matters last week:

The availability of the death penalty poisons the entire criminal justice system. Gay Inc ought to recognize that but nearly always its voice is raised only for crime victims, hardly ever for any GLBT person who is accused or convicted of a crime.

Wanda Jean Allen killed her girlfriend. Not too many people end up on death row for killing a lover but Allen was a lesbian and black - two strikes against her. State of Oklahoma ended Allen's life. There are other current death row cases with gay or lesbian themes but Gay Inc pays little attention.

Even if Davis was executed something good may come out of this - hundreds of thousands signed petitions and there were some unusual allies for the cause, a former FBI head and even Bob Barr. Yep, doubts can galvanize people. But what if there are no doubts about the sentencing?  [On September 21] one of James Byrd Jr's killers was executed by the State of Texas with little fanfare.

Over the weekend, I wrote to the executive director of Lambda Legal, Kevin Cathcart, to ask if his group played any role in stopping the Davis execution or was engaged with anti death penalty groups and their work. Kevin's reply, in full:

Lambda Legal was not involved in efforts on the Troy Davis case. I also am not aware of anyone organizing in the LGBT community on his execution. Our mission is the civil rights of LGBT people and those with HIV and that is where we focus our resources.

Needless to say, I was quite disappointed the gay community's leading legal advocacy organization was silent about the Davis execution. I hope Kevin and his colleagues reconsider their disengagement on the death penalty over all, and as a gay issue.

I also followed up with Kate, seeking info about her group's work prior to Davis' death and collaborating with advocates working to end state sanctioned killing. Her reply:

NCLR staff signed and circulated petitions, and I think some attended vigils in DC. In the past we were part of previous LGBT coalitions—there was a joint statement by many of our groups around the murder of Matthew Shepard to argue for not seeking the death penalty for his killers. We are also signing on to the SAFE initiative effort here in California to repeal the death penalty. I would expect that we would be part of the coalition of organizations who will join forces to support that measure and engage the broader LGBT community to support the measure.

That SAFE initiative Kate refers to is ballot measure proposal put forward by California Taxpayers for Justice for the 2012 election that would replace the death penalty with life imprisonment and no chance of parole.

It's heartening to read the words of Kate on behalf of her organization forthrightly opposing the death penalty and making a public commitment to actively engage to stop this barbaric practice. Let's push Lambda Legal and all other LGBT justice and equality advocates to link arms with capital punishment abolitionists, and say "Gays oppose executions."

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