When Being a Lesbian Makes You a Target

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In 1988, 28-year old Rebecca Wight and her girlfriend, Claudia Brenner, planned to hike the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania when they encountered a man who would end Rebecca’s life. Stephen Roy Carr watched the women at their campsite, and followed them on their trip, as they set up their tent, kissed and mistakenly thought they were alone. Stephen was 82 feet away with a .22 caliber rifle, and he shot at them eight times, injuring Claudia and killing Rebecca.

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Eight years later, in 1996, 24-year-old Julianne Williams and 26-year-old Lollie Winans took their Golden Retriever, Taj, up to Virginia’s Skyline Drive on the Appalachian Trail. The women were found bound and gagged with their throats slit, the case unsolved for years—until Darrell David Rice was indicted in 2002, initially saying he targeted the couple because they were gay, and they “deserved to die because they were lesbian.” Darrell was proved innocent, though, and the murders are still unsolved. 

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In 2009, Teresa Butz and Jennifer Hopper were sleeping in their Seattle home when Isaiah Kalebu broke inside and brutally raped and stabbed them until Teresa died and Jennifer managed to escape. In court, Isaiah said he’d watched the women for days, and “I was there and I was told by my God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to attack my enemies, and I did so.”

These are only three stories of women in same-sex relationships being targeted by men in the last four decades, and now we have another fatal incident to add to the growing list of violent tragedies. Last Thursday, Coast Guard Petty Officer Lisa Trubnikova was shot and killed after her ex-coworker, Coast Guardsman Adrian Loya, walked into Lisa’s Massachusetts home with her wife, Anna Trubnikova, and opened fire. Anna is alive, but hospitalized with serious injuries.

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According to Lisa’s family members, Adrian had been “fixated” on her since they worked together in Alaska. He knew the two women were together, as a couple, and purposefully checked into a nearby motel just prior to the shooting. While this has yet to be considered a hate crime, it is very clear that Adrian’s motive was similar to those of the aforementioned murderers: These lesbians deserve to die.

These and two of the most recent fatal attacks on lesbian couples in Texas (Kristene Chapa and Mollie Olgin in 2012, Britney Cosby and Crystal Jackson in 2013) have been not deemed hate crimes. Claudia Brenner, who survived her attack, has turned her tragedy into activism and spoken out since about violence against gay women, which she certainly considers a hate crime.

I always believed that it was a matter of harassment, not life and death, that it was something that happened to gay men, late at night, outside of seedy bars. I always thought that life-endangering oppression happened to people different than me. To heal, I had to acknowledge the world as a place that includes the possibility of getting shot and killed at any moment.

It wasn’t until 2009 that the United States passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which included sexual orientation in the protections of the federal hate crime law. And sadly, for good reason, as sexual orientation is second to race as perceived motivation listed by the FBI. Considering hate crimes are often under-reported, the number is likely even larger than the 20.2 percent that were victimized in 2013. While hate crimes can vary from hurled slurs from strangers to someone tagging “DYKE” on a lesbian-owned business, it does seem that the highly-violent situations involving deaths of gay women are usually not perceived as such. Despite often being referred to as “hate crimes,” the perpetrators are rarely charged with such. Isiah Kalebu is in prison for life, convicted of aggravated murder. Stephen Roy Carr also received a life sentence for first-degree murder. This past June, David M. Strickland was charged with capital murder, aggravated sexual assault and aggravated assault in the case of Kristene and Mollie, but police decided there was “no evidence that the attack was motivated by their sexual orientation.”

That begs the question, what kind of evidence is necessary to charge and convict someone of a hate crime? In each of these case’s, it would seem their relationships had direct effects on why they were targeted, although surely police or lawyers might argue otherwise: Crimes of jealousy, crimes of passion, crimes against defenseless, easy targets like two women. But hate? Apparently that’s harder to prove, and prosecutors are reluctant because so much bias still exists. For example, it might be easier to have a jury side with your defendant if she’s facing someone who tried to kill her because she’s a woman he wanted to be with, not because she’s a lesbian. That lesbian stuff just really screws things up if you have any conservative gay haters in the town you’re picking your jury members from. In Claudia’s case, she didn’t tell even the cops she and Rebecca were a couple in fear they wouldn’t help her.

Lisa told Adrian several times she was not interested in him, yet he persisted. Lisa wanted to handle the situation herself, and did not go to the Coast Guard during her time spent there being harassed. We now live in a time where Lisa could not be fired for being gay in the Coast Guard, but could still face harassment or other negative repercussions from reporting a male co-worker. We live in a time, still, where going hiking with your girlfriend could mean you have a target on your back if you cross paths with a particularly hateful man. A time when even if you are at home with your partner, sleeping, you might be being stalked by a mad man across the street. A time when that man could be your homophobic father, who would rather see you dead than gay.

As a community, we have made so much progress in the last 27 years since Rebecca and Claudia were shot. We have rights some of us never dreamt of having, ones that Lisa and Anna all-too-briefly enjoyed. But we’re still facing a persistent evil that demands more attention, and our speaking up about it when it happens to us or women we know. No one should have to suffer through the things that start out creepy because we’re conditioned to it. We’re so used to dealing with sexual innuendo and unwanted advances from men that make us uncomfortable, and they continue because we so often roll our eyes and drop it, fearing for our safety if we fight back. We deserve protection and because of survivors like Claudia Brenner and Jennifer Hopper, who so bravely tell their stories and want women like themselves—like us—to use our voices and speak out against these things that happen to us: Verbal abuse, sexual violence and things that you know, in your heart, are wrong. As Jennifer wrote in her Seattle Stranger piece “I Would Like You to Know My Name:”

All I can say is that I think there is tremendous power in testifying, in saying, “This happened to me.” And if you can, showing that you have a name, a voice, and—hey, I know, this is one of the hardest parts because it’s more than I’m ready to do right now—a face.

…sometimes crazy stuff happens and we’re called on to be brave, and I don’t think I’ve done anything different than anyone else would do. Anyway, bravery isn’t always a solitary thing. All these people in my life have helped. You, by listening to my story, have helped.

Look our for yourselves, and each other.

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