By A.J. FLICK
Three days before the fifth anniversary of the murder of a gay man in Laramie, Wyo., a local support center for gays and lesbians is launching its Anti-Violence Project.
“We’ve been building up to this point for the past couple of years,” said Cathy Busha, director of Wingspan’s Anti-Violence Project.
“We decided last year we wanted to be offering services, and it seemed like a logical time to do it and coincide with the five-year mark of the brutal beating and death of Matthew Shepard.”
The project includes crisis intervention for those who believe they have been a target of a hate crime, support groups, plans to minimize victims’ fears, referrals to other agencies and an effort to boost public awareness about this type of crime.
Shepard, 22, was beaten, burned, tied to a wooden fence and left to die Oct. 12, 1998. His death created a nationwide awareness of violence toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.
Wingspan will have a booth this weekend at OUToberFEST, which will be held from 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Saturday at the DeMeester Center in Reid Park, at 22nd Street and Alvernon Way. Admission is $5 for the festival, which includes performances by Desert Voices, Digital Soldiers, Lee Anne Savage, Curt Beal, Tom Maza and Rey Tester.
In addition, Wingspan will hold a candlelight vigil Sunday at Sunset Park, on the north side of City Hall, 255 W. Alameda St. The vigil is to honor the memories of hate-crime victims including Shepard; Richard Heakin, who was beaten to death in Tucson 25 years ago; and Philip A. Walsted, whose death in Tucson last year was labeled a hate crime by police.
“There will be an opportunity at the vigil for community members to come up and speak as well about their own experiences and also their hopes and ideas for creating a safer southern Arizona,” Busha said.
Wingspan has long offered a 24-hour crisis line for domestic violence victims, and the Anti-Violence Project grew out of an increase in calls, Busha said.
The group was able to add a new staff member to handle the Anti-Violence Project. A grant from the Community Foundation of Southern Arizona funded the research to build the project, and grants targeted to reduce hate crime from the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission and the Arizona Department of Public Safety will keep the project going.
Last year at OUToberFEST, the city’s Commission on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Issues conducted a survey of more than 1,600 people.
Officials say most said Tucson is a fairly welcoming city, offices are relatively nondiscriminatory and the Tucson Police Department’s sensitivity to GLBT matters was high.
However, officials say, harassment and victimization of GLBT youths was higher than expected. Seventy-four percent of gay youths and 55 percent of lesbian youths said they had been verbally harassed or threatened. Twenty percent of gay and lesbian youths said they had been physically assaulted.
Thirty-four percent of gay youths and 40 percent of lesbian youths said they had objects thrown at them. Twenty percent of gay youths and 35 percent of lesbian youths said they had been verbally or physically abused by a family member.
Busha said she was surprised by the anger directed at GLBT youths, which is why Wingspan supports such programs as Eon, which offers meetings, fund-raisers, intervention services, career enrichment and a place for youths 23 and younger to go to feel safe and accepted.
Wingspan also works with teachers to identify problems and avoid or interrupt harassment when it occurs.
“It makes the schools safer for everybody,” Busha said.