Gay American Heroes Foundation (GAHF) is an organization that honors people killed in anti-LGBTQ hate crimes. The Foundation holds that “All people who live honestly about their sexual orientation are heroic, as it takes great strength and courage to face the daily struggles for personal freedom in the face of enormous opposition; to ultimately give their life for said freedom makes them heroes.” GAHF also honors those who may not have been LGBTQ, but were perceived as such and were attacked for that reason.
The website, www.gayamericanheroes.info, acts as a virtual memorial and a source for the latest news about attacks on Gay people. In addition, the Foundation has created a memorial-in-miniature that is the model for a larger portable memorial that will be displayed in places where hate crimes against Gay people are committed. As a folk project that confers iconic status upon assaulted and slain members of the LGBTQ community, the GAHF website is an example of netizen (internet user) virtual activism.
The GAHF was founded by Scott Hall. He felt he had to do something in 2007 after he heard about the murder of Ryan Keith Skipper in Wahneta, Florida. Skipper had been beaten, stabbed multiple times, and his throat slit, yet his murder had been downplayed in the media because his assailants said he was looking for sex and doing illegal drugs. Similar arguments were used to downplay other attacks against Gay people, such as the torture and murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming in 1998.
While attending a dinner for volunteers who worked for the Miami Winter Party (an annual Circuit event held in March), Hall asked attendees if they had heard about the murder, and the overwhelming majority did not know about it. “How could they not?” Hall asked, and contacted Gay activist icon Frank Kameny to see if a memorial had been set up in honor of victims of LGBTQ hate crimes. There was no such memorial in the USA, so Hall formed the GAHF, which was incorporated in late summer that same year.
The purpose of the memorial would be to publicly commemorate the death of a Gay person, both nationally and locally where the murder occurred. Nicknamed “Rainbow Scott” for his commitment to the LGBTQ community, Hall has been vocal about hate crimes, and envisioned the memorial as a means of forcefully conveying his anger. “I don’t want to wait any more,” said Hall in a personal communication to Mickey Weems. ”When you steal one of our own from us, we will confront you head-on. I’ll be damned if we’re not gonna fight back.”
The website was created in late spring 2007 to promote the idea of the traveling memorial designed to educate the public through peaceful confrontation. In addition to the memorial project, the website would be regularly updated with recent hate crimes leading to the deaths of LGBTQ peoples.
The Rainbow Memorial
The memorial will be a wall of six large 8’X10’ panels (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple), each with a large white letter (H, E, R, O, E, and S) stretching approximately 100 feet in a zig-zag pattern, with six panels between them featuring large photographs of six of the slain. It is designed so to attract the eye from a distance, a constructed in such a way to have multiple perspectives, depending on which side it is viewed.
From one perspective, the viewer sees the word, “HEROES,” and from another, six large photographs. On the other side of the wall are the heroes themselves. Hundreds of victims of hate crimes run the length of the display, their names on white stars set in red, white, and blue backgrounds of six panels, and their photographs on the opposing panels in the zig-zag. The memorial will feature iconic figures like Matthew Shepard, Brandon Teena, Sakia Gunn, Barry Winchell, and Gwen Araujo among the multitude.
A scale model of the Memorial was unveiled at Georgie’s Alibi Gay bar in Wilton Manors, Florida. The Project teamed up with Equality Florida to display the model in the Rotunda of the Florida Capitol in 2008 as Florida’s lawmakers considered anti-bullying and non-discrimination bills protecting sexual orientation. The model was also displayed at a number of fundraisers and public events in 2008 and 2009, including the premier of the movie Milk about the life and assassination of Gay politician and activist Harvey Milk at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. Organizers have brought it to a number of Pride festivals and university campuses across the USA.
From Victim to Hero
The exhibit has not been without controversy. Designation of victims as heroes has raised some concerns as to whether being attacked is enough to earn status as a hero. Hall answered these criticisms by pointing out that, across America, the simple act of coming out is a choice that can lead to disastrous and even life-threatening consequences, thus does indeed constitute an act of heroism. “Somebody explain to me why they are not heroes,” he said. Others have praised the memorial for humanizing the discussion about hate crimes legislation, increasing awareness of violence against LGBTQ people, and bringing these issues to the attention of a wider audience outside of the Gay community.
Loffreda, Beth. Losing Matt Shepard: Life and Politics in the Aftermath of Anti-Gay Murder. New York: Columbia University, 2000.
Tomsen, Stephen and Pat Carlen. Sexual Identity and Victimhood in Gay-Hate Murder Trials. Leichhardt, New South Wales: Federation, 1997.