Jorge and Will: Tragedy and Hope

This week two stories collided: The story of Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado and the story of Will Phillips. According to the LGBT blog Towleroad, on November 14 the decapitated, dismembered, and burned body of Jorge Steven Lopez was found by the side of the road in Cayey, Puerto Rico. Jorge was 19 and openly gay. He was much loved by his wide circle of friends. He was handsome and hopeful. He had his whole life ahead of him.

While Puerto Rico does not have any history of prosecuting hate crimes, it is clear to many that there is no other explanation for the savagery of Jorge’s murder. The response of the police agent investigating the crime betrayed an appalling level of homophobia and bigotry. In a televised statement, the investigator noted that “people who lead this type of lifestyle need to be aware that this will happen.” This so-called “investigator” should be fired and never allowed to wear a uniform which implies he protects anyone, ever.

It is impossible to imagine the pain of Jorge’s family and friends. The shock of his murder has stunned the LGBT community in Puerto Rico. Jorge’s murder is the direct result of prejudice, ignorance, and bigotry that still dominate life for so many LGBT people around the globe. For many, daily insults, fear, and brutality are a way of life. Compounding this untenable situation is the fact that the very officials empowered to protect our LGBT brothers and sisters either turn a blind eye, are complicit in the terror, or actually perpetrate the attacks. Hearing these stories is almost more than a heart can bear.

On the day I heard about Jorge’s horrific killing, I also read the story of Will Phillips.

Last month, quietly and with little attention, 10-year-old Will Phillips stood up for “liberty and justice for all” by sitting down during the Pledge of Allegiance at his Arkansas elementary school. Will’s family has a number of gay friends and in recent years, he and his parents, Laura and Jay, have become increasingly active straight allies for their friends. They’ve marched in pride parades and stood up for the right of same-sex couples to marry and adopt. Will wants to be a lawyer, so words matter to him. In his view the promise of “liberty and justice for all” in the Pledge is falling short. So he decided to do something.

After asking his parents if it was illegal to not stand for the pledge (because of course Will is a good kid), he made the decision not to stand with the rest of his class as they started off the day by reciting the pledge. After a few days of this, the substitute teacher lost it and began yelling at Will. He quietly told her that, “With all due respect,” she could “go jump off a bridge.” Well, that got him sent to the principal’s office, followed by a call to his mother. Once Laura Phillips heard the whole story she asked the principal when they could expect an apology from the teacher and was told that would not happen.

After Laura posted on Twitter about the incident, the whole thing blew up. So now the entire nation knows about Will’s sitting for justice and while some folks are supportive, there are many—including his fellow schoolmates—who are heckling and hassling Will, with, of course, anti-gay taunts and barbs. But Will isn’t backing down. And his parents support him—they’ve printed off the blog posts and websites calling him out for his courage and integrity.

I can’t help but think that if more kids had parents like Will’s—who are raising  their three children in an environment that celebrates inclusion, equality, and our shared humanity—and if more kids were like Will—who understands that standing up for the rights of others is part of being a good citizen—then maybe, just maybe, Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado would be making plans to hang with his friends for the weekend rather than his parents making plans for his funeral.

Last night I had the privilege of talking to Will and his mom, Laura. I told Will that I knew some were attacking him, calling him names and making his life generally miserable. I emphasized to him that for every insult he had to bear, there was a kid whose life he was saving, who would hear his story and know that someone had his or her back. I told him he was saving lives. He said, “Well, that’s all I need to hear, to know I am doing the right thing.”

With bravery like this, may there be no more stories like Jorge’s.

Here’s to hope,

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