Last night, throngs of people bearing candles filled an empty parking lot in Montrose, just off the main gay bar drag of Pacific Street. A block or two from here, Paul Broussard was murdered in 1991. Aaron Scheerhoorn was stabbed to death outside a nearby nightclub just half a year ago.
The list of GLBT-identified victims slain in this area is long: at least 35 since 1979, according to a list compiled by the Aaron Scheerhoorn Foundation for Change. Last night, politicians, GLBT allies, and parents and friends of murdered children gathered to remember them.
Charles Armstrong, owner of four gay nightclubs in the area and controversial subject of our cover story "Mayor of Montrose," provided a landscaped corner of his parking lot for the Montrose Remembrance Garden. There, a Texas lilac tree of the "Montrose purple" variety was planted by Scheerhoorn's foundation in memory of all victims.
Dr. Donald Sinclair, whose son was murdered more than 30 years ago for being gay, started the gathering with a prayer. "May even those whose crimes brought us together find forgiveness," he closed.
Not everyone was as ready to forgive. Douglas Anderson, President of the Aaron Scheerhoorn Foundation for Change, addressed his remarks to his fallen friend. He said he's still angry that the bouncers at Blur Bar refused to let in his bleeding friend, and that a crowd watched idly by as his friend was stabbed to death. "I can't fathom that type of apathy and indifference. It sickens me when I think about it," he said. "That one simple act to let you inside, and we wouldn't be here tonight."
Anderson announced new initiatives in Montrose to prevent a similar future incidents. If anyone in need is brought to the steps of any bar, they will be let in and the proper authorities called, he said. He and others also formed a citizens on patrol group called Aaron's Angels, in cooperation with HPD. The group will patrol the streets of Montrose at night and report any crime. "Our goal to rid the community of apathy that prevailed that night," he said.
Politicians were just as concerned about the vulnerability of the GLBT population. State senators John Whitmire and Mario Gallegos, Jr., as well as State Rep. Garnet Coleman, each spoke about the frustration of getting bills with sex-oriented language passed. Even though it took a decade to pass, the hate-crime bill criminalizing violence spurred by sexual orientation was incomplete. Coleman is still pushing for the inclusion of the word "transgender" in the bill, which is currently missing. "Because of that, we've not finished," he said. "We need to work until everyone is covered under the hate crimes bill."
One third of GLBT victims in Houston are transgender, said Ann Robison, executive director of the Montrose Counseling Center.
The quick parole of Broussard's killer, Jon Buice -- who has served less than half of his 45-year sentence -- also angered Coleman. "Here we are, in 2011, discussing whether somebody who actually committed murder should be paroled," he said. "I just do not think that should happen."
Neither does Nancy Rodriguez, Broussard's mother. In a statement she prepared, read by HPD crime victim advocate Andy Kahan, Rodriguez wrote, "What kind of message is that sending, not only to this community but to all victims of homicide?"
As the crowd filtered out to stand by the small garden, each grabbed a white balloon. Freddi Jensen, whose gay son Noel was brutally murdered in 2008, spoke as the crowd fell silent. "Do we allow bitterness to consume us? Or do we use grief as a springboard to change?" she asked. "That's what we're doing tonight with this beautiful garden." Simultaneously, hundreds of balloons were released into the twilight.
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The memorial isn't a full-blown city park; it's a corner on land that Armstrong still owns. The memorial garden that will exist "as long as (Armstrong) owns the real estate," according to a press release. But Armstrong said he doesn't plan to give up the land. "It's not for sale," he said.
Standing in his now-empty parking lot, usually crawling with feral cats that Armstrong so famously feeds daily, Armstrong explained how Scheerhoorn's friends approached him. "They came to me with the simple request of planting a tree. I said, 'I think I have a better idea.'"
Armstrong hired a landscaping firm to clear the jungly brush, so overgrown that a homeless man's clothes were discovered after clearing. The space would become a memorial. "I want it to be more than just -- oh look, one of my little babies!" Armstrong interrupted himself, pointing to a cat prowling the parking lot. Then, he regained focus. "I want this to be for all hate crimes and bullying victims."
And if he ever does decide to sell the land, Armstrong said, he owns plenty more parking lot corners just down the block. "If I ever were to sell this, we'll redo it, and do the same thing all over again."