Working with a nonprofit that specializes in LGBT homicide research is, at times, surreal. Frequently, normal office management becomes something more. Once, we procured a new office space and moved several thousand homicide files. The move was uneventful, but verifying the files became something of an ordeal. After moving the files into new cabinets, we had to confirm that they all made it to the right spot.
A system was worked out: our head researcher would read a name from the database and I would repeat it if the file was in place. If you've never read several thousand names out loud, you'll have to trust me when I tell you it takes a while. We considered this time well spent because we knew the database (and corresponding files) contained the largest collection of names and crime details for LGBT homicide cases in the world. To us, the files were everything. Still, we tried to get through the job as quickly as possible.
Our organization, the Center for Homicide Research, looks for homicide trends. The basic idea is that if we can find commonalities in how people were killed/kill, we can learn something that may help police forces solve LGBT homicides. To accomplish this goal, we needed a bunch of data before any significant conclusions could be drawn. So, we searched newspapers and the Internet for homicides in bulk. My point: this was a tedious project because there were a lot of files.
There were bulging files with familiar names handwritten on the tabs of the manilla folders -- Harvey Milk, Matthew Shepard and Brandon Teena. The details of these murders could be repeated by memory; however, those were the exceptions. Most were skinny files filled with one newspaper clipping or a handful of online printouts. The names attached to these files were completely unfamiliar. Strangers.
However, because we'd compiled so many cases, the organization's research was able to draw some pretty interesting conclusions. LGBT homicides do look different from other homicides. Actually, lumping all LGBT homicides together is unfair. We've learned that the statistics are different depending on the victim and the offender. Homicides involving gay men look very different from homicides involving lesbians or the transgender community. For example, the offenders of gay homicides tended to be a little older and a little whiter, and the weapons of choice were different: knives were the favorite, followed by guns, then beating.
That day, however, we weren't thinking about the research, only inventory. We continued our cantor/chorus, and slowly our boredom transformed into solemnity. I can't remember whose voice was the first voice to crack or lower lip to quiver, but they did, and we both began to cry.
At about the same time, we both realized that every name belonged to someone who was a part of a horrific crime. The papers in the files weren't just fodder for statistics but the grisly details of someone's last moments alive. Every name was someone who was gone forever. Someone who was loved. This wasn't data; these were people.
After our first breakdown, it was time for a break. After a meal and some small talk, we got back to work, but things had changed. The names were read more slowly with far more reverence. That afternoon, we inadvertently held a long-overdue memorial service.
So far, we've identified thousands of LGBT individuals who have been involved in homicides. Sometimes they are the offenders, but most of the time they are the victims. We've presented our findings to surprised and grateful detectives around the country, spoken at homicide conferences, and been published a few times. Our work is slowly being recognized, and we hope that one day there will be fewer homicides to add to the database.