On Oct. 22, in the early hours of the morning, Stuart Walker, a young gay barman and hotel manager, was found beaten, burned alive and left to die in Cumnock, Scotland, in what seems more and more to be a gay hate crime ending in horrific murder.
Walker, 28, was found by police at 5 a.m. He was last seen at 2:30 a.m. partying with friends. Reports show Walker had been horrifically beaten before being set on fire, likely while still alive. Following an extremely violent and sustained attack, Chief Superintendent John Thompson said the victim, who was found half-naked in the Caponacre industrial estate in Cumnock, may have been subjected to a sexual attack before he died as well.
Immediately following news of Walker's murder in Cumnock, part of Strathclyde, a tribute Facebook page was launched. Twitter trends like #RIPStuartWalker and #NOH8 began tweeting furiously about the likelihood that the openly gay Walker, on his way to help plan his grandmother's 80th birthday, was the victim of a vicious hate crime.
Newspapers, however, were reluctant to pursue to gay hate crime angle, influenced in part by Scottish police's own reticence in labeling this murder a hate crime at all. BBC Scotland covered the story Sunday night, including the fact that Walker was set on fire, with no mention of a possible motive. Chief Sup. Thompson continues to state that though the attack was not random, no motives for the attack have yet been ruled out.
In terms of his sexuality and lifestyle, a spokeswoman for the Strathclyde Police said in a statement, we are not ruling out any aspect of his life to try and identify why somebody would want to kill him. Chief Superintendent Thompson agrees. We have no clear motive, Thompson said, though reports indicate police may have subjects being interrogated about Walker's death. It would be unwise to eliminate that fact [that he was gay].
Detective Inspector John Hogg, who is leading the inquiry into who killed the hotel manager, took pains to calm the Cumnock community. I don't think there's anything for the general public of Cumnock to be worried about, Detective Hogg told reporters. The early indications are that this attack wasn't random.
Indeed, the brutal beating, immolation, and possible sexual assault of a man before killing him is unlikely to be random. Whether or not this means the general public should not be concerned, however, is another story.
Gay Hate Crimes on the Rise
Patrick Strudwick, an award-winning and openly gay journalist at publications like The Observer and The Guardian, was the main man drawing media attention to the story, casting it as a gay hate crimes before most sources and using Twitter to get Stuart Walker's name into the public consciousness. The vicious nature of the attack, including the beating and burning of the victim, triggered memories of past homophobic murders.
Cumnock, Scotland is not a homophobic town. By everyone's reckoning, Stuart Walker was a well-loved member of the community, respected and befriended by almost everyone in the small Scottish town. He had no known enemies, had, to everyone's knowledge, never been the victim of a hate crime, and had lived a peaceful, fun-loving life before his charred remains were found beaten and abandoned near the road.
Walker's life, however, was a constant backdrop of homophobia and the threat of gay bullying and hate crimes, no matter what his individual circumstances may have been before he was killed.
The number of gay hate crimes reported to the police in UK has risen almost fivefold in the past five years, rising steadily in Britain and spiking dramatically in Scotland. Stonewall Scotland, a gay rights groups, reports that two thirds of Scottish LGBT people have been verbally abused in the past, while at least a third have been beaten or otherwise attacked physically.
Such figures, documented by The Herald, are influenced by the rise in gay teens and adults reporting such incidents at all. With increased LGBT visibility in recent years, more and more victims of gay hate crimes have begun to speak out against their attackers, and police are becoming more and more adept in recording crimes as homophobic, rather than simply assaults, muggings, or murder.
This hardly diminishes the fact, however, that so many crimes occur each year, the tide of homophobia continuing to bully, beat, or even rape and murder gay teens and adults into submission and silence.
The U.S. has also seen an increase in the incidents of hate crimes targeting those identifying as LGBT. The Los Angeles Times reported the number of verbal and physical assaults triggered by homophobia had risen 13 percent between 2009 and 2010, with 27 people openly or perceived as lesbian, gay, or transgender killed in gay hate crimes. The report also estimated that 50 percent of all hate crimes are not reported to the police, with many in the LGBT community viewing law enforcement as indifferent or outright abusive.
In 2008, the murder of gay teenager Michael Causer in Liverpool only achieved the enormous local attention it did following an online campaign and the establishment of the Michael Causer Foundation. National media attention, particularly that of the BBC, was noticeably absent, according to The Independent. The LGBT community in the UK report similar impressions of disinterest or antagonism when trying to report gay hate crimes.
In most cases then, as with Stuart Walker, it is social media, not mainstream papers, news stations, or local police, that pick up the story and get its message out: When a gay man is brutally assaulted and set on fire in the night, the fight for LGBT equality is far from over.
Whoever has done this is pure evil.
Walker's death may not be the result of being gay. Yet even if the hotel manager was not killed from a gay hate crime, he remains the victim of a society whose crime caused many to jump immediately to Matthew Shepard, another openly gay young man found brutally beaten and tied to a fence in a small town in Wyoming. Left to die because of who he was, by those who refused to understand or to accept it.
Matthew Shepard was in 1998. Stuart Walker was in 2011. And countless others, in that span of 22 years, have become statistics in a string of battles over gay hate crime legislation and the horrors of gay teen suicides, from Lawrence King, 15, in 2008, to Jamey Rodemeyer, 15, in 2011.
Walker was tortured, set on fire, and left to die without family or friends, and that makes this attack not only not random, but following a familiar pattern. Just last week Steven Iorio was severely burned by his supposed friends for being gay. Neither of the two men who doused their companion in rum and set him on fire after covering him with homophobic slurs, has been formally charged.
Walker's aunt, Linda Woods, sobbed as she laid flowers at the scene of her nephew's murder. Stuart was loved by everyone, she said. Whoever has done this is pure evil. Perhaps. But this horrific murder goes beyond one man, one woman, or one group.
Walker knew the face of pure evil in our world. So do those unmentioned in the local paper or national news station, bullied daily or driven to suicide or robbed of life for who they love. Yes, Walker knew the face of evil. So did Matthew Shepard, Michael Causer, Lawrence King, and Jamey Rodemeyer.