5 Attackers Assail Gay Men in Fla. Town as Onlookers Pass By
When five men allegedly attacked two gays in Immokalle, Florida, there were plenty of witnesses. But the victims were left to fend for themselves: Not a single person came to their aid.
"It was right in the middle of the street," Manuel Galan, 27, told local newspaper the Naples Daily News. "People were walking all around us. No one stopped. No one did anything.
"It hurts me," Galan said, adding. "I knew some of the people."
By that, he meant that he knows some of the men who allegedly launched the attack, which included punching and kicking, accompanied by anti-gay epithets and death threats.
Galan is gay, and so is his 21-year-old friend, Cirildo Soliz. The two are not a couple, but that didn’t matter to the mob of five men that attacked them. Local authorities say that the assault may have been a hate crime, but also said that the attack may have been gang-related.
Both men are natives of Immokalee, an agricultural town about half an hour from Naples. The newspaper account said that the two had experienced anti-gay taunts and harassment on previous occasions, but not physical assault.
For Galan, there is no question about why he and Soliz were attacked. He says it’s because they’re gay men who don’t try to hide who they are and don’t apologize for it.
"I don’t hate who I am," Galan told the Naples Daily News. "I like who I am. I don’t hide my life. They just don’t like gay people, so they attacked us."
Added Galan, "I just don’t understand why it had to happen that way. I’m a very respectable person. I don’t ever do anything someone doesn’t want done to them."
The young man said that gays in the town were not well accepted, telling the local media, "[M]ost of the gay people here are a little troubled. They don’t have anyone to talk to, have nowhere to go, it’s not accepted. Not around here."
The two men told authorities that they were simply walking along the street when the five attackers beset them without cause. After the men finished kicking and punching the two victims, Soliz said, one of the assailants told him, "I’m going to kill you and I know where you live."
The article said that the two are pressing charges.
Anti-gay harassment has also taken place in nearby Naples, the article noted, citing the experience of Ruth Dorfman, a member of the local chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (P-FLAG). Three years ago, the 66-year-old Dorfman’s home was vandalized. Someone drew swastikas on her garage door.
"I still get up every morning and look at my garage door and see if anyone has defaced it," told the media. "It’s not something you get over immediately."
Dorfman said that most anti-gay hate crimes in the area are never reported because the victims are too intimidated to go to the law for help.
Anti-gay discrimination does not always take the form of physical assault of property damage. Two Naples men recently settled a suit they had brought against their former employer, the Ridgway Bar & Grill, claiming that they had been fired because of their HIV status.
Naples residents John Timothy Robertson and his same-sex life partner, Steven Ray "Forrest" Chaplin, claimed late last year that they had been fired from Ridgway Bar & Grill because they were HIV positive. The eatery said that Robertson was fired because of poor work performance, with Chaplin quitting his job shortly afterwards.
The men’s attorney, Matthew Sarelson, sought to fast track the suit because the men’s health was declining. Chaplin suffered with AIDS-related cancer and Robertson suffered from Kaposi’s sarcoma.
The suit claimed that the men had been noted as "exceptional employees." But when Robertson, who worked as an assistant manager, notified the restaurant’s vice president, Suzanne Honeycutt, about their HIV status, Honeycutt expressed concern that they would need time off from work and that their medications would affect their ability on the job.
About a month later, the suit alleges, the men began to receive notifications about their work performance. Less than a month after that, the suit said, both men were fired, with the restaurant instructing the staff not to talk about the firings in order to protect the establishment’s "reputation."
The Ridgway Bar & Grill website asserts that the establishment’s dining experience is "flawless from start to finish."
The restaurant’s defense stated that the business’ "actions toward John Timothy Robertson were based on legitimate non-retaliatory and non-discriminatory reasons completely unrelated to plaintiffs’ HIV status."
The men reached a settlement with the restaurant this past summer, according to an Aug. 11 Naples Daily News article. The exact terms of the settlement were not disclosed, but the men collected enough money from their former employer to move to Nashville and start over.
"The plaintiffs are happy the matter is resolved and they can concentrate on beating HIV/AIDS and living their lives together," their lawyer, Matthew Sarelson, said.
The article said that health issues were one factor in the men’s decision to settle.
"My health got so bad before we settled that I almost died twice," Robertson told the media. "They were making burial plans for me.
"I lived that lawsuit every single day and stressed about everything that was going on," added Robertson, "to the point that it was ridiculous for both of us.
"When I got out of the hospital, I said, ’I am done. Let’s get it over with,’ " Robertson recounted.
"It’s best to settle rather than face a large settlement later," said Kessella Brown of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). "They realize, ’We messed up and there’s no reason to take this through litigation and face more later.’"
But the fact that the men brought suit after their employment at the restaurant ended has spooked potential employers in the men’s new city, Robertson said.
"A lot of people are scared to hire because they think you’re lawsuit happy," Robertson recounted. "It’s still haunting us here."
Sexual minorities are not protected in Florida, but discrimination due to disability is illegal under both state and federal law. Persons living with HIV are covered under those laws.