Interview by Perry Brass
Recently, anti-gay violence has been making headlines all over America, but for Foreman, anti-gay violence and fighting it has been the top issue in his career for most of this decade.
Foreman graduated from NYU's Law School in 1982, and almost immediately began working with the kind of people that society for the most part wants to forget: prison populations and gay and lesbian victims of violence.
Prior to joining AVP in 1990, he worked for ten years in prison policy and administration, first with the West Virginia Department of Corrections, later as Executive Assistant to the NYC Corrections Commissioner, and finally as director of one of the medium/minimum security facilities at Rikers Island.
During his stint with the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, from 1990 to 1996—which also coincided with the rise of the AIDS epidemic—he made the cause of fighting anti-gay violence one of the top profile issues in New York's gay community.
The AVP became the nation's leading agency for assisting victims of violence towards lesbians and gay men.
Its case load increased 85% (to 1300+ clients), its staff level rose from four to twelve, and its budget increased 300% to $770,000—the majority of which came from grants and donations outside of government sources.
During this time Matt's own profile rose considerably, too, as he became associated with the fight against gay and lesbian violence, bringing this problem before the eyes of millions of people.
Foreman used a combination of aggressive case follow-up and public street activism to focus attention on hate violence. He organized demonstrations and marches against these crimes all over New York, not simply in Manhattan, and led an effort to develop a national system to assist and document anti-gay violence victims.
By 1993, AVP began producing an annual report on all anti-gay crime in the US, therefore coordinating a complete picture out of what had once seemed only isolated incidents. At the same time, Foreman managed to open up dialogues with the New York police department that resulted in significant changes in police policies in handling bias crimes and in police training in regard to gay and lesbian situations.
Perry Brass: For years anti-gay violence was seen simply as a part of being gay. It was rarely talked about. What started your interest in this particular issue?
Perry Brass: How can you legislate against anti-gay violence as a hate crime when gay people themselves are discriminated against as a group?
Matt Foreman: This is part of the way in which American society addresses issues—that is, through the law. You're right. We should have, at a minimum, these protections, which we don't. There are only 11 states in this country in which we have the same basic protections against discrimination, in employment, credit, education, and housing. So at a base level, we don't have civil rights.
But that does not mean that we should stop fighting for other rights, for protections that other citizens have as well. That goes for hate crimes, too. The majority of states do have hate crimes laws, but the majority of those do not cover sexual orientation.
We are not legislating against hate. That is not what a hate crimes law is about. It is about acts based upon a motive: that's the way criminal law is set up. We don't punish acts per se, we punish what's behind the act—as well as the act itself. Virtually every criminal law requires that there be an intent behind it. So if I run you down by accident and kill you, there'll be no penal consequences.
But if I run you down because I hate you, I can be put up for first degree murder. It's disingenuous for people to say, "Oh, you're trying to regulate thought," or "trying to impinge on the First Amendment."
No, this is how Anglo-American criminal law addresses behavior, which means we have to look at the motive behind a criminal act and punish it accordingly—based upon the harm done to society and the real harm done to the victim. On all of those scores, hate crime is much more offensive than other forms of criminal behavior.
Perry Brass: Do you feel there is a relationship between the escalation of crimes against gay men and the escalation of the Christian Right's hostility to sexuality in general, as seen by the murder of doctors who are abortion providers?
We do know that in other parts of the country, whenever there is an increase in organizing by the Radical Right, and an increase in media attention on gay and lesbian issues, there is an increase in violence. When you are calling a group of Americans evil, destructive to the very fiber of society, that they steal and seduce children—and that is the rhetoric of the Radical Right—it does not take a big leap for others to say, "If this is what these people are doing, shouldn't we punish them? Shouldn't we beat them up?"
That is the next logical step. People would not be going out to beat up gay people without a justification, and the Religious Right gives them that justification.
Perry Brass: Do you think that if violence against other minority groups—that is groups with less power, such as blacks or women—if that stopped, then violence against gay men would continue?
Matt Foreman: Absolutely. Although hate is linked very much across racist, heterosexist lines, surveys have shown that people who are racists are also more likely to be homophobic, too.
But the fact of the matter is that we have had several decades of preaching against racial intolerance and [some] fewer decades of preaching against sexist intolerance, and these problems still exist very much.
But we have not even had a couple of years worth of preaching against anti-gay violence, against gay hate. I am an optimist, and I do think that, maybe, in a hundred years, we'll be a lot further along than we are now in terms of hate violence. But anti-gay violence will always be behind the curve, because we're that much further behind the curve where society is moving in terms of race and sex.
Perry Brass: But the velocity of change seems much faster. A hundred years. Wow! That's a long way away.
When I was growing up, there was no discussion of homosexuality at all. I had a college dictionary that did not even have the word "homosexual" in it. I've seen a huge change already since then, and I'm fifty. So a hundred years seems a long way off.
Matt Foreman: But you have to look at other cultures, and see hatreds that persist. That's why I think a hundred years is optimistic. Our community has transformed itself in thirty short years. But the fact that people are talking about gay things, or the fact that we have a semblance of a gay community in some parts of the country, has not translated into significant political advances.
It is hard to know what anti-gay violence was before, when we were so invisible. But anti-gay violence is not going away. It is increasing. I think back to when I came out in 1976, and if you would have told me in 1976 that we'd still not have equal protection against discrimination in New York State, or the rest of the country, I would have told you you're crazy.
Of course, it was going to happen in two years! If you would have told me that the Radical Right was going to be targeting us and using us for their fund raising, I would have told you that's just not possible: American society is changing so fast.
There is a myth of gay power, of gay organization, but we are hopelessly underfunded, under-organized, compared to our enemies. The Pride Agenda or GMHC are held up to be these powerful institutions, but we are so small compared to our opponents. We are really fighting millennia of hate.
Perry Brass: What do you think people can do to immediately—and I emphasize the word immediately—reduce the fear that many gay men and lesbians live in?
Matt Foreman: It's a cliché, but I think the immediate and hardest thing to do is to be out. That is the only way to reduce fear. People who are not out are the most fearful. At least in that way, you are confronting the fear. But when parents and employers continue to be profoundly homophobic, it's not easy to be out.
But I think one thing people can do every day is to think: what can I do in some small way to be a little more out? I'm not saying people should come out of the closet at work and risk their jobs or their relationships with their families.
But there are little things that people can do. They can volunteer at a gay or lesbian organization, they can send a check to one. Those are little ways of being connected to your community and being out.
Perry Brass: Many people feel there is a relationship between "outness," or openness, and violence. Do you feel that this is true: that outness leads to violence? Or can it be used as a way of reducing or avoiding violence?
Matt Foreman: Perpetrators when they attack, unless they know you because you're their neighbors (and a significant number of perpetrators know their victims), don't know if people are gay or lesbian. They just perceive them to be that way.
About half of anti-gay violence is committed by strangers. A whole lot of anti-gay crime is never reported because the victims are heterosexuals, who would never admit to being the victims of an anti-gay crime.
I can't tell people to pretend that they're straight, because most of the people that I know can't do that. Some can, but why should they? That's like "passing," if you're a member of a racial group. It is capitulating to hate.
Over the long term, being out is going to be the thing that will reduce violence against us. In the short term, every step that people take to be out will be met by an increasing backlash by people who feel threatened by us.
So in the interim, which is what I think we're in now, the country is perceiving—and I think wrongly—that gay and lesbian people are advancing. We're "taking over," are ascendant. That is why they are fighting back harder and harder with their rhetoric and why people feel more emboldened to attack us, now as much as ever.
Perry Brass: So the Right is making us into these "bogey-people" where they can put all the ills of America?
Matt Foreman: I think the reason why they are fixated on us is two-fold. One is that a lot of fundamentalist people have a visceral reaction to homosexual behavior.
I have a visceral reaction to heterosexual behavior—I can't even think about it without getting queasy—so I understand where they're coming from. Tied on to that, I think what's really driving them is that we are a wonderful fund-raising machine. I see their literature all the time.
We don't even have a federal civil rights law pending—all we have is the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. So now they're saying that that is going to require that people will be forced to hire gay and lesbian people; that civilization is going to collapse; that we will be able to take children away from heterosexual families.
In prior years, they would have used African-American people, Asian people, or Jews for this. They can't do that anymore. We are the last, safe refuge to do this to. If we were not such a good, and easily available fund-raising tool, we would not be facing these problems. But we really are good for that.
Perry Brass: Why do you think that so many other oppressed people, like fundamentalist blacks and orthodox Jews, also oppress gays? They don't seem to find any solidarity with us. Do you think this is just a religious thing?
Matt Foreman: No, I think it's because we're caught up in the confluence of sex, which is a huge problem to most people to deal with—in America particularly. People don't really hate us because we have "good taste," or we decorate well. They hate us because of what we do in bed, and they can't abide it.
So people who say, "If it wasn't for those transvestites, or those dykes or queeny gay guys, we wouldn't have a problem," are wrong. It's what we do in bed. Fundamentally, you can have a nice suit and be a stock broker, and they'll hate you just as much. The issue that makes us different is what we do in bed. That is "Number One."
"Number Two," is I think the media has portrayed our community as white, gay, male, successful, cute, partying. With money to burn. With no worries, wanton sexual behavior, etc.
We are not portrayed as who we are, which is this very diverse group, no richer, no poorer—struggling like anyone else—with children, etc. So not only do people have to confront the sex, but they also have to confront these stereotypes of who we are or are not—and, frankly, I don't think that I would like to have anything to do with that kind of stereotyped group.
Even in the HIV movement there is so much resentment towards gay HIV programs, because they are perceived to be wealthy and influential.
Perry Brass: As part of the Empire State Pride Agenda, how do you reach the millions of gay and lesbian people who are still in the closet? Who do not see themselves as a part of the "gay world."
Matt Foreman: It is incredibly difficult to do, because the combined mailing lists of all the organizations in New York—if you put them all together and took out the duplicates—are not over 60,000 names. Maybe you might get to 70. We know from exit polls that there are at least 800,000 gay people in New York City alone. So how do you reach them?
Part of the problem is that gay people are just plain old people who they want to get on with their lives. Most Americans are not politically involved with their communities. They want to get on with their work, and live the best way they can. This is a dilemma facing every gay organization.
So you do a web page, you do what you can in your general media to get yourself quoted, to get gay issues out in the forefront. And you hope that this will strike a bell with someone.
I do see the Internet as being the best, easiest, and, frankly, cheapest and most efficient way of reaching people. You don't have to get their name. They can look at you without you knowing them.
Perry Brass: But you don't think it's through coalition building, which we believed in so much during the sixties and seventies? That idea does not seem to continue much anymore: that there would be a coalition between women and gays, or minorities and gays, etc.
This often came about through the Anti-War Movement or the more leftist movements. But now it seems that the Gay Movement has split up so much that even building coalitions within it is difficult. So you don't think this is going to come about through coalition building?
Matt Foreman: You mean reaching more gay people?
Perry Brass: Yes, gay people who don't identify as gay, but are part of other movements now.
Matt Foreman: The problem with coalition building is that it is the only way we are really going to advance on our broad agenda—issues which most gay and lesbian people think are important. But it's so difficult, because most places on the entire progressive side are so under-resourced, so worried about just keeping their heads above water.
So to take the time to build trust, to work on other people's issues, to get to the point that you truly are coalition partners and not just rushing in for one picture or one little issue—anyway, we just don't have those resources.
Why don't we do more coalition work? Because it does take time, sacrifice, and putting your issues behind, now and then. And that is hard to relate to. It's hard to come up with those resources and hard to sell that to your donors who are supporting you. Not to mention that our opponents are very good at keeping us apart.
Perry Brass: How is that?
Matt Foreman: They give this group this little bit, or that group that. They give a contract here, and something over there. It's very interesting the way some politicians are pulling apart the leaders of the African-American community with promises of contracts and this and that.
And there is our own stereotypes: that we are the "rich" gay organizations. "What would you understand about this community in this part of the city with our problems?"
Also, having tried to work in coalition with other groups over the years, I have to say that there is a high degree of homophobia in straight organizations and I don't know if I want to spend all my resources educating people who are supposed to be our friends about why they should like me. Or having our issues so totally ignored. It's not like I want to go in and make gay issues their issues, but on the other hand we are just not on the radar screen for most other communities at all.
Perry Brass: Why do you think Matthew Shepard's death has so galvanized the gay community? It seems that in the course of the year nationally there must be hundreds of deaths caused from anti-gay violence.
Matt Foreman: I wouldn't say there are hundreds, but there are two to three dozen that are clearly caused by that.
Perry Brass: That you can trace back exactly to that?
Matt Foreman: That is the problem. They are even saying that you can't trace Matthew Shepard's death back to that. A Matthew Shepard happens here in New York City about ten times a year.
There's the pick-up scenario: you go with someone. Then they are seeing your body hacked to pieces, and people say that was a "robbery gone bad." Or it was "homosexual panic." Or a "drug deal." But none of these things explain those crimes.
So I think what made Matthew Shepard such a case was—number one—he's white. And number two, he was sweet and small, and came from an upper middle class family. And it happened in a place like Laramie, Wyoming, and people are always comfortable looking at Jasper, Texas, or Laramie and saying, "It happens out there. They're rednecks." Then you have the way he was left to die, in that crucifixion type—
Perry Brass: Very dramatic.
Matt Foreman: Yes, it took him a while to die. And I actually think our movement has been in ten-year cycles of activism. We're about coming on the end of ten years since activism waned, so I think there are a lot of young gay people who can relate to Matthew Shepard very well.
I am thrilled that his case is getting the attention that it got. And I am also disgusted that with all these other people who died, you couldn't get people to do anything about it. If you were in New York in 1990, we had Jimmy Zappelorti whose heart was cut out on Staten Island by two people. A clearly official anti-gay crime. Then we had Julio Rivera [in Queens]. I could go right down the list. The other wonderful thing about Matthew Shepard was that you had a lot of straight people commenting about it.
Perry Brass: Do you think there is something gay men and women who are not particularly out or a part of activism can do to create a better world for themselves?
Matt Foreman: They need to involve themselves in the political process—"political" with a small "p," not a large one. They need to be aware of current events. They need to write their elected officials, to call them whenever they see what's happening and they don't agree with it. It does not have to be only about gay stuff, but anything.
Our situation is never going to be any better unless people get involved more. But I think we are an involved community. Compared with other communities, we are quite involved.
But there is this vast majority of people who coast through life, and they don't perceive gay issues to be important until something happens to them. And then they are like—"Violence is not my issue, until I am beat up. Discrimination is not my issue—it will never happen to me." That is human psychology: you put things away and rationalize why it only happens to other people.
But the reality is that it happens to gay people all the time. The vast majority of us are going to be victims of discrimination or violence. And it is better not to be in denial about this, and try to do something. You can do this by volunteering, by supporting organizations, and getting connected to your community.
Perry Brass: What has kept you working as an activist now for about ten years?
Matt Foreman: Well, I get paid for it. Most people work like dogs for the community and don't get anything for it. They get no pay. I am one of the privileged handful that has that opportunity. People say it is such a sacrifice. It's no sacrifice. It is a big honor. How many people get to do that? In the gay and lesbian movement, only a tiny number of people get paid by the community. So it's an honor, although sometimes [laughs] it's a pain in the butt.
Perry Brass: But this is something you want to continue doing?
Matt Foreman: I will have to move aside and let fresh people with fresh ideas come in. You do become like, "Oh, way back in the 1970s we did that and it did not work!"
I am very much against marches where we don't get police cooperation. I have seen too many people get their heads split open by the police, and I don't think any of our causes are worth having someone hospitalized.
But that is my own feeling, based on my experiences. I don't want to be the old curmudgeon sitting in the back saying, "You gotta get a permit, because I remember my friends in the hospital and" . . . so what I'm saying is that I am going to move out sooner or later. But it has been a big honor to have these jobs. A privilege.
Perry Brass: Is the Empire State Pride Agenda working right now towards specific goals?
Matt Foreman: Well, obviously we have a big agenda trying to get the Civil Rights bill passed, trying to get the Hate Crimes bill passed, to get funding for lesbian and gay human services.
Those are specific things that we are trying to do, and also to pick off certain family issues, such as visitation rights, domestic partnership, both at the state level in Albany and also at the local level in Rochester and Buffalo. And that is where we're moving.
We're moving to do local legislative initiatives, and if we can't accomplish a state law—which we're not going to accomplish until the leadership in the [state] senate changes—then let's bite off chunks. We have domestic partnership legislation in New York City, let's do the same thing in other parts of the state. Let's do hate crimes reporting laws in other counties. Our goal is to build a movement from the ground up.
Perry Brass: Do you think New York is a good place to work as a gay activist?
Matt Foreman: I think New York City is clearly the best. I want to emphasize that our community is still light years behind other communities. Our big community center here, well, if you take the Greek community, they have forty community centers here in the city.
So people get this perception that we are big, we're powerful. We're not. But this state is great. There are so many activists across the state that I've met in this job. They are working so hard in places where you'd never think there was a gay community, but they have vibrant gay communities there. So it is a big honor to do this.
Perry Brass: My friend John Mitzel, the manager of Glad Day Bookstore in Boston, once said to me that people don't move to New York to become gay activists; they come here to become stock brokers. What do you think about that?
Matt Foreman: People move to New York and other metropolitan areas to become gay, not to be gay activists per se, but to be free of, say, worrying about Aunt Marie seeing you on the street with your boyfriend.
But a lot of people do move here to become activists. It's aggravating to me that people here in New York make judgments about how "out" they are; or what should happen in other cities. People here can march down the street on Gay Pride with no clothes on, then they're critical because people don't march or there are not big parades in other cities.
In Buffalo they have a Gay Pride march with about a thousand people. There it's not just about being seen and having a good time, although they do that, too. But it's about making a statement that you are proud and gay.
A lot of people may not be moving to Buffalo, but when you walk down the street there as a gay person in a Gay Pride parade, you know that your aunt's there. Your uncle's there. Your mother, brothers and sisters are there, too. And your bosses are there. That's where it takes real courage to be gay.
It does not take a whole lot of courage, in my opinion, to be out and about in Chelsea. But it takes a lot of courage to be that way in Utica, Syracuse, or Buffalo, or all the small towns in this state. So those people are my heroes. They don't have big political programs to turn to, or political connections. Those are the people who really deserve our praise.
Perry Brass: Do you have any other things you'd like to say as Executive Director of the Empire State Pride Agenda?
Matt Foreman: Vote! Vote! Vote! It's incredibly important. Right now we are 9% of the voters in New York City; 6% state wide. A poll just came out today where they asked people their sexual orientation: it was a state wide poll with 1,400 people. 11% said they were gay, and another 11% would not say what they were, so I figured there was a chunk of them in that, too.
That is enough of a vote to flip any election in this state—last time's gubernatorial race, last time's senate race. If we voted and turned out to vote, it would make a huge difference. So one more time, vote!
Perry Brass's latest book, How to Survive Your Own Gay Life, has a chapter on surviving anti-gay violence on the street, at home, or at work that was prepared with the help of the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project. He can be reached through his website www.perrybrass.com.
How to Survive Your Own Gay Life can be purchased at gay bookstores throughout the country, or through www.adlbooks.com, Amazon.com, and other sources of gay books online.
The Empire State Pride Agenda can be reached in New York City at: 212/627-0305, in Rochester at 716/271-2420, or Buffalo at 716/852-2297. Their website at www.espany.org gives more information about this important gay resource. They can also be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.