Steve Martin is regional development organizer in Idaho for the Pride Foundation. He didn’t know Steven Nelson, 49, who was beaten to death near Lake Lowell on April 29 after answering an online ad for a sexual encounter.
“But Steven was someone’s friend, neighbor and family member who was senselessly murdered, possibly because he was gay,” Martin said.
Martin is among those convinced that Idaho’s lack of protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in its Human Rights Act creates a “climate of violence” in the state. The killing of Nelson, he said, should “be another signal to our Legislature that we need these protections.”
And he hopes that the crime will energize the longtime Add the Words movement in the next legislative session, even though he recognizes that the inclusion of that particular language would not necessarily prevent isolated acts of violence.
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“But the fact that we don’t have legal protections statewide for gender identity and sexual orientation means that there’s a perception that it’s OK to discriminate,” said Martin.
And such legislation might end a dangerous marginalization of LGBT Idahoans, said Bryan Lyda, program specialist with the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.
Both he and Martin said they believe too much attention has been given to the fact that Nelson was meeting men through a website and making arrangements to pay for sex. Lyda suggested that Nelson might not have taken that step in a different, more accepting society.
“When we push communities to the margins, we encourage people to live their lives in hiding to some degree, to seek relationships in ways that put themselves in dangerous situations. We don’t live in a community where LGBT men always find it easy and safe to live openly,” Lyda said.
“If Steven had been a member from a dominant group, we wouldn’t have been as quick to ask about what the victim had done. We should be asking why these four men were out there to do violence to someone.”
Martin said Nelson was a “real person” who “didn’t deserve to be victimized.”
“It sounds like the people who killed him were lying in wait. He just happened to be the one who answered the ad,” Martin said.
Add the Words
Idaho House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, is a longtime supporter of amending the Human Rights Act.
“That said, I am not sure that this (murder) will necessarily have the impact on the Legislature that the LGBT community hopes,” he said Friday.
As much attention as the case has gotten in the Treasure Valley and in Moscow, where Nelson spent time as a University of Idaho student, Rusche said he’s not sure it has resonated across the rest of the state.
If legislation is to happen, he said, it will be because people in their home communities have conveyed their sentiments to legislators about how they want Idaho to be, and not because of a murder, horrific though it was.
Another wrinkle, Rusche noted: The Add the Words campaign thus far has focused only on the Human Rights Act, which addresses things such as employment and housing, but not violent crime.
Various groups have called for the four men accused of killing Nelson to be charged with a federal hate crime. Idaho does have a separate law that bans abuse based on race, color, religion, ancestry and national origin, but again, not sexual orientation and gender identity. The FBI and the U.S. Attorney for Idaho are weighing whether to bring charges against the four.
Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, a longtime Add the Words advocate, said she believes that both the state’s Human Rights Act and its hate crime law need to be amended to protect gay, bisexual and transgender citizens. She plans to press the issue in the next session.
“We can’t relent,” she said.
Idaho’s lack of anti-discrimination legislation didn’t cause the four men accused of killing Nelson to act, Wintrow said, but “it sends a message that violence is tolerated.”
She attended Nelson’s recent memorial ceremony in Boise and said she’s heard from LGBT residents who have told her they don’t feel safe in their communities.
Lyda said he’s heard hesitancy in some circles to label Nelson’s murder a hate crime, “but that is exactly what it was.”
She echoed a statement that Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue has made, saying the alleged perpetrators “had harmed other people and were looking to harm someone else.” Donahue has urged any other possible victims to come forward and not be afraid of reporting a crime.
More with Steve Martin
What are you hearing from people in the LGBT community about this crime?
Outrage. Shock. Comparisons to Matthew Shepard [a young gay man murdered in a 1998 Wyoming case that drew national attention and helped produce a federal hate crime law]. It seems like that was so long ago. Now the idea that a crime like this could happen again, even with the positive progress we’ve made ... there’s still a lot of bigotry, a lot of education still needs to happen.
What can friends and allies in the community do to prevent this kind of thing, and what kinds of conversations should they be having?
It’s important for our allies to stand up with us. I’ve certainly had conversations with friends who are moved and horrified and have stood up more vocally since this crime. The more voices you add, the more people who stand up to say this in unacceptable — again, that presses legislators. I always come back to one of our mission statements at the Pride Foundation. We envision a world in which all can enjoy the freedom to live safely, openly and genuinely. We should all be able to do that.
Is it getting easier for LGBT victims to report crimes?
It’s a work in progress. The whole point of Boise’s police position [the city recently hired an LGBT liaison officer] is to be more proactive about building trust between the community and the city. There’s still work to do, but it’s certainly better.
About Nelson’s death
Police say Nelson responded to an ad for a sexual encounter on Backpage.com and arranged to meet a man and pay him for sex.
They say Kelly B. Schneider, 22, of Nampa, met Nelson and had him drive to a deserted spot at the Gott’s Point area of Lake Lowell. Schneider, allegedly assisted by Jayson C. Woods, 28, also from Nampa, pushed Nelson to the ground and kicked him at least 30 times with steel-toed boots, a prosecutor said.
Two other men — Kevin R. Tracy, 21, of Nampa, and Daniel A. Henkel, 23, of Nampa — hid nearby in case they were needed, police said.
All four are charged with first-degree murder and assorted other crimes. New grand jury indictments against them were unsealed Thursday, according to online court records, and they’re next scheduled to be arraigned in 3rd District Court.