A third in a string of suspected arson cases against LGBT-friendly venues hit the heart of Texas this week when the Heart Rock nightclub was gutted by fire on Sunday. This marks the third such attack in as many weeks.
The Brownsville, Texas club opened for business in May with a 25-foot gay pride flag draped over its doorway. According to club owner Sylvia Armente, this is not the first time the club has been vandalized.
Investigators told the Brownsville Herald the suspects broke in through the front, vandalized the interior and poured several cans of gasoline before igniting the fire that gutted the windowless cement building, according to Planet Out Network.
Armente told the local newspaper it was a hate crime directed against Brownsville’s gay community.
“What else could it be?” she said.
Armente added that the club had not received any specific threats but had suffered random acts of vandalism, such as broken lights.
“Everyone’s friendly here, but other people pass by and say nasty things,” she told the paper.
Chuck Smith, deputy director of the Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby of Texas, told the PlanetOut Network that the anti-LGBT rhetoric has increased in Texas as voters prepare to consider a state constitutional amendment on Nov. 8 that would deny same-sex couples marriage rights.
“It is conceivable that the anti-gay rhetoric that is prevalent can play a factor in that,” he said. “We will be interested to see whether incidence of hate crimes has increased because of the lies and mistruths that have been spread against us to deny us our humanity,” Smith said.
Under Texas law, arson is a second-degree felony punishable by anywhere from two to 20 years in prison and/or a ,000 fine. A suspect could face additional penalties under the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, a bill named after an African-American man dragged to death in Jasper, Texas.
The Brownsville blaze comes a week after a fire destroyed Studio 716 in Fayetteville, Arkansas, the city’s only LGBT club and two and a half weeks after a fire damaged St. John’s Reformed United Church of Christ in Middlebrook, Virginia. That church’s national board had endorsed same-sex marriage five days earlier.
Jay Smith Brown, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, called the trend “alarming.”
“The current rhetoric right now is not helping,” he said. “We need to build a dialogue that is constructive. We need to make it clear this kind of violence is not OK.”
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