One-Two Punch: Man Is Beaten In Anti-Gay Hate Crime and Also by America's Sick Health-Care System

Human Rights

During a recent evening at the Blackout Bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, up to 100 people are milling about and drinking beer after paying $35 at the door to attend a party billed, with tongue firmly in cheek, as a “Gay Bash.”

Toward the back of the bar I spend some time talking to 29-year-old Barie Shortell, who points to the place on his face where surgeons inserted a metal plate over his shattered cheekbones. The few bruises on the bridge of Shortell’s nose are the only visible remnants of the savage beating Shortell received from a group of teenagers in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on February 22, in an apparent anti-gay hate crime. After blacking out, and spending 10 hours in surgery and five days in the hospital, Shortell is now taking another whipping from one of the insidious antagonists of 21st-century American life—the private health-care system. Shortell, like many of his fellow American twentysomethings, is uninsured.

“Everything that happened; happened on my face. They broke my eye sockets. They broke my jaw. It actually feels pretty amazing now that I can talk. I had my jaw wired shut for a month.”

Friends and strangers interrupt us on occasion to come by and hug Shortell, and a number of men and women wearing name badges work the room, selling raffle tickets. The raffle tickets and the cover charge are all going to the same cause—to pay for the tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid medical bills Shortell has incurred after having the crap beaten out of him in the middle of the street because he was perceived as gay.

“It’s just so fucked up that you can be beaten to within an inch of your life, and then end up crushed by debt,” Meg McIntyre, of Sunnyside Queens, tells me. Meg and her husband have each ponied up the $35 cover charge for the open bar this evening—their own relatively small contribution to help chip away at Shortell’s mountainous debt. “In this country at least you’ll get treatment, but you might go bankrupt or pay for it for the rest of your life.”

Shortell is no anomaly—in the United States up to 30 percent of people in their 20s are without health coverage. The health-care reform bill should lower that number when some of its provisions kick in over the next few years. But the number of uninsured Americans is likely to go up before it goes down, since the country is still mucking through a recession that has increased the ranks of the uninsured by 10 million people. And the unemployment rate for young, even highly educated, Americans is still at stratospheric levels.

I ask Shortell why he didn’t have health care in the first place, and his answer is something you’ll hear from twentysomethings in most any major American city or small town.

“I was working a new job, but they didn’t offer health insurance until after six months in,” he tells me. Shortell was only a month away from receiving coverage from a company that makes light fixtures when he was assaulted. Now he’s on leave, dealing with his recovery. “I’ve been without care for a long time, and I used to let all those little kinds of things pass, without going to see a doctor. But when something like this happens, you don’t have much of a choice. Now even if I get the best health insurance money can buy, it wouldn't pay for any of this—it will be considered a preexisting condition."

“Gay people have a pretty acute awareness of being harassed, of being attacked. So when it happens it’s pretty easy to relate to,” says Randy Harrison, a stage and screen actor known for his role in Showtime's "Queer as Folk" and an attendee at the fundraiser. “I’ve had a number of friends attacked. And plenty of friends without health care.”

The New York City-based Anti-Violence Project has tracked a dramatic rise in anti-gay attacks and murders in recent years, a backlash against increased visibility and the various social, political and legal gains made by LGBT people across the country. A number of the most brutal attacks over the last few months have happened in New York City. Last fall three gay men were savagely tortured in the Bronx, and this spring a number of anti-gay hate crimes have made front page news—including the recent murder of a straight man in Queens, whose attackers hurled homophobic slurs at him as they beat him to death.

Back at the fundraiser, Shortell gives a prepared talk to the crowd that includes a gracious thank you to all of the businesses that donated goods and services to the raffle. Shortell was also magnanimous (considering the circumstances) in trying to understand the young toughs who beat him and effectively robbed him of his financial solvency.

“At first I thought I was directly attacked as a gay man, but I don’t really have any way of knowing what spurred this or what was going through people’s heads. Homophobia? Cultural tensions in a changing neighborhood? Messages that these teens are consuming?” The mood in the room is a bit more somber while Shortell is speaking, and a tall man with salt-and-pepper hair and a clerical collar pops in the door to drop off a donation from his church. “Williamsburg residents are wonderfully diverse, but not very connected.”

The next day Shortell tells me that the Gay Bash fundraiser pulled in $3,000. A Web site his father set up has also received a number of large, anonymous donations, and counselors at the Anti-Violence Project have helped Shortell connect to the city’s Office of Victim Services, which may be able to defray some of his medical costs.

While it’s heartening that an ad hoc safety net was pulled together so quickly, the money raised at the event is still only a drop in the bucket of what Shortell needs to raise to pay his medical bills—not to mention any followup care he may need. Even if he does get back to work soon and his employer is able to offer him full coverage, it won’t help him defray any of the medical costs associated with the beating. Those broken bones and other forms of head trauma that Shortell suffered will be considered preexisting conditions.

To make a donation to help pay Barrie Shortell's health care costs, visit this Web site.

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