What a drag

Alleged hate crime committed against cross-dressers

Attack victim Brian Denham relates the details of an assault that left him hospitalized.

Attack victim Brian Denham relates the details of an assault that left him hospitalized.

photo by kyle delmar

Brian Denham arrived a few minutes late to an impromptu meeting Monday (Feb. 6) called by members of Chico’s LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning) community in response to a Saturday morning assault many are calling a hate crime.

“I literally just got back from the eye doctor,” Denham explained as friends helped him to a chair in the living room. “So far there’s no permanent damage they can see.”

Denham was transported to Enloe Medical Center after the 2:15 a.m. incident at the corner of Broadway and Fifth streets, receiving seven stitches and treatment for an orbital fracture and a laceration to his forehead. The incident occurred when Denham and four male friends—two of whom were dressed in drag—encountered a group of about five young white males who allegedly hurled racist and homophobic slurs before throwing punches. Some witnesses say one of the aggressors also brandished a knife during the melee.

The dual purpose of Monday’s meeting was for Denham to give a statement to the press and for the LGBTQ community to organize response and support measures.

Denham said he and his friends attended a drag show at the Maltese Taproom Friday night, then went to Jack in the Box for a late dinner.

“Some people were saying some stuff to us while we were in there,” Denham said. “We got our food and walked out, and they were waiting for us outside. They started yelling at us and from there things escalated.”

Denham said he was “sucker-punched” in the face by one of the men, who then ran.

“I took off running after them and I fell,” he said, “and then someone jumped on the back of my head.”

Matthew Cottrell, one of the men dressed in drag, confirmed Denham’s account.

“While we were in the restaurant people made comments,” he said. “We did what we always do and that’s walk away, try to ignore it and pretend it’s not happening. When we went outside it became impossible to do that. There was a crowd of people throwing hate like it was water balloons. It was really too much to stand for.”

Leo Shelby-Dunn said the group waited outside for him and his friends, and then followed them toward their car.

Denham and the others said they stood up for themselves verbally, but didn’t throw the first punches, despite extended harassment.

“[They kept] calling us faggots, especially the ones in drag,” he said. “What really got me was when they called [one of my friends] a ‘faggot nigger.’”

Cottrell and company are concerned about some comments they’ve heard that place the blame for the incident on them.

“Some people feel we were in drag and in public and were just asking for some kind of repercussion,” he said, “but I think we live in a society that doesn’t have to take that.”

The alleged attackers fled after the altercation and police were unable to locate them. The police report gives a general description of the suspect party as four or five white males ages 16-20, two with slender builds and standing 5 feet 9 inches tall. One was wearing a red-hooded sweatshirt.

“It’s really difficult to say what they look like because it was totally your run-of-the-mill group of guys you see standing on any street corner in Chico,” Cottrell said.

The only violence mentioned in the police report is a single kick to Denham’s head, though the victims say others were hit as well, and by Denham’s account he was struck more than once.

“We are currently investigating it as a hate crime, but we’re still interviewing members of the victim group,” Chico police spokesman Sgt. Rob Merrifield said Monday afternoon. “Everyone in the group was intoxicated, which makes it much more difficult.

“We’re also looking for other witnesses, but unfortunately in situations like this—fights downtown—you don’t have many come forward who can give a reliable account of what they saw.”

Merrifield said he was unsure if police had contacted Jack in the Box employees.

Denham said he’s “not really” surprised to be the victim of an apparent homophobic assault. Cottrell confirmed he’s been the victim of gay-bashing assaults in the past.

“This isn’t the first time I’ve witnessed violence in Chico,” Cottrell said. “But this is the first time it’s happened that I’ve had a community to turn to for support. More than anything I’m happy he wasn’t alone, because the outcome would have likely been much, much worse.”

Thomas Kelem, chairman of Chico’s Stonewall Alliance board, said the organization’s first objectives are “finding out what happened, how we can be supportive, and helping Brian any way we can.”

Beyond that, he said, they are watching how the Chico police handle what the alliance feels is unquestionably a hate crime.

“We plan to exert pressure if we need to on authorities and other people to make sure things get done that need to get done,” Kelem said.