HIV activist attacked for being gay speaks out

Posted: Updated:
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
Jermon Barnes By Catherine Holland Jermon Barnes By Catherine Holland
Ernie Barnes By Catherine Holland Ernie Barnes By Catherine Holland

PHOENIX -- A Valley HIV activist believes he was attacked for being gay. Now two men are facing charges in connection with that attack, which happened in the early morning hours of Friday, Nov. 9.

Austin Head said he and a friend were walking home from Charlie’s, a popular LGBT hangout. When the pair hit Central Avenue and Osborn Road, two men started yelling homophobic slurs at them. According to Head, it didn't stop there. He said the two men crossed the street and attacked him and his friend.

“They just assumed that we were gay and targeted us and were pretty violent with it,” Head said as he removed dark sunglasses to reveal the bumps, bruises and cuts around his left eye.

Head was knocked unconscious during the attack, but said he refuses to hide from the men who beat him up.

“No, I won't be changing anything because of these two people who happen not to like my [sexual] orientation.”

Jermon (left) and Ernie Barnes

Head said his friend wasn’t beaten quite as badly and was able to help police identify their attackers. Shortly after the beating, police arrested Jermon Barnes, 22, and Ernie Barnes, 24. They now are facing charges of aggravated assault.


Head was rushed to the emergency room after the violence. His medical forms list head injuries, facial cuts and bone fractures.

“I still think there's people that are uneducated, or intolerance, that we all have to deal with and we can't use this as something to make us feel more afraid or more weak," Head said. "I'm coming out stronger and more willing to voice my opinion as a victim."

Voicing opinions is something Head is becoming known for. He recently made and starred in the documentary "Positive Youth," created to bring awareness about HIV-positive people. It was recently named an official selection to the 2012 Phoenix Film Festival.

As a person passionate about talking about tough topics, Head hopes discussing this beating will help someone, too.

“I think if you're not present then you can't educate people,” Head said. “If you're hiding behind fear you won't be able to change anything.

Arizona law does include sexual orientation in its definition of hate crimes. According to Sgt. Steve Martos of the Phoenix Police Department, this incident has been designated as a bias crime.

According to the Arizona Revised Statutes (ARS 13-701, D-15), the designation of hate or bias crime is applied is there is "[e]vidence that the defendant committed the crime out of malice toward a victim because of the victim's identity in a group ... or because of the defendant's perception of the victim's identity in a group .... ." (ARS 14-1750 A-3)

Bias or hate crimes in Arizona are not specific of separate charges. Rather, they are considered aggravating factors. That means punishment for hate-motivated crimes can be tacked on during the sentencing phase.