Behind the wave of anti-gay hate crimes

January 19, 2009

Jessica Hansen-Weaver reports on an increase in anti-gay hate crimes, and the connections to bigoted political initiatives like California's Proposition 8.

LBGT PEOPLE and their supporters, who have turned out in large numbers to protest the narrow passage of the anti-gay Proposition 8 in California, are turning their attention to increasing incidents of horrifying hate crimes.

On December 13, in the Bay Area city of Richmond, a lesbian woman was gang-raped by four men who used homophobic epithets as they violently assaulted her for almost an hour, before leaving her naked in the street.

The vicious attack began when four men jumped her after she got out of her car, which had a rainbow sticker on it, clubbed her with a blunt object, disrobed her and began raping her. When a passerby almost stumbled on them during the rape, they bundled the woman into her car and took her to an abandoned building, where the sexual attack continued, until the men finally left her naked, and badly injured.

Despite nearly zero national news coverage, some 200 people came out to a candlelight vigil December 27 to show their solidarity with the woman and her partner. Public outrage and community pressure on Richmond law enforcement resulted in arrests for those responsible for this heinous attack.

Protesters march in memory of Jose Sucuzhanay who was killed by men shouting racist and homophobic slurs
Protesters march in memory of Jose Sucuzhanay who was killed by men shouting racist and homophobic slurs

Activists note that anti-gay hate crimes are on the rise nationally. According to FBI statistics, hate crimes directed at people because of their sexual orientation have risen over the past two years--1,017 were reported in 2005, 1,195 in 2006 and 1,265 in 2007.

Because not all states allow attacks motivated by anti-gay bias to be charged as hate crimes and because some victims are reluctant to reveal their sexual orientations to police, gay and transgender rights advocates suspect the numbers are much higher.

Avy Skolnik, a coordinator with the New York-based National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, noted, "Anytime there is an anti-LGBT initiative, we tend to see spikes both in the numbers and the severity of attacks. People feel this extra entitlement to act out their prejudice."

In 2008 alone, there was a spike in violent crime against LGBT people. Overall, the FBI reported a 1 percent decline in hate crimes in the U.S. last year--but a 6 percent increase in hate crimes against gay, lesbian and transgender people.

In the past few months, shocking murders were reported across the country--from Brooklyn in New York City, to Memphis, Tenn., and other cities.

In December, in Brooklyn, a 31-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant, Jose Sucuzhanay, was beaten with a baseball bat and kicked by three men, who jumped out of a car yelling anti-gay and anti-Hispanic slurs.

Angie Zapata, an 18-year-old transgender woman in Greeley, Colo., was found dead in her apartment on July 17. She had been beaten with fists and a fire extinguisher, after her assailant discovered she was biologically male.

On December 23, Leeneshia Edwards became the third transgender shooting victim in Memphis over the past six months--she remains in critical condition. Her shooting followed the murders of Duanna Johnson and Ebony Whitaker, transgender women who also worked as prostitutes.

A video of Johnson being beaten and taunted by police in June was widely circulated on the Internet before she was murdered in November. As transgender activist Casey Lanham points out, many transgender people turn to prostitution because of discriminatory hiring practices against them.

On January 6, 11 gay bars in Seattle received letters addressed to the "Owner/Manager" that warned, "Your establishment has been targeted. I have in my possession approximately 67 grams of ricin with which I will indiscriminately target at least five of your clients." A 12th letter was sent to the alternative weekly, The Stranger, warning that the paper should be "prepared to announce the deaths of approximately 55 individuals."

SO WHY has there been such a spike in in violent crimes against LGBT people?

Society at large has moved in the direction of supporting LGBT rights, as ideas around sexuality have moved to the left in the past decade. One example of this is the fact that in 2004, the anti-gay Prop 22 in California won by a 14 point margin as opposed to the 4 percent margin of Prop 8.

However, as the trend of tolerance and acceptance has been increasing, so has the growth of right-wing religious organizations that have focused on getting anti-gay legislation passed across the U.S.

To make matters worse, these backward ideas about gender and sexuality aren't being opposed in the way they should by the Democratic Party, which has failed to support the right to equal marriage today and, in the past, worked against it, as with the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) during the Clinton administration.

Prop 8 and similar legislation not only deny civil rights to gays and lesbians, but they give a green light to violent attacks against LGBT people. Anti-gay legislation gives credence to the idea that LGBT people are "immoral," "unequal" and don't deserve protection from hate. And the silence of politicians like Barack Obama on repealing DOMA gives a free pass to the homophobia expressed in legislation like Prop 8.

And when Obama asks someone like Rick Warren--who has compared gay and lesbian people to pedophiles and perpetrators of incest--to deliver the invocation at his inauguration, he's giving an international platform to a hate-monger.

No person who identifies as LGBT should live in fear of violent crime. As long as LGBT people are relegated to second-class citizenship, some people will feel justified in treating them abusively. They are shaped by a society that continues to teach that it is permissible to exclude and hate anyone who does not conform to traditional gender stereotypes.

These horrifying stories of hate crimes magnify the importance of why an organized response to both legislative and physical attacks is the way forward. It will take a struggle to fight back against homophobia wherever it raises its ugly head--and to demand nothing less than full civil rights for all. The flurry of protest that took place in cities around the country after Prop 8 passed shows what is possible.

Further Reading

From the archives