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Identifying a crime that is motivated by hate is important because this type of violence sends a message to an entire group of people beyond the immediate victim of the crime. Such victims are targeted because of who they are, and the message is that their group is inferior, wrong, and unworthy. Still, there is much disagreement as to whether these crimes should be treated differently from other crimes and how to determine bias motivation on the part of the offenders.
The U.S. Congress defined a hate crime as a crime in which “the defendant’s conduct was motivated by hatred, bias, or prejudice, based on the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity of another individual or group of individuals” in HR 4797 in 1992, and added disability status in 1994.
These hate crime categories are used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in collecting crime statistics, but they are not the categories used in the federal hate crime law passed in 1968. The federal law only protects those who were victims of hate crimes because of their religion, race, or national origin.
Types of Anti-Gay Hate Crimes Data Collection
Congress passed the Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990 after rising anti-gay violence in the 1980s. This was the first federal civil rights law to include sexual orientation as a class. However, collecting accurate anti-gay hate crimes statistics is a challenge. The first impediment is that many lesbians and gay men will not take the risk to “out” themselves as gay to medical or legal personnel; hence, there is an incalculable underreporting factor. The second impediment is that there are three main sources of anti-gay hate crimes report sources, each of which has its own limitations.
One source of information on hate crimes is the FBI. In 2003, the FBI reported 1,239 hate crimes (17% of the total number) based on actual or perceived sexual orientation of the victims. However, such reporting is voluntary and over a third of law enforcement jurisdictions do not report to the FBI. Furthermore, some jurisdictions that do not report show up as having “0” hate crimes, which leads to faulty numbers. Due to lack of training, personnel may believe the FBI is not interested in minor hate crimes, such as hate graffiti or vandalism, and so do not report them. Differing local definitions of hate crimes and political pressure around reporting hate crimes may contribute to inconsistent numbers. In addition, some persons in law enforcement are reluctant to assess the motive of the offender and feel it is outside of their purview.
A second source, the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), is based on interviews of 77,600 nationally representative persons interviewed biannually about their experiences with crime. The NCVS reported an annual average of 210,000 hate crime victimizations between July 2000 and December 2003. Of these, 1 in 6 incidents were based on the sexual orientation of the victim. The NCVS requires corroborating evidence of derogatory language used by the offender, hate symbols left by the offender, or police confirmation that a hate crime occurred.
A third source, the National Coalition of AntiViolence Programs (NCAVP), collects annual data from NCAVP member organizations around the country. The NCAVP’s 2004 Report on Anti-Lesbian, Gay, Transgender & Bisexual Violence stated that 1,792 incidents of bias had been reported to them involving 2,131 victims. The NCAVP is comprised of over 20 antiviolence organizations that serve lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) victims of bias, domestic violence, and other forms of violence affecting the LGBT community. The NCAVP data are dependent on victims knowing about their organizations and calling to make self-reports.
Significantly, there was a wave of anti-gay hate crimes across the country in 2005 that included vandalism, murder, graffiti, and assaults. The increased sense that homophobia can be freely expressed resulted from a number of factors, such as the debate over who is entitled to marriage rights, the possibility of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman, and the 11 states that passed constitutional amendments prohibiting same-sex marriages in 2004.
This negative climate, however, has a 30-year history. Since the late 1970s when Anita Bryant founded the first national anti-gay organization, Save Our Children, the conservative religious Right has unified under anti-gay themes. The rhetoric has shifted over time, from references to “diseased perverts” to stopping “special rights” to promoting “family values,” but the political organizing has effectively supported the platform for hate crimes. Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church, with his godhatesfags Web site, is the extreme version of the religious Right. Paul Cameron, whose “research” has been discredited by both the American Sociological Association and the American Psychological Association but is touted by anti-gay groups, provides “data” that gays and lesbians are physically and mentally diseased. The gains of gays and lesbians such as civil unions in Vermont and marriage in Massachusetts, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s striking down sodomy laws in 2003, have further served to unite anti-gay activists.
Legal Response to Hate Crimes
High-visibility hate crime murder victims, such as Matthew Shepard in Wyoming in 1998 and Billy Jack Gaither in Alabama in 1999, bring the debate about gay rights to national prominence. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts could discriminate against gay scoutmasters. In 2004, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that gay and lesbian couples could legally marry. The alternation of victory and defeat takes place on the field of civil rights where real people live and where some suffer from hate crimes because of who they are and their associated group membership. Introduced into the House of Representatives in September 2005, the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act adds the categories of sexual orientation and gender identity to federal hate crimes legislation. It remains to be seen whether this bill will be passed and whether hate crimes legislation has any impact on lessening anti-gay hate crimes as long as some in society oppose the right to safely be gay or lesbian.
- Harlow, C. W. (2005). Hate crime reported by victims and police. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.
- Patton, C. (2005). 2004 Report on anti-lesbian, gay, transgender & bisexual violence. New York: National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.