Organizing Against Violence:

Under Attack

by Kevin Berrill, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
Because of long-standing prejudice and ignorance, lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals, among others, are already frequent targets for bias motivated violence. When anti-gay measures are introduced, and, worse still, if they pass, they will unleash an unprecedented wave of violence against lesbian, gay and bisexuals in targeted communities.

In 1992's Colorado and Oregon campaigns we saw a glimpse of what is to come. Using video, direct mail, and paid media (advertising), the Oregon Citizens' Alliance and Colorado for Family Values depicted gay men and lesbians as sick, sinful, abnormal and perverse subhuman beings who molest children, and bisexuals as hedonists who recklessly spread disease.

Their campaigns of misinformation and outright lies fostered an atmosphere of intolerance that, in turn, triggered a significant rise in reports of harassment, vandalism, assault, and even murder. These include assaults and death threats against opponents of the measures, vandalism directed against churches and businesses that spoke out in favor of tolerance and against bigotry, the ransacking of the offices and theft of campaign materials from the Campaign for a Hate Free Oregon/No on 9 Campaign, and the murder by firebomb of a black lesbian and white gay man by white supremacist youths in Salem, Oregon.

Once a group is vilified, dehumanized, and targeted for discrimination, violence is the inevitable result. It was no accident that Harvey Milk, an openly gay San Francisco supervisor, was assassinated during Anita Bryant's crusade against gays and in the wake of John Briggs' unsuccessful campaign to ban gay teachers from the classroom. Nor is it an accident that white supremacist activity is on the rise after a year of highly publicized racist campaigning by David Duke and Patrick Buchanan in 1992.

Anti-gay ballot initiatives reinforce the already widespread perception that lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals are second class citizens, unworthy of the same protections against discrimination and crimes fueled by bias that are extended to other targeted groups in society. Anti-gay measures signal to bashers that gay people are outcasts who can be preyed upon with impunity. Once discrimination has the imprimatur of government, it will be "open season" not just on lesbian and gay citizens, but against members of any group of people that are viewed as different, abnormal, and undesirable.

Lesbian, gay and bisexual crime victims will be deterred from reporting to the police.

Lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals who live in the United States allegedly have the right to live free from violence and to seek redress through the criminal justice system. However, if statewide anti-gay ballot measures become law, this right will be dangerously undermined.

A report sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice on bias crime concluded that lesbians and gay men are especially reluctant to report crimes to the police (Finn & McNeil, 1987). Indeed, in every major study of anti-gay violence, the vast majority of victims declined to step forward (Herek & Berrill, 1992). A major reason given for not reporting is the fear of exposure that could lead to being fired or discriminated against on the job.

If anti-gay discrimination is engraved into a state's constitution, lesbians, gay men and bisexuals stand an even greater chance of losing jobs and homes. Absent any legal protections victims of anti-gay violence are unlikely to report a crime that might reveal their sexual orientation. Moreover, if every government agency - including police, prosecutors, and the courts - are required to actively discourage and condemn homosexuality, lesbians and gay men will be further deterred from placing their trust i n the criminal justice system. The resulting crime and violence against lesbian, gay, and bisexual citizens will go unreported and unpunished.

The law enforcement response to anti-gay hate crimes will be severely undermined.

Law enforcement agencies are authorized in every state to monitor or punish crimes motivated by prejudice based on age, color, religion, national origin, handicap, marital status, political affiliation, or sexual orientation. These laws were enacted to meet the special challenge of protecting those who are subject to harassment and assault motivated by prejudice. such attacks undermine freedom of expression, association, and assembly, and tear the pluralistic fabric of community life.

According to a report on bias crime sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice, "homosexuals are probably the most frequent victims" of hate violence in the United States today (Finn and McNeil, 1987.1) In testimony before the Oregon legislature in support of tougher measures to combat hate crime, Multnomah District Attorney Michael Schrunk stated that crimes against lesbians and gay men are "generally much more severe than most assault cases" (Schrunk, 1989.) Clearly, anti-gay bias crimes can be particularly vicious and are becoming more pervasive across the country as the number of states directly targeted by anti-gay ballot initiatives and legislative actions increases. If anti-gay legislation passes, police and prosecutors will be forced to cope with one hand tied behind their backs.

Suicide and other destructive behavior among gay, lesbian and bisexual youth will rise.

According to a 1989 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), "suicide is the leading cause of death" among sexual minority youth, and that "gay youth are 2-3 times more likely to attempt suicides annually" (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1989.)

The report noted that "the root of the problem of gay youth suicide is a failing to recognize that a substantial number of its youth have a gay or lesbian orientation." The HHS report called for "an end to discrimination against youths on the basis of disability, sexual orientation and financial status," and urged schools to "protect gay youth from abuse from their peers and provide information about homosexuality in health curricula."

Anti-gay statewide measures may require that schools promote prejudice and self-hatred, rather than promoting tolerance and self-acceptance by teaching that homosexuality is not a mental illness and appears to be innate. Educational freedom may be undermined, and school counselors may be prohibited from providing support to gay and lesbian students. Students will be denied access to the overwhelming body of scientific literature that completely invalidates the religious right's positions on homosexuality

Lesbian, gay and bisexual young people who are subjected to anti-gay propaganda in the schools are likely to suffer increased shame and isolation and lowered self-esteem. Heterosexual youth, meanwhile, will be encouraged to fear and loathe their gay peers, leading to increased levels of anti-gay harassment. Assaulted by misinformation and abuse, driven to isolation and self-hatred, more gay youth will inevitably choose to escape through suicide and other destructive behaviors.

Hate activity will increase. Judging from the broad agendas of hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi skinheads, it is clear that people who hate do not discriminate. It is no coincidence that white supremacists have targeted gay people as well as people of color and Jews. In 1990 in Seattle, for example, members of the Aryan Nations attempted to bomb a gay dance club, as well as establishments serving African Americans, Jews and Koreans (NGLTF, 1991.)


Allport, G.W. (1954). The Nature of Prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Ehrlich, H.J. (1973). The Social Psychology of Prejudice. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Finn, P., & McNeil T. (1987). The Response of the Criminal Justice System to Bias Crime: An Exploratory Review. (Available from Abt Associates, Inc., 55 Wheeler Street, Cambridge, MA 02138-1168.)

Herek, G.M., & Berrill, K.T. (1992). Hate Crimes: Confronting Violence Against Lesbians and Gay Men. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute. (1991) Anti-Gay/Lesbian Violence, Victimization & Defamation in 1990. Washington, D.C.: Author. (Available from the NGLTF Policy Institute.)

Schrunk, M. (1989). Testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Crime, HB 2364. February 8, 1989, p.1.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (1989). Report of the Secretary's Task Force on Youth Suicide. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

How To Respond: Safety And Security Do's And Don't's:

DO preserve and document records of harassing phone calls and hate mail, including returned mail that contains threatening or harassing remarks. Record the date of receipt, and any identifying data.

DO document all incidents of harassment, intimidation or assault directed against your group, or individual activists.

DO report all incidents, including threatening or harassing phone calls to the police and local anti-violence hotlines. Document the chronology of incidents and reports, and police response.

DO provide workshops on personal safety and organizational security to all staff and volunteers. Often local law enforcement agencies, reproductive choice advocates, civil rights organizations, and anti-violence projects can provide workshops.

DO organize phone trees among key volunteers, and those who are being targeted for harassment. Break down walls of isolation that endanger and weaken our community.

DO organize occasional community meetings and speakouts at which people who have been subject to harassment or assault, or fear such harassment/assault can come together to speak out, find support, record their experiences, and learn how to seek redress. Use speakouts as opportunities to educate the community, law enforcement officials, the press, and community leaders. Record the stories of those who attend, and create systems to tear down the walls of isolation that make us all vulnerable.

DO use local gay press to advise the community of safety tips and reporting lines.

DO organize legal support networks to advise survivors of their rights and opportunities for redress.

DO secure the area surrounding your offices, and publicize efforts to safeguard your people to deter those who might choose to harass or assault.

DO incorporate safety briefings and take security measures into all of your organizing efforts. Canvassing operations and other community outreach should be organized with safety in mind. Know where your people are going, set clear timelines, create systems for people to check in and to report incidents, and DON'T send people out into potentially dangerous situations alone!

DON'T ignore any act of harassment or assault. TAKE ALL THREATS OF VIOLENCE SERIOUSLY!

DON'T create complicated security systems. Keep things as simple as possible to avoid mistakes.

DON'T allow the danger associated with fighting the right to get you paranoid. "Paranoia will destroy ya....."

DO keep as few secrets as possible. The less you have to secure, the easier it is to secure it. Keep only that which absolutely must remain secret a secret.

For more information or to request a complete Fight the Right Action Kit, call NGLTF at 202-332-6483, TTY 202-332-6219.