Laura Smitherman
El Paso Times  4/7/99, p.1B

 As a gay teen-ager who was not open about his sexual orientation in high school, David recalls his horror - and pressure to remain silent - when a group of students cut the face and shaved the head of a freshman perceived to be gay.  

“Most of the gay people who where picked on were small and couldn’t take care of themselves,” said David, 20, who now attends the University of Texas at El Paso.  

“I wasn’t necessarily a target because I wasn’t out of the closet, nor did I always seem like I was gay,” said David, a stocky man.  “I heard about the other guy, though, and I felt bad for him.  It shouldn’t have happened to him; it shouldn’t happen to anyone for any reason.”  

In a just-released national study, El Paso ranked third among 16 areas in terms of per capita rates of anti-gay incidents.  Twenty-four incidents per 100,000 people were recorded by an advocacy group in El Paso.  San Francisco ranked first with 54 per 100,000 people, and Columbus, Ohio, was second with 31 per 100,000. 

The incidence of anti-gay violence and harassment has increased in El Paso in the past year, according to the study, released Tuesday, and El Paso confrontations happen on school campuses more often than anywhere else in the community.  

Sixteen organizations across the country contributed to the national report, including one from El Paso: LAMBDA Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Services.
Nationally, the number of incidents dropped slightly, to about 2,550 in 1998 from 2,665 in 1997.  The number of El Paso incidents rose to 161 in 1998, from 145 in 1997.  In both years, about half of the victims were younger than 22 and about a third of the incidents occurred at schools and colleges.

Tuesday, President Clinton called for passage of legislation that would allow the Justice Department to prosecute anti-gay crimes as hate crimes, which carry harsher penalties.  Clinton
also endorsed a public-private partnership designed to educate against intolerance in middle schools, and he ordered the Education Department to begin collecting data on hate crimes on college campuses.  

To address the school connection-which activists characterized as the most troubling trend in El Paso - LAMBDA staff members will meet local school administrators this year to discuss the findings of the study.  

Children often are inculcated with social biases “through the climate in our nation’s school system,” Paul Moore of LAMBDA said. 

 “Every day, students are punched, kicked and spat upon for being gay,” he said.  “For many of these students, going to school can be a daily hell filled with name-calling, being slammed against lockers and threatened.”
Victims rarely call the police, Moore said: Only 19 of more than 160 incidents in El Paso were reported.  And El Paso police filed just eight formal complaint reports.  

Police spokesman Sgt.  Al Velarde said some incidents reported by LAMBDA might not constitute crimes.  For instance, harassment is not a crime unless it it is profane or abusive language uttered in a public place to incite a breach of the peace.  

But Velarde also said many victims don’t come forward.  

“The gay community is still afraid to come forward and report the crime to us, whether they do not want to expose themselves or whether they feel they might be discriminated against,” Velarde said.  

The El Paso Police Department recorded only 13 hate crimes of all kinds last year.  Texas is one of 21 states in which hate-crime laws cover sexual orientation.  

Under the proposed federal bill, current law would be expanded so that crimes based on a person’s sex, sexual orientation or disability could be prosecuted as hate crimes.  Now, the hate-crimes statute covers only crimes based on race, color, religion or national origin. 

Sponsors hope that outrage over recent highly publicized killings, particularly the brutal slaying of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, will fuel support for the measure this year.  

LAMBDA staff members from El Paso have been instrumental in organizing gay advocacy groups in Shepard’s hometown of Casper, Wyo., and in Laramie, where Shepard attended the University of Wyoming and where he was slain.  

One murder believed to have stemmed from anti-gay hatred was recorded in El Paso last year.  Robert Hernandez Valles, 58, was found dead in a Northeast El Paso motel last April.  

He was last seen leaving a gay nightclub.